Applying for a Marriage-Based Immigrant Visa: Overview

A step-by-step analysis of the immigration process for spouses of U.S. petitioners who will be requesting an immigrant visa through a U.S. consulate.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

If you have determined that you are eligible for an immigrant visa and green card based on marriage to a U.S. citizen, and you will be applying for it from overseas, this article will orient you to the application procedures, including:

  • an initial I-130 visa petition filed by the U.S. sponsor
  • additional follow-up application materials filed by the immigrant
  • an interview at an overseas U.S. consulate, and
  • entry to the United States.

Again, this article focuses on cases where the U.S. sponsor is a citizen, not a lawful permanent resident (green card holder).

Which Foreign Spouses of U.S. Citizens Will NOT Be Helped by This Article

When we say this article describes how to get a "marriage-based immigrant visa" through a U.S. citizen, we mean a visa allowing the foreigner to come from another country to the United States and immediately become a permanent resident (green card holder). This article does NOT discuss the procedure used by many would-be immigrants already living in the U.S. legally or after a legal entry, which is called "adjustment of status" (though the end result is the same, namely receiving approval for a green card).

But if you're already living in the United States, don't automatically think, "This isn't for me, I want to apply for me green card here." The catch is, you might not be eligible to use the adjustment of status procedure. If you aren't, and you are living legally in the United States, you might be able to stay here for much of the application process, but you will need to return home for the final visa interview at a U.S. consulate in your country. (Just be extra careful if you've been living in the United States illegally, and have therefore become inadmissible, as described in Consequences of Unlawful Presence in the U.S.—Three– and Ten-Year Time Bars; leaving at any time could result in a bar on reentry.)

We're also assuming that you're already married, and not already in removal (deportation) proceedings in the United States. If you are in removal proceedings, and therefore will need to present your case before an immigration court judge, the process will be quite different, and you should hire an attorney to help.

Main Steps in Getting a Marriage-Based U.S. Visa

The application process for a foreign-born spouse involves four major steps:

  1. The U.S. citizen submits a petition on Form I-130 to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the United States, together with proof that the two of you are married and proof of their status as a U.S. citizen. (Learn more about preparing the I-130 petition.)
  2. After USCIS approves the I-130 (which usually takes several months), you pay fees, gather documents, and fill out forms based on instructions sent from the National Visa Center (NVC); then return the forms, most likely to the NVC.
  3. The NVC transfers the case to a U.S. consulate in the immigrant's home country. The immigrant has a medical exam done by a local approved physician and attends an interview at the U.S. consulate. There, if the case is approved, the immigrant receives a sealed envelope containing a visa to the United States (at the actual interview or soon after).
  4. The immigrant presents the visa at a U.S. border or port of entry (such as an airport, upon arrival), where it is examined by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer. Assuming the officer approves entry, the passport will be stamped for U.S. residency (in other words, the immigrant gets green card status). The actual green card will arrive by mail some weeks later.
  5. If the marriage was less than two years old at the time the immigrant enters the United States, you will notice that the green card, when it arrives, shows a two-year expiration date. That literally means the immigrant's status will disappear in two years without further action on your part. It is "conditional" residence, meaning that 90 days before your expiration date, the couple needs to request removal of these conditions, by preparing and submitting an I-751 petition to USCIS.

In rare instances, USCIS will ask the U.S. spouse to attend a "fraud interview" if it or the consulate has doubts about the marriage being the real thing. This could happen as part of Step One or after Step Three.

This entire process usually takes 12 months or more. Although this is a frustratingly long time, there is almost nothing you can do to speed it up or create shortcuts, other than carefully following the U.S. government's instructions and double checking everything you submit, so as not to cause extra delays. In an emergency, you might be able to request expedited processing.

A Tourist Visa or VWP Entry Is Not a Viable Shortcut

Don't make the mistake that some couples do and use a tourist visa or a visa waiver (VWP) to enter the United States in order to apply for the green card. There are two reasons why:

  1. You might be denied entry at the U.S. border or airport if it's discovered that you real intention in entering is not merely to be a tourist and leave when your permitted stay expires, but to stick around and apply for U.S. permanent residence.
  2. Even if you succeed in entering the United States and submitting an "adjustment of status" application to USCIS, the agency might ask questions and decide that you committed visa fraud, thus disqualifying you for the green card, potentially leading to deportation proceedings and putting a permanent blot on your immigration record.

Getting Legal Help

For personalized assistance with applying for lawful permanent residence based on marriage to a U.S. citizen or green card holder, consult an experienced attorney. The attorney can evaluate your personal circumstances, spot any trouble areas, strategize the fastest application procedure, prepare the paperwork and make sure you've gathered all the appropriate documents, write cover letters that explain what you're submitting and make any necessary legal arguments, and monitor your case to a successful conclusion.

Talk to a Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you

Talk to an Immigration attorney.

We've helped 85 clients find attorneys today.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you