How Becoming a U.S. Citizen Can Speed Up Immigration for Foreign Spouse

If you become a U.S. citizen, your husband or wife’s wait for a visa and green card will be much shorter.

By , Attorney · Temple University Beasley School of Law

If you are a green card holder looking to bring your foreign-born spouse to the U.S. to live, you might want to consider becoming a U.S. citizen in order to speed up the process. Immigrant visas are immediately available for U.S. citizens' spouses, while the same visas for the relatives of U.S. permanent residents can sometimes be held up for months or years, owing to annual limits on visas.

(For purposes of this discussion, an immigrant visa is the equivalent of a green card.) Keep reading for details regarding how naturalization can shorten the wait for a foreign-born spouse's visa and green card, including:

  • the benefit of being an immediate relative
  • the typical waits for spouses who are still "preference relatives" (married to permanent residents)
  • when a lawful permanent resident can apply for citizenship and, after approval, use this to benefit overseas relatives, and
  • how to deal with timing your initial I-130 submission, or change your relative's visa category if you've already filed the I-130.

U.S. Citizen Petitions for Spousal Visas Are Processed Immediately

If you are a U.S. citizen, your foreign-born spouse qualifies as an "immediate relative" and will never have to wait in line for a visa to become available before going forward with visa processing. Your spouse might be able to receive a visa (and subsequent green card) in a year or so, depending on how backed up the various government offices are, as long as your spouse is not "inadmissible."

(For more on the criminal, medical, and immigration grounds that render some immigrants ineligible for U.S. residence and the possible waivers, see Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.)

Additionally, if your spouse is already lawfully in the U.S. or arrived here lawfully (most likely, with a visa), you can adjust status, and combine what would normally be a two-step process into one. That means filing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) at the same time as the immigrating person's adjustment of status application on Form I-485. The adjustment of status process will be handled entirely within the United States, without the need to leave for an interview at a U.S. consulate in another country.

(In non-immediate-relative cases, applicants must obtain USCIS approval of Form I-130 before moving on to the next step.)

For more on starting the application process for U.S. citizens, see Preparing an I-130 Visa Petition for the Immigrating Spouse of U.S. Citizen.

Permanent Residents' Spouses Must Wait for a Visa to Become Available

While an unlimited number of visas are available for the spouses of U.S. citizens, U.S. law prescribes a yearly cap on visas for the spouses of permanent residents. More people often apply each year than there are visas available, so a long waiting list can develop, typically two to five years.

Here's how the waiting list works. To start off the application process, the U.S. spouse will send USCIS a visa petition on Form I-130. In response, USCIS will send a receipt notice with a priority date. That date becomes the foreign-born spouse's place on the waiting list (if any).

To see which visas USCIS is currently processing, view the U.S. State Department's Visa Bulletin online. On the "Family-sponsored" section of the bulletin, find the row marked "F2A" and your spouse's country column. If it doesn't say "C" for current (which it rarely does), then there is a waiting list. The date listed there is the priority date for visa applications currently being accepted for processing. This chart is updated once a month. Also see How Long Is the Wait for an Immigrant's Priority Date to Become Current?.

How the U.S. Petitioner Naturalizing Can Speed Up a Spouse's Immigration Process

If you have been a U.S. permanent resident for five years (or you qualify for an exception allowing you to apply early), you might be able to naturalize (become a U.S. citizen). Of course, you will need to meet USCIS's other eligibility requirements, as well, concerning good moral character, ability to pass English and civics exams, and more. To learn about these and other aspects of naturalization, visit Who Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship.

The citizenship application process itself often takes more than a year. And even after you're approved for citizenship by a USCIS interviewer, you might have to return another day for the "swearing-in" or oath ceremony that makes you an actual U.S. citizen.

At the swearing-in, you will receive a naturalization certificate showing that you are a U.S. citizen. You then have certain rights and benefits that permanent residents do not have. One of these benefits is the ability to bring more foreign-born family members (parents, adult or married children, and siblings) to the United States to live permanently. And, you will no longer need to wait for an available visa to bring your foreign-born spouse (and minor unmarried children) to the United States. Your husband or wife is an "immediate relative."

Timing: Should You File an I-130 Petition Before or After Becoming a U.S. Citizen?

There is no need to delay filing I-130 visa petition until the day you become a U.S. citizen. If you are not yet eligible for naturalization, you could file your spouse's I-130 petition immediately, to "hold their spot." Given typical USCIS processing times (of months or years), it's wise to get this going. Then, if you become a U.S. citizen before your spouse's priority date becomes current, they can "jump ahead" of the other permanent residents in the visa waiting line.

For example, if you have been a green card holder for four years, you will be eligible for U.S. citizenship in a year's time. If you are ready to submit your I-130 visa petition for your spouse, you could file it now. (For further instruction, see Preparing an I-130 Visa Petition for the Immigrating Spouse of a U.S. Permanent Resident.)

Ninety days before the fifth anniversary of your permanent residence, you may (assuming you meet other citizenship-eligibility requirements) file an N-400, Application for Naturalization. (For guidance on this, visit Filling Out USCIS Form N-400; and see the USCIS Early Filing Calculator for help figuring out the exact date upon which you can file.)

If your spouse lives overseas and you are still waiting for your spouse's visa to be processed when you receive your naturalization certificate, send the National Visa Center a letter stating that you have naturalized and that your I-130 petition is no longer subject to the yearly cap. Along with your letter, make sure to include a copy of your I-130 receipt notice (Form I-797C, Notice of Action) and a copy of your naturalization certificate.

Getting Legal Help

It can be hugely helpful to retain an experienced immigration attorney to help you analyze the possibilities for your spouse to immigrate to the United States, prepare the paperwork, handle any legal complications, and more.

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