Marrying a Citizen of Canada? How to Get a Green Card for Your New Spouse

Special instructions for U.S. citizens and permanent residents wishing to petition for a fiancé(e) or spouse from Canada to get U.S. lawful permanent residence.

By , J.D.

If you are marrying someone from Canada, and plan to sponsor your new husband or wife for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence) based on that marriage, here is some important legal and practical information. This article will discuss both your basic eligibility to immigrate and the procedures for doing so from Canada.

Warning: This is an overview of how the process works for most people. Your situation might present complications or qualify for exceptions; see an attorney for a full analysis.

U.S. Immigration Eligibility Based on Engagement or Marriage to U.S. Citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident

First, a little background on U.S. immigration law. Marriage to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident provides foreign-born persons a direct path to U.S. immigration. Contrary to popular rumor, however, the foreign-born person dos not immediately or automatically receive lawful permanent residence (a green card), much less U.S. citizenship.

If you are a U.S. citizen, your new spouse becomes your "immediate relative," and may receive a green card as soon as the two of you make it through the application process. This can take six months to a year, or even longer.

If you are not yet married and your fiancé(e) is still in Canada, you can, if you are a U.S. citizen, petition for your intended to enter the U.S. as a fiancé(e) in order to get married in the U.S.—and then your new spouse can apply for a green card, if desired (through the process known as "adjustment of status"). This is NOT one of the categories of visas for which it is okay for a Canadian applicant to proceed straight to the U.S. border or port of entry to apply. (You can also choose to get married first in another country, and then apply for an immigrant visa with which to enter the U.S.—an immigrant visa is the equivalent of a green card.)

If you are a lawful permanent resident, your new spouse becomes a "preference relative," in category F2A, and can get a visa (and enter the U.S.) after a visa number has become available based on "priority date." Annual limits on the number of visas given out in category F2A can create years-long waits, though there was no wait at all in early 2023.

The application process itself normally adds more months to the process.

Also realize that permanent residents cannot petition for fiancé(e)s. You would need to marry first, then file a spouse-based visa petition (Form I-130).

Overview of Obtaining a U.S. Green Card Based on Marriage

The application process for a green card based on marriage involves multiple steps, including submitting forms and documents to and attending an interview with U.S. immigration authorities. The purpose of all this is to prove:

  • the status of the U.S. petitioner (as a U.S. citizen or permanent resident)
  • that a valid marriage has occurred (or will occur, in the case of a fiancé(e) visa)
  • that the marriage is bona fide (not a sham or fraud to get a green card), and
  • that the immigrant is not inadmissible to the U.S. for medical, criminal, financial, or other reasons.

Procedurally, you might have more than one option as to where and how you apply, as described below.

Procedures When Applying for a K-1 Fiancé Visa

If you and your intended (who lives outside the U.S.) have not yet married—or have held an informal ceremony that does not count as an official marriage in the location where it was held—you can apply for a temporary (90-day) visa to enter the U.S. and hold the wedding.

The U.S. citizen starts this process by filing a visa petition on Form I-129F with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). After USCIS approves the I-129F, it will transfer the case to a U.S. consulate in Canada. There, your fiancé(e) will apply for a K-1 visa, which involves submitting forms and documents and attending an interview.

After your marriage in the U.S., your new spouse can apply to USCIS for a green card, through a process called adjustment of status. The two of you will attend a green card interview at a local USCIS office.

Procedures for Your Spouse to Come From Canada on an Immigrant Visa

If you and your husband or wife have married, and your spouse is currently living in Canada, the U.S. citizen or permanent resident petitioner would start the green card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS.

After USCIS approves the I-130, spouses of U.S. citizens can continue with visa processing, while spouses of permanent residents must wait until USCIS and the State Department say a visa number is available and you can go forward with the application process. (Again, that has not caused much added delay in recent years.)

Your Canadian spouse will go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. This means the spouse submits paperwork to, and attends an interview at, a U.S. consulate in Canada. (The U.S. petitioner might be able to attend, but is not required to.) Upon approval, your spouse enters the U.S. on an immigrant visa, at which time your spouse becomes a lawful permanent resident. The actual green card should arrive by mail some weeks later.

Where in Canada the Interview Will Be Held

Although the U.S. has consulates in several cities in Canada, most of them do not process immigrant visas based on marriage. (As of 2023, only the consulate in Montreal was handling fiancé and immigrant visas. The other consulates handle nonimmigrant, temporary visa applications.)

If your Canadian spouse happens to be living in another country than Canada, the consulate there would likely be the one to handle the case.

Procedures If Your Canadian Spouse Is Already in the U.S.

If your spouse initially came to the U.S. legally (such as on a K-1 fiancé(e) or student visa or as a tourist), and either you are a U.S. citizen or your spouse is still in valid status, your spouse can probably apply to adjust status (get a green card) in the United States, interacting only with USCIS rather than with any U.S. consulates. The main form for this is USCIS Form I-485.

The two of you will later attend an interview at one of USCIS's field offices. Information about USCIS locations or service centers is on the USCIS website. (Just make sure your spouse didn't commit visa fraud by using the nonimmigrant visa specifically to enter the U.S. and apply for a green card—see Risks of Entering the U.S. as a Tourist, Then Applying for Marriage-Based Green Card for details on that concern.)

If your spouse entered the U.S. without inspection (for example, crossed the border at an unguarded point), or you are a permanent resident and your spouse is no longer in legal immigration status or has worked illegally in the U.S., your situation is more complicated than this article can address. You could have difficulty obtaining a U.S. green card for your Canadian spouse, though it is not impossible. See an immigration attorney for details or if you have questions about whether you qualify to adjust status.

Entering Into a Legally Valid Marriage

No matter where you marry, you will need to obtain a certificate that convinces the U.S. immigration authorities that it was legally recognized in the state or country where it took place. Below are some tips on doing that.

Obtaining Documentation of a Valid Marriage in Canada

If you plan to get married in Canada, you will need to make sure the marriage will be recognized as valid. Each province in Canada determines its marriage procedures. You should consult the website for the province where you plan to get married for complete information about the requirements.

After the ceremony, you will need to obtain a certificate of your marriage. The U.S. government keeps track of what documents are considered legally valid from each country, and will reject your marriage certificate if it doesn't come from the proper source. For instance, the U.S. will not accept "small" or "short form" versions of Canadian marriage certificates. Check the State Department's reciprocity schedule to get further details on what documents from Canada it considers valid.

Obtaining Documentation of a Valid Marriage in the United States

If you will hold your wedding in the U.S., you need to follow the laws of the state where you marry. You will need to obtain a marriage certificate from a local government office. A church certificate, for example, is not enough.

Getting Legal Help

Although hiring an attorney is not required in order to get a marriage-based immigrant visa, many couples find it's well worth the cost in order to analyze the spouse's legal eligibility, prepare the paperwork, and monitor the process through the U.S. government bureaucracy.

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