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

Procedures and timelines to obtain permanent resident for a fiance or spouse from El Salvador.

By , J.D.

If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is marrying someone from El Salvador, and you wish to sponsor your husband or wife for a U.S. marriage-based green card (lawful permanent residence), you will find important legal and practical guidance below, including:

  • basic eligibility to immigrate based on marriage, and
  • application procedures, whether the immigrant lives in the United States or overseas.

This is a general overview of how the U.S. immigration system works for most married couples. Your situation may present complications or qualify for exceptions; see an experienced attorney for a full analysis.

Immigration Eligibility Based on Engagement or Marriage

Let's start with a bit of background on U.S. immigration law. Marriage to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident gives 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 immigrate, nor U.S. citizenship.

If you are a U.S. citizen and already married or soon to be, your new spouse becomes your "immediate relative" in the language of U.S. immigration law. Your spouse may thereby receive a green card as soon as the two of you successfully complete the application process; which can take several months.

If you have not yet married and your fiancé is still living in El Salvador, 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. Your new spouse could then apply for a green card, if desired, through a process known as adjustment of status. Upon approval, your spouse would become a lawful conditional resident, on the way to permanent residence.

You can also choose to get married first in El Salvador or in another country, and then apply for an immigrant visa with which to enter the United States. This visa is the equivalent of a green card. The actual card will arrive some weeks after your then-spouse's entry to the United States.

If you are a lawful permanent resident, your new spouse becomes a "preference relative," in category F2A. That means your Salvadoran spouse can obtain permanent residence in the U.S. 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 sometimes develops, based on one's "priority date." The wait often takes around two years, though recently (2023) there's been no wait at all.

U.S. permanent residents cannot petition for fiancés. You would need to marry first, then apply for an immigrant visa.

Application Process for a Marriage-Based Green Card

The application process for a marriage- based green card involves multiple steps, most notably submitting forms and documents and attending an interview with U.S. immigration authorities. The purpose is to prove that:

  • the U.S. petitioner is a citizen or permanent resident
  • you have entered into a valid marriage (or will, if you're applying for a K-1 fiancé visa)
  • the marriage is bona fide (the real thing; not a fraud or sham to get a green card), and
  • the immigrant is not inadmissible to the U.S. for medical, criminal, financial, or other reasons. (See Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out for a full explanation.)

You and your Salvadoran fiancé or spouse might, however, have more than one option as to where and exactly how to apply, as described below.

Procedures When Applying for a K-1 Fiancé Visa

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 K-1 visa, which is a temporary (90-day) visa with which your fiancé can enter the U.S. in order to 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 the National Visa Center in New Hampshire, which eventually will send the case to the U.S. consulate in San Salvador, El Salvador. Your fiancé will apply for a K-1 visa through the consulate. This involves submitting forms and documents and attending an interview with a U.S. consular official. You, the petitioner, are allowed to attend this interview, but it's not required.

After your marriage in the U.S., your new spouse applies 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. Upon approval, your spouse becomes a U.S. "conditional resident." (Because you've in all likelihood been married for fewer than two years on this approval date, your spouse does not yet become "permanent resident" until two years later, after submitting a separate application.)

Procedures for Your Spouse to Come From El Salvador on an Immigrant Visa

If you are already married, and your spouse is currently in El Salvador, you would start the green-card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS. Its purpose is to prove you're really married, that it's a bona fide marriage (not a sham to get a green card) and that you're really a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. (See 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 permanent residents can obtain permanent residence in the U.S. only after space for a permanent resident in category F2A becomes available based on your spouse's "priority date." The good news is that, as mentioned earlier, there's been no wait of late. And even if a wait develops, by the time you receive approval of the I-130, some, if not all, of the wait time will have passed.

Next, your spouse will go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. This means your spouse submits paperwork to the National Visa Center, Then the spouse attends an interview at a U.S. consulate in El Salvador. (The U.S. petitioner may attend, but is not required to.)

Upon approval, your spouse enters the U.S. on an immigrant visa, instantly becoming a lawful permanent resident (or a lawful conditional resident, if your marriage is less than two years old at that time). Assuming you've paid the immigrant fee to USCIS, the green card arrives in the mail several weeks later.

At Which U.S. Consulate in El Salvador the Interview Will Be Held

The U.S. consulate in San Salvador is the only U.S. diplomatic location that handles immigrant and fiancé (K-1) visas. You will be given instructions (and eventually, an appointment notice) when your case is transferred to the consulate in El Salvador, and can also check its website for information.

If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than El Salvador, the consulate there would likely be the one to handle the case.

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

If your spouse came to the U.S. legally (such as on a fiancé or student visa or as a tourist), your spouse might be eligible to apply to adjust status in the United States. The main form for this 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, (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 you're a U.S. citizen, it doesn't matter if your spouse is in legal status in the U.S. when you apply to adjust status. But if you're a permanent resident, your spouse must be in legal status.

There is one other possible consideration for spouses of permanent residents wishing to adjust status: before you can apply, you must reach the front of the waiting list we mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, the government might not tell you when your wait is over—you'll have to figure it out yourself. USCIS has a web page that explains how. But again, in early 2023 there was no wait at all.

If your spouse entered the U.S. without inspection or by using a fake visa, or has ever been deported from the U.S., your situation is more complicated than this article can address. You could 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.

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 El Salvador

If you have married, or plan to get married in El Salvador, you will first need to look into that country's requirements for legal marriage.

According to information provided by the U.S. consulate there, the only "legal" Salvadoran marriages are civil, rather than religious ceremonies. (You can also hold a religious ceremony, if you wish, but it must be done after the civil ceremony.)

At a minimum, the U.S. citizen will need to prepare the following:

  • Your U.S. passport (still valid).
  • A copy of your birth certificate, issued within the 60 days leading up to the proposed date of the civil ceremony, and containing an Apostille Authority stamp from the state of issue, plus a translation into Spanish if need be.
  • Copies of evidence that any past marriages were terminated, most likely by death or divorce; and again, the certificates must have been issued within the 60 days leading up to the proposed date of the civil ceremony, and contain an Apostille Authority stamp from the state of issue, plus a translation into Spanish if need be.
  • A prenuptial agreement ("acta pre-matrimonial"), in Spanish.
  • In some cases, a notarized "Certificate of Singleness," which you can obtain from the consulate, for a fee.

Obtaining a valid certificate of your marriage is critical for purposes of U.S. immigration. The U.S. government keeps track of what documents are considered legally valid from each country, El Salvador included, and will reject yours 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 El Salvador it considers valid. (Enter "El Salvador," then scroll down the page to the section on "Marriage Certificates.")

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. For a summary, see Marriage Laws in Your State. You will need to obtain a marriage certificate from a local government office. A church certificate, for example, is not enough.

Getting Legal Help

You could make your life much easier by hiring an experienced immigration attorney to handle your marriage-based visa case. The attorney can analyze the facts of your case and spot any potential problems, prepare the paperwork, and monitor the progress toward approval for a K-1 visa or U.S. green card.

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