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

Difference between sponsoring a spouse in a preference category (husband or wife of a U.S. lawful permanent resident) and as an immediate relative (husband or wife of a U.S. citizen.)

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 more information about how naturalization can shorten the wait for your spouse's visa and green card.

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 and for further processing. Because there is no possibility of a waitlist developing, your spouse might be able to receive a visa (and subsequent green card) in around a year, 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 waivers that are available, see Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.)

Additionally, if your spouse is already lawfully in the U.S. or arrived here with a visa, you can adjust status, and combine what would normally be a two-step process into one, by 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. (In non-immediate-relative cases, applicants must obtain USCIS approval of Form I-130 before moving on to the next step.) The adjustment of status process is handled entirely within the United States, without the need to leave for an interview at a U.S. consulate in another country.

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 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 (though there has been no wait at all so far in 2023). Unfortunately, when a waiting list does develop, it can result in waits of months or years before USCIS finally gets to the visa application.

To start off the process, you will send USCIS a visa petition on Form I-130. In response, USCIS will send you a receipt notice with a priority date. That date becomes your 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, 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.

Naturalizing Can Speed Up the Immigration Process

If you have been a U.S. permanent resident for five years (or 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. To learn about these and other aspects of naturalization, visit Who Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship.

Once you become a U.S. citizen, you gain certain rights and benefits that permanent residents do not have. One of these benefits is the ability to bring more family members (parents, adult or married children, and siblings) to the U.S. to live permanently. Once you receive your naturalization certificate, 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."

If You Have Already Filed an I-130 Visa Petition

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 petition immediately to "hold your spot." If you become a U.S. citizen before your spouse's priority date becomes current, you can "jump ahead" of all 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 as a permanent resident 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 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 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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