When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned provisions in the Defense of Marriage Act ("DOMA") that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, married same-sex couples became now entitled to the same immigration benefits as opposite-sex ones. (For more information on applying for a green card or visa for a same-sex spouse, see Nolo's section LGBTQ Rights and U.S. Immigration Law.)
However, these new rights apply to married same-sex partners only. What happens if you have a domestic partnership or civil union and you want to come to the United States on a nonimmigrant, temporary visa and have your partner come with you?
In this situation, if you are a foreign national who will be coming to the U.S. on a short-term visa, there might be a way for your same-sex partner to come to the United States along with you; even if you are not married. And it's completely legal and above board, in line with guidance provided by the U.S. Department of State (DOS).
By way of background, you should know that couples in a legally recognized "marriage," (either same-sex or opposite-sex) can apply for what is known as a "derivative visa" so that a spouse can come along. Nonimmigrant (temporary) visas virtually always permit the spouses to obtain a derivative visa, usually with the same letter designation as the primary visa applicant. The spouse simply needs to show a marriage certificate along with the usual application documents.
An F-1 student, for example, may obtain an F-2 visa for an opposite-sex spouse. Better yet, the F-2 will last for the same length of time as the F-1 visa. In some cases, derivative spouses are allowed to work in the United States.
Unfortunately, even legally recognized civil unions and domestic partnerships will NOT be treated the same as a marriage for immigration purposes. Therefore, if you have not yet married your partner, your partner won't be eligible for a derivative visa. You have two options at this point. You can either:
The first option might not be feasible for many foreign same-sex couples because you might have to travel a long distance in order to get married in a country where same-sex marriage is legal. The good news is that there is a second-best option for unmarried partners, whether they are in a same-sex or an opposite-sex relationship. It involves applying for a tourist visa, also known as a B-2 visa for pleasure purposes. The B-2 does not allow work in the United States.
An initial B-2 visa can be granted for a stay of up to one year, after which its holder will need to apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for extensions of up to six months at a time. In order to obtain the B-2, your partner will need to prove that the two of you are part of the same household, as well as meet the other eligibility criteria described in A B-2 Visa for Visiting the U.S. as a Tourist: Do You Qualify?
The visa categories that the State Department has expressly recognized as allowing B-2 visas for cohabiting partners include:
The B-2 eligibility criteria require, in sum, that the applicant be coming to the United States solely for pleasure, plan to stay for a limited, specific period of time (NOT permanently), and have a foreign residence to return to. Many B visitor visa applicants are rejected every day because the U.S. consular officer reviewing the application suspects that the person actually wants to come to the United States to work or settle permanently.
Fortunately, the DOS issued a memo in 2001 stating that "Accompanying one's ‘significant other' who is temporarily working or studying in the U.S. would be considered travel for pleasure." And to allay consular posts' concerns about applicants intending to stay in the U.S. a long time (which normally would be a red flag indicating a desire to stay permanently), the DOS added that consular officers should, in this type of case, focus on the "B-2 applicant's ties abroad and the likelihood that he/she would stay in the U.S. illegally after the ‘principal' alien departs."
In other words, staying a long time in the U.S.A. is okay as long as your relationship is so close that you'll also surely leave the United States together.
Applying for a tourist visa involves filling out paperwork, gathering documentation to prove that the applicant meets all the eligibility criteria, and attending an interview at a U.S. consulate in the applicant's home country. For details, see Application Process for a B-1 or B-2 Visitor Visa. In a case of cohabiting same-sex partners, the B-2 applicant should pay extra attention to collecting documents proving that:
Don't feel limited by this list. You can be creative in showing reasons why you fit the requirements.
Once you are in the United States together, you'll need to remember that you're on different visa schedules, as covered in How Long Will Your U.S. Visa Allow You to Stay? Upon U.S. entry, you can access your Form I-94 on the Customs & Border Protection (CBP) website, which will show the date by which you must depart. The B-2 holder's first I-94 will likely show an expiration date of one year. Before that year is up, the B-2 holder will need to apply for an extension on USCIS Form I-539.