As described in Living in the U.S. and Married to a U.S. Permanent Resident: What Are the Immigration Options, people who are legally married to a U.S. permanent resident can apply for an immigrant visa or green card once they receive 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 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.
Warning: The coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in long delays in every part of the immigration process. As of April 2020, there is no way to complete the green card process while living in the U.S., owing to government office closures to in-person visits. Most U.S. consulates overseas have also canceled or severely limited the visa interviews that would be required to obtain approval for permanent residence.
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 permanent resident 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 mid 2020, people in category F2A were facing no wait at all, but it's often about two years before the U.S. government can allot a visa number and allow someone to carry on with the application process for permanent residence, plus another ten months or so months after that before they can actually attend their interview and get approved for a visa or green card.
(One way to speed things up if there's a wait 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 a 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 save time and expense.
The application procedures for permanent residence as the spouse of a green card holder are described below.
If the petitioning permanent resident spouse has made his or her home outside the U.S., permanent resident status may 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.
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 he or she can apply for permanent residence (through an immigrant visa or adjustment of status). For spouses overseas, the State Department publishes a Visa Bulletin to let you know when your application date is approaching. (See How Long Is the Wait for Your Priority Date To Become Current?) If the immigrant is living in the U.S. and eligible to adjust status, he or she should check the USCIS website to see how soon a green card application can be filed.
Step 3: For spouses overseas, when it's your 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 the postal mail as well. When the NVC is satisfied that your case is ready to be looked at, it transfers the file to an overseas U.S. consulate. For spouses adjusting status without leaving the U.S., the immigrating spouse sends 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, if there's a waiting list. 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 comes in a sealed envelope, which must remain unopened until you reach the United States. If you filed an application to adjust status, 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 $220 green card production fee (2020 figure) 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” 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.
Now you might have a clearer picture of why your application process will take so long. The total time often (but not always) includes:
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.