If you have determined that you are eligible for an immigrant visa based on marriage to a U.S. citizen, this article will orient you to the application procedures.
When we say "marriage-based immigrant visa" we mean a visa that allows you to come from another country to the U.S. 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.
We're also assuming that you're already married, and not already in removal (deportation) proceedings in the United States.
Warning: The coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in long delays in every part of the immigration process. As of summer 2020, obtaining an immigrant visa to the U.S. is all but impossible, owing to consulates and embassies having canceled appointments and/or closed to in-person visits. Expect delays and possibly changed procedures after the situation is stabilized.
The application process involves four major steps:
1. Your U.S. citizen spouse submits a petition on Form I-130 to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the United States, together with proof that you are married and proof of his or her status as a citizen.
2. After USCIS approves the I-130 (which usually takes a few months), you and your spouse pay fees, gather documents, and fill out forms based on instructions sent to you by the National Visa Center (NVC) and return the forms, most likely to the NVC.
Click here to learn more about preparing the I-130 petition for the immigrating spouse of a U.S. Citizen.
3. The NVC transfers your case to a U.S. consulate in your home country. You have a medical exam done by a local approved physician and attend an interview at the U.S. consulate. There, you receive your immigrant visa (at the interview or soon after).
4. You present your visa at a U.S. border where it is examined. Assuming you are approved, your passport will be stamped for U.S. residency (in other words, you get your green card status). The actual green card will arrive by mail some weeks later. If your marriage was less than two years old at the time you entered the U.S., you will notice that your green card has a two-year expiration date. That literally means that your status will disappear in two years -- it is "conditional"--unless, 90 days before the expiration date, you take steps to remove the conditions, by submitting an I-751 petition to USCIS.
In rare instances, USCIS will ask your spouse to attend a “fraud interview” if it or the consulate has doubts about your marriage being the real thing. This could happen as part of Step One or after Step Three.
This entire process usually takes approximately ten to 12 months. Although this can seem like a frustratingly long time, there is almost nothing you can do to speed it up or create shortcuts.
Don't make the mistake that some couples do and use a tourist visa or a visa waiver to enter the U.S. in order to apply for the green card--that is likely to result in a finding that you committed visa fraud, thus disqualifying you for the green card.