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 may 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.
Average time -- Ten months or longer to get the fiancé visa as of late 2018; another eight months to two years or longer to get the U.S. green card.
Summary of the Process -- The U.S. citizen starts the process by mailing a Form I-129F visa petition (Petition for Alien Fiancé) plus supporting documents with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)'s Dallas “lockbox.” (From there, it will be routed to another USCIS office 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, he or she may be approved for a 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) at the USCIS Chicago “lockbox.” The Chicago lockbox will forward the case on to your local USCIS office. The immigrant will be called in for fingerprinting, then to an interview at which the green card should be approved.
Average time - Six to eleven months or longer to get a Form I-130 visa petition (Petition for Alien Relative) approved by USCIS as of late 2018; another four 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 with a USCIS lockbox in Phoenix or Chicago (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. Theoretically, this could reunite you and your spouse sooner, since getting a K-3 visa should not take as long to get as an immigrant visa. 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 your K-3 petition and just work on your I-130. When it approves your 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 way) to apply for a K-3 visa.
Average time -- Potentially a bit shorter than Scenario #2.
Summary of the Process -- Check with your local consulate -- it may allow the entire immigrant visa application process to be done through its office. Only a limited number of consulates offer international USCIS offices, so you may not be able to take advantage of this option.
Average time -- Six to fourteen months or longer for approval of Form I-130 visa petition; currently over two years on the waiting list (as of late 2018); another four to ten months or longer to get the immigrant visa.
Summary of the Process -- The U.S. permanent resident starts the process by mailing a Form I-130 to USCIS. After the petition is approved, the immigrant is placed on a waiting list to apply, based on your "priority date." When the wait 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 to the immigrant 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 of several months or years 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.
Average time -- Seven to fourteen months or longer to get the Form I-130 approved; over two years on the waiting list as of late 2018, and the rest depending on various complicated circumstances.
Summary of the Process -- The U.S. permanent resident starts the process by filing a Form I-130 with USCIS. 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 may require an attorney's help, however, because unless the immigrant has a separate, unexpired visa or other status, he or she cannot legally wait in the United States. Even after the wait, he or she may be unable to apply for the green card without leaving the United States, which might expose the immigrant to penalties preventing return for several years.
Average time -- Seven to 14 months or longer.
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. 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 -- Six to fourteen months or longer 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. However, you'll probably need to see a lawyer, because the immigrant may 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 may be able to apply for a waiver to avoid such penalties, but this process will almost certainly requires legal counsel.