Applying for a Green Card Based on Marriage to a U.S. Permanent Resident: Overview

Why spouses of U.S. permanent residents often face a longer application process than those married to U.S. citizens.

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

As separately described in Living in the U.S. and Married to a U.S. Permanent Resident: What Are the Immigration Options, foreign nationals who are legally married to a U.S. permanent resident can apply for an immigrant visa or green card at some point after receiving an approved I-130 petition from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The next step in the process, getting the immigrant visa and green card, mainly involves going through a waiting period, then proving that their marriage is the real thing, not a sham to get a green card (lawful permanent residence), and showing that they are not inadmissible to the United States for health, financial, or security reasons. We'll discuss:

  • how long the wait might be for spouses of permanent residents (category 2A), and
  • step-by-step application procedures for a spousal green card.

The Wait for Visa Number Availability Based on Marriage to a U.S. Permanent Resident

Spouses of permanent residents are in family preference category "F2A," in which demand nearly always outstrips supply. More 2A people usually qualify for permanent residence than the law allows to become permanent residents in that category each year. So, the State Department has developed a system based on "priority date" (the date the petitioner submitted the I-130 to USCIS).

If no visa number is ready for someone in the F2A category when their I-130 petition is approved, they get put on a waiting list. As of early 2024, people in category F2A were facing an approximately four-year wait from most countries (with even longer waits for people from Mexico). Waits in this category have ranged from no time at all to five years in the last few decades.

When that wait is over, the U.S. government can allot a visa number and allow the would-be immigrant to carry on with the application process for permanent residence. Still, expect another ten months or so months before the immigrant can actually attend their interview and get approved for a visa or green card.

One way to speed things up is for the U.S. half of the couple to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, as described in How Becoming a U.S. Citizen Speeds Up Immigration for Foreign Spouse.

The only good thing about this long wait is that, when you ultimately get your permanent residence, it most likely will be unconditional, not the two-year conditional type. Conditional green cards are given to people who have been married less than two years. If, after finishing the application and approval process for your green card, you've been married for two years already, you'd avoid having to convert your conditional to permanent residence, and thereby save time and expense.

The application procedures for permanent residence as the spouse of a green card holder are described below.

caution CAUTION

If the petitioning permanent resident spouse has made a home outside the U.S., their permanent resident status could now be lost. Permanent residents are expected to make their primary home in the United States. Any absence of longer than six months will raise questions. Before relying on your permanent resident spouse to petition for you, make sure this isn't a problem. See Keeping Your Green Card After You Get It for more on this and other ways U.S. residence rights can be lost.

Application Procedures for Green Card Based on Marriage to a U.S. Permanent Resident

Obtaining an immigrant visa and green card through a U.S. permanent resident spouse involves five major steps:

Step 1: The U.S. spouse starts off the process by filing a petition on Form I-130, issued by USCIS.

Step 2: After USCIS approves the petition, it transfers the file to the National Visa Center (NVC) in the U.S., unless the petitioner indicated on the form that the spouse would be adjusting status (in which case USCIS keeps the file). The immigrant waits until the NVC or USCIS says the immigrant can apply for permanent residence (by applying for an immigrant visa or adjustment of status). For spouses overseas, the State Department publishes a Visa Bulletin stating when people's application dates are approaching. (See How Long Is the Wait for Your Priority Date To Become Current?) An immigrant who is living in the U.S. and eligible to adjust status should check the USCIS website to see how soon a green card application can be filed.

Step 3: For spouses overseas, when it's time to apply, the NVC contacts you to begin the visa application process. A lot of it is done online, but you might have to send documents to the NVC through postal mail, as well. When the NVC is satisfied that your case is ready to be looked at, it will transfer the file to an overseas U.S. consulate. For spouses adjusting status without leaving the U.S., the immigrating spouse will need to send an application to USCIS on Form I-485. See a lawyer if unsure whether you qualify to adjust status.

Step 4: The State Department and USCIS typically allow applicants to submit their request for an immigrant visa or green card some months before the law allows them to actually give people in category 2A permanent residence. In that case, after finishing the application process, you might have to wait a few more months for a visa number to become available. Once it does, if you're overseas, you will attend an interview at a U.S. consulate in your home country, and hopefully get approved for an immigrant visa. The visa might come in a sealed envelope, which must remain unopened until you reach the United States. (In some cases, however, all documents are transmitted electronically, so you wouldn't have received an envelope; instead, your visa would contain the notation IV Docs in CCD.") If you filed an application to adjust status in the United States, USCIS will approve the application at or after your interview at a USCIS office and send you a green card.

Step 5: Overseas applicants become permanent residents, and get a green card, after they pay a green card production fee ($235 starting April 1, 2024) to USCIS and enter the United States. They present their immigrant visa at a U.S. border, airport, or other point of entry. There, it is examined by an official of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), who has the last word on whether to approve the immigrant for U.S. entry. If all goes well, the person's passport will be stamped for U.S. residency, and the green card will come in the mail a few weeks later.

In addition to the steps above, a few couples (or more likely the U.S.-based spouse) are required to attend a "fraud interview" (also called a "Stokes interview") if the government has doubts about their marriage being the real thing. This could happen either as part of Step One or after Step Four, above.

How Long the Entire Application Process Takes

Now you hopefully have a clearer picture of why your application process will take so long. The total time often (but not always) includes:

  • one to six months for approval of the U.S. petitioner's I-130 petition (Step One), unless there are doubts about how real the marriage is—in which case it can take much longer
  • another two to five years before your priority date becomes current and you're allowed to begin the application process (Step Two)
  • if doing consular processing, another several months to interact with the NVC (Step Three).
  • several more months to get through the final steps of the visa or green card application process and attend an interview; exactly how long it takes depends partly on you, because you'll need to collect documents and fill out forms (Step Four), and
  • if you're overseas, the time it will take you arrange to take Step Five and enter the United States. (Your visa is likely to be good for only six months.)

These time periods are mere estimates, based on averages over the last few years. Your application could go faster or slower, depending on a variety of factors, including the current demand for visas, the complexities of your own case, and the backlog at U.S. government offices and consulates.

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.

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