If you are marrying someone from Colombia, 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.
This article provides a general overview of how the process works for most couples. Your situation might present complications or qualify for exceptions to the rules stated here; see an experienced immigration attorney for a full evaluation.
First, some 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 national does not immediately or automatically receive the right to an immigrant visa (also known as lawful permanent residence or a green card) nor to U.S. citizenship.
If you are a U.S. citizen, your new Colombian 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 several months.
If you are not yet married and your fiancé is still in Colombia, you can, if you are a U.S. citizen, petition for your fiancé(e) to enter the U.S. on a K-1 visa in order to get married in the United States. After the wedding, your new spouse applies for a U.S. green card (through the process known as adjustment of status).
You can also choose to get married first in Colombia or another country, and then apply for an immigrant visa with which your new spouse can enter the United States. Upon U.S. entry, your spouse would become a U.S. permanent resident.
If you are not a U.S. citizen, but rather are a U.S. lawful permanent resident, your new spouse becomes a "preference relative," in category F2A of the visa allocation system. That means your spouse can obtain permanent residence in the U.S. only after a "visa number" (space for another permanent resident) has become available. At that time, your spouse can apply for an immigrant visa (and enter the United States). Because of annual limits on the number of people who can get permanent residence in category F2A, a waiting list often developed, based on one's "priority date." The wait often takes around two to five years.
Permanent residents cannot petition for foreign-born fiancés to come to the United States and get married. They would need to marry first before filing an immigrant visa petition.
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 underlying purpose is to prove:
Procedurally, you might have more than one option as to where and how you apply for the immigrant visa or green card, as described below.
If you and your intended spouse (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 with which the foreign-born fiancé can enter the U.S. in order to hold the wedding.
The U.S. citizen must start this process. To do so, you would file 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 the U.S. consulate in Bogota, Colombia. Your fiancé will apply for a K-1 visa through the consulate. This involves submitting forms and documents and attending a visa interview with a consular official. You, the U.S. petitioner, are allowed to attend this interview, though it is not required.
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 are already married, and your spouse is currently in Colombia, you would start the green-card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS. (See either Preparing an I-130 Visa Petition for the Immigrating Spouse of U.S. Citizen or Preparing an I-130 Visa Petition for the Immigrating Spouse of a U.S. Permanent Resident.)
After USCIS approves the I-130, spouses of U.S. citizens can move forward with visa processing. Spouses of U.S. permanent residents, however, might hit a delay if the demand for visas exceeds supply.
USCIS will next forward your file to the National Visa Center (NVC), which will tell you when it's time to move forward with consular processing for an immigrant visa. This means your Colombian spouse submits paperwork to, and and attends an interview at, the U.S. consulate a U.S. consulate in Bogota, Colombia. (As the U.S. petitioner, you may attend, but are not required to.)
Upon approval for the immigrant visa, your spouse can enter the U.S., at which time they become a lawful permanent resident. Assuming you've paid the immigrant visa (green card production) fee to USCIS, the green card arrives in the mail several weeks later.
The U.S. currently has one embassy in Colombia, located in Bogota. It handles immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applications. You will be given instructions on preparing for the interview when your case is transferred to the embassy in Bogota.
If your spouse happens to be living in another country than Colombia, the consulate there would likely be the one to handle the case.
If your spouse initially came to the U.S. on a nonimmigrant (such as on a fiancé or student visa or as a tourist), and either you are a U.S. citizen or your spouse is still in valid and lawful status, your spouse might be eligible to apply to adjust status in the United States, without having to leave for a consular interview. The main form for this is is USCIS Form I-485.
The two of you will attend an interview at one of USCIS's field offices. Information about USCIS locations or service centers can be found at its website, www.uscis.gov.
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.)
IMPORTANT WARNING: If your foreign-born spouse entered the U.S. without inspection or by using a fake visa, or you are a permanent resident rather than a citizen, your situation is more complicated than this article can address. You might have difficulty obtaining a green card for your spouse, though it is not impossible. See an immigration attorney for details or if you have any 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 have married, or plan to get married in your fiancé or spouse's home country, you will first need to look into Colombia's requirements for legal marriage.
According to information provided by the U.S. consulate, Colombian weddings can be legally performed as either a civil or a religious ceremony. For a civil ceremony, you would contact a Colombian official called a notary (or "notario" in Spanish). Bizarrely enough, Colombian marriage laws are so unclear that different notaries might tell you different things as far as what is required for your marriage. Shop around!
For a religious wedding, you will need to get in touch with the particular religious organization for details and requirements. After the ceremony, you will need to register the marriage at a notary's office in order to get the documentation the U.S. government will require for immigration.
Regardless of the type of wedding, you are likely to be asked for, at a minimum:
After the ceremony, you will need to obtain an official certificate of the marriage for purposes of U.S. immigration. The U.S. government keeps track of what documents are considered legally valid from each country, Colombia included, and will reject your marriage certificate if it doesn't come from the proper source. Check the State Department's list of Reciprocity and Civil Documents by Country to get further details on what documents from Colombia 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.
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.