How Long Must I Be Married to a U.S. Citizen to Get U.S. Citizenship by Marriage?

A review of the steps between marriage and applying to naturalize.

Let's take the situation of a foreign student in the U.S., whose boyfriend, a U.S. citizen and has just proposed. The couple plans to get married and settle down in the United States. How long will it take before the immigrant gets U.S. citizenship?

From Marriage to U.S. Citizenship

First, let's get one important thing straight: Marriage to a U.S. citizen makes someone eligible for a green card, not for citizenship. Having a green card for a certain number of years can make the person eligible for U.S. citizenship. But it's a two-step processat a minimum. In other words, even if the U.S. citizen husband sponsors the immigrant, it doesn't turn the immigrant into a U.S. citizen right away.

Below are the steps you will probably have to go through if this situation applies to you, and the typical amount of time each one will take.

NOTE to anyone who isn't in the exact same situation: Procedures differ for applicants who are living outside the U.S., or who are inside the U.S. but not in lawful immigration status, or who are marrying a U.S. permanent resident rather than a citizen. See this chart for the procedural scenarios.

Step One: U.S. Citizen Files Visa Petition

Your U.S. citizen husband will need to launch this process by preparing a petition for you on Form I-130, issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and you prepare an adjustment of status application (with Form I-485 and accompanying forms and documents) and you mail this entire package to USCIS.

Step Two: Couple Attends Interview at USCIS Office

Typically several months after the couple submits the adjustment of status application, USCIS will call the couple in for an interview. The immigrant will (if all goes well) be approved for lawful conditional resident status at that time.
Why not permanent residence yet? Because the couple presumably had not all been married for two years by the time the USCIS approval came, as discussed in Why Some Marriage-Based Green Cards Are "Conditional."

Step Three: Immigrant Spends Two Years as a Conditional Resident

Conditional residence lasts for two years. Ninety days before those two years are up, the immigrant and husband must submit a joint petition on Form I-751, asking that the conditions on residence be lifted, thus allowing the immigrant permanent residence. Several months later, USCIS will hopefully approve the request.
If your marriage runs into trouble or you get divorced before you're able to get the conditions on your permanent residence lifted, you could be facing deportation, though exceptions can be made if you qualify for a waiver. See What If Your U.S. Spouse Won't Sign the Joint Petition (I-751)?)

Step Four: Waiting to Qualify for U.S. Citizenship

If you remain married to and living with your U.S. husband for three years from the date of your approval for conditional residence, you can finally apply for U.S. citizenship (naturalization). You will need to meet all the eligibility criteria, including being able to speak English and pass an exam covering U.S. history and government.

Someone whose spouse became a U.S. citizen after the immigrant got U.S. residence would have to wait three years from that point to take advantage of the exception, with the result that it might not even help them.

The application for citizenship is made by submitting Form N-400 to USCIS. This part of the process is also a lengthy one. The applicant will have to wait months before being called in for a naturalization interview at a USCIS office, and then after approval, attend a swearing-in ceremony.

By the way, this three-year rule represents an important exception. Most people must wait five years after getting a green card to apply for U.S. citizenship. But you need to have met all of those conditions for the entire three years, namely that you were living with your spouse the whole time, and that he was a U.S. citizen that whole time. In fact, you must remain married all the way up to the swearing-in ceremony to qualify for the three-year exception.

If the marriage breaks up or you stop living together, you must count a full five years from the date of your approval for residence to apply to naturalize. The news is also bad if the marriage ends due to the death of the U.S. spouse, as described in My U.S. Citizen Spouse Died: Can I Still Apply to Naturalize After Three Years?.

Learn More

For comprehensive information on the green card application process, see Fiance and Marriage Visas: A Couple's Guide to U.S. Immigration. Or, if you have any questions about complicating factors in your case, or wish help with the application process, consult an immigration attorney.

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