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), here is some important legal and practical information.
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. Also, the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in long delays in every part of the immigration process that's described here. In fact, as of March 2020, there is no way to complete the green card process while living in the U.S., owing to government office closures.
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, they do not immediately or automatically receive lawful permanent residence (green cards), 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 him or her 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. 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.—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.) only after a visa number has become available based on his or her "priority date." Annual limits on the number of visas given out in category F2A can create years-long waits, though there was no wait in early 2020.
The application process itself adds more months to the process.
Also realize that permanent residents cannot petition for fiancé(e)s.
The application process for a green card based on marriage involves multiple steps, including submitting forms and documents and attending an interview with U.S. immigration authorities. The purpose of all this is to prove:
Procedurally, you may have more than one option as to where and how you apply, as described below.
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.
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.
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 he or she becomes a lawful permanent resident.
Although the U.S. has consulates in several cities in Canada, most of them do not process immigrant visas based on marriage. (As of 2020, only the consulate in Montreal was handling fiancé and immigrant visas.)
If your spouse happens to be living in another country than Canada, the consulate there would likely be the one to handle the case.
If your spouse initially came to the U.S. legally (such as on a 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, he or she can probably apply to adjust status in the United States. 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.)
If your spouse entered the U.S. without inspection, or you are a permanent resident whose spouse is no longer in legal status or has worked illegally in the U.S., your situation is more complicated than this article can address. You may have difficulty obtaining a green card for your spouse, though it is not impossible. See an immigration attorney for details or if you have questions about whether you qualify to adjust status.
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.
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.
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.