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

A review of the steps between a foreign national marrying a U.S. citizen and applying to naturalize.

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

When a U.S. citizen and foreign-born person decide to marry, they often assume that U.S. citizenship will follow almost automatically. That's far from the truth, unfortunately. Let's take, for example, the situation of a foreign student in the U.S. whose boyfriend, a U.S. citizen, 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 Green Card to U.S. Citizenship

First, let's get one important thing straight: Marriage to a U.S. citizen makes someone eligible for U.S. lawful permanent residence (a "green card"), not for U.S. citizenship. (At least, not in the short term.) 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 process, at a minimum. In short, even if the U.S. citizen husband sponsors the immigrant, receiving approval from the U.S. government 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. after an unlawful entry, or who are marrying a U.S. permanent resident rather than a citizen. See this chart for the various procedural scenarios.

Step One: U.S. Citizen Files I-130 Visa Petition

The U.S. citizen husband in this ongoing example will need to launch the immigration process by preparing a petition for the immigrant on Form I-130, issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). But there's probably no need to submit it quite yet, as described next.
Assuming the immigrant is eligible to adjust status (probably, based on the lawful entry and unexpired valid immigration status in the U.S.) the immigrant would prepare an adjustment of status application (with Form I-485 and accompanying forms and documents).
Then you'd put the I-130 petition together with the adjustment application and mail this entire package to USCIS. The agency will send a receipt notice, and later an appointment for biometrics services.

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." They must go through a two-year testing period, as further proof that their marriage is the real thing.

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 are expected to 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 the marriage runs into trouble or the couple gets divorced before getting the conditions on permanent residence lifted, the immigrant could be facing deportation, though exceptions can be made if the immigrant qualifies 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 the immigrant in this example remains married to and living with the U.S. husband for three years from the date of approval for conditional residence, it's finally time to apply for U.S. citizenship (naturalization). The immigrant 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, will need to attend a swearing-in (oath) 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 the immigrant will need to have met all of those conditions for the entire three years, namely that they were living with the U.S. citizen spouse the whole time, and that the spouse was a U.S. citizen that whole time. In fact, they must remain married all the way up to the swearing-in ceremony to qualify for the three-year exception.

What If the Marriage Breaks Up Before the Three Years Is Up?

If the marriage breaks up or the couple stops living together, the immigrant must count a full five years from the date of approval for residence to apply to naturalize. The news about when one qualifies for citizenship is also bad if the marriage ends due to the death of the U.S. spouse, as described in U.S. Citizen Spouse Died: Can Immigrant Still Apply to Naturalize After Three Years?.

There is an exception, however, for marriages that became abusive, where the immigrant must self-petition or complete their application for a green card based on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). If certain circumstances are met, the abused immigrant can apply after a mere three years, as described in When VAWA Green Card Holders Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship (Naturalization).

Learn More

For comprehensive information on the green card application process, see Fiancé 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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