If you are married to, or plan to marry, someone from another country, there's no easy answer to the question of, "What will happen and by when will the immigration process be done?" A great deal depends on both your and your spouse's place of current residence, immigration status or history, and more. However, no matter how proactive you and your spouse are in preparing your paperwork, you might still find yourself at the mercy of government processing times. This article will break down the various possibilities and summarize what to expect for each.
Be warned. The time averages mentioned below can change dramatically, based on factors both within and outside your control. The coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic in particular has introduced delays into every part of the immigration process, and inconsistencies based on local conditions and office closures.
Average time -- Between seven and 26 months to get the fiancé visa petition (Form I-129F) approved by USCIS as of early 2021; then another several months to get the K-1 visa from a U.S. consulate; then another two years or longer to get the U.S. green card, depending on which USCIS office is handling it.
Summary of the Process -- The U.S. citizen starts the process by mailing a Form I-129F petition (Petition for Alien Fiancé) plus supporting documents to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) "lockbox." From there, it will be routed to a USCIS service center for processing. After USCIS approves the petition, the immigrant submits a visa application form online and attends an interview at a local U.S. consulate, submitting various documents at that time. Soon after the interview, the applicant can be approved for a K-1 fiancé visa to enter the United States. The immigrant will have 90 days in the U.S. in which to get married and apply for a green card by filing Form I-485 (Application for Adjustment of Status) with a USCIS lockbox. The lockbox will forward the case on to your local USCIS field office. The immigrant will be called in for fingerprinting (biometrics), then to an interview at which the green card should be approved.
Average time - Seven to 32 months to get a Form I-130 petition (Petition for Alien Relative) approved by USCIS as of early 2021; another six to ten months or longer to get an immigrant visa to come to the United States.
Summary of the Process -- The U.S. citizen starts the process by filing a Form I-130, either online or by mail to a USCIS lockbox (depending on where the U.S. citizen lives). Once it's approved, the immigrant submits a visa application form online and submits documents to the National Visa Center (NVC). When the NVC is satisfied that all documents are available, it sends the file to the U.S. consulate in the immigrant's home country. An interview at the consulate will be scheduled, soon after which the immigrant spouse should be approved for an immigrant visa (and then a green card when he or she gets to the United States).
The "K-3" visa option. U.S. immigration laws provide the possibility of obtaining a temporary visa (called a "K-3") for the immigrant spouse to come to the U.S. while the application process for permanent resident status is happening. This was designed to reunite spouses sooner. Unfortunately, currently you will find that if you file a petition for K-3 classification on Form I-129F at the same time as or after your I-130 (as you must), USCIS will not act on your K-3 petition. Rather, it will hold it and just work on the I-130. When it approves the I-130, it will forward the petition directly to the NVC, so your spouse can start applying for an immigrant visa. The subsequent Form I-129F will then be ignored by the NVC, nullifying the possibility of pursuing a K-3. Because your spouse can apply for the immigrant visa, there is no longer any need (and indeed, under the law, no feasible way) to apply for a K-3.
Average time -- Potentially a bit shorter than Scenario #2.
Summary of the Process -- Check with your local consulate, which might allow the entire immigrant visa application process to be done through its office. Only a very limited number of consulates offer this and only in exceptional circumstances, so you probably won't be able to take advantage of this option and will instead have to start the process by sending an I-130 to USCIS in the United States, as described above.
Average time -- One to 32 months for approval of Form I-130 petition; possibly some time on a waiting list (though there was no wait in category 2A as of early 2021, according to the State Department's Visa Bulletin); another five to ten months or longer to get the immigrant visa.
Summary of the Process -- The U.S. permanent resident starts the process by submitting a Form I-130 to USCIS, online or by mail. After the petition is approved, the immigrant is placed on a waiting list to apply, based on "priority date." When the wait (if any) is over, the immigrant will submit a visa application form online and submit documents to the NVC. Even though the NVC can accept the application, the State Department cannot actually issue a visa until the priority date (according to when you filed the I-130) is current and a visa is available, so there might be a delay at this point. When the visa becomes available, an interview at the consulate will be scheduled, soon after which the immigrant spouse should be approved for an immigrant visa.
Summary of the Process -- The U.S. permanent resident starts the process by filing a Form I-130 with USCIS, either online or by mail to a USCIS lockbox. After the petition is approved, the immigrant is placed on a waiting list to apply. Figuring out whether the immigrant spouse can apply from within the United States or must go back to his or her home country to get a visa might require an attorney's help, because unless the immigrant has a separate, unexpired visa or other status, he or she cannot legally wait in the United States (if there's a wait for a current priority date at that time). Even after the wait, he or she might be unable to apply for the green card without leaving the United States, which might expose the immigrant to time-bar penalties preventing return for several years without a waiver.
Average time -- Between one and three years as of early 2021, using the process known as adjustment of status, which is handled by USCIS.
Summary of the Process -- The U.S. citizen and immigrant prepare a packet of documents, including a Form I-130 and an "adjustment of status" application on Form I-485, and submit it all at once to USCIS. (Adjusting status is normally allowed to people who overstayed a visa and married a U.S. citizen, but check with an attorney on this; reports are that USCIS is sometimes less lenient on this.) As soon as that application is filed, the immigrant's stay in the U.S. becomes legal—even if the immigrant overstayed a visa. The immigrant will then be called in to a local USCIS office for fingerprinting, and later for an interview, at which the green card should be approved.
Average time -- Seven to 32 months (as of early 2021) for approval of the Form I-130, and additional time depending on individual circumstances.
Summary of the Process -- The U.S. citizen starts the process by filing a Form I-130 with USCIS, either online or by mail. However, you'll probably need to see a lawyer, because the immigrant might be unable to apply for the green card without leaving the United States, which could expose the immigrant to penalties preventing return for several years. The immigrant might be able to apply for a waiver to avoid such penalties, but this process will almost certainly require legal counsel.