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

Special procedures for U.S. citizens or residents marrying someone from Ethiopia.

By , J.D., University of Washington School of Law

If you are marrying someone from Ethiopia, and you would like 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 process works for most people. Your situation might 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 are not yet married and your fiancé is still in Ethiopia, 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.

If you are a lawful permanent resident, your new spouse becomes a "preference relative," in category 2A, and 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 to five years.

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

Overview: How to Obtain a Green Card Based on Marriage

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

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 spouse (who lives outside the United States) have not yet gotten married—or even if you have held an informal ceremony that is not considered an official marriage in the location where it was held—you can apply for a K-1 fiancé visa. It is a temporary (90-day) visa with which your fiancé can enter the U.S. and hold the wedding.

The U.S. citizen starts this process by filing a petition on Form I-129F with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), together with supporting documents and a fee. After USCIS approves the petition, it will transfer the case to the National Visa Center (NVC) in New Hampshire, which eventually will send the case to the U.S. consulate in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Your fiancé will apply for a K-1 visa through the U.S. consulate. This involves submitting forms and documents and a fee and attending an interview with a consular official. You, the petitioner, are allowed to attend this interview, though it is 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.

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

If you and your husband or wife have already gotten married, and your spouse is currently in Ethiopia, you would start the green-card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS, together with supporting documents and a fee. 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." Typically there is a waiting list of around two to five years. By the time you receive approval of the I-130, however, some 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 Ethiopia. (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 Ethiopia the Interview Will Be Held

The U.S. currently has only one embassy in Ethiopia, which is located in Addis Ababa and handles both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas. You will be given instructions when your case is transferred to the embassy in Addis Ababa, and can also check the embassy's website for information.

If your spouse happens to be living in another country than Ethiopia, 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, which must be accompanied by other forms and documents, and a fee. 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.)

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.

If your spouse entered the U.S. without inspection or by using a fake visa, or has ever been deported from the United States, 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 Ethiopia

If you have married, or plan to get married in your fiancé or spouse's home country, you will first need to look into Ethiopia's requirements for legal marriage.

One key document (according to the U.S. consulate in Ethiopia) will be a so-called "free to marry" affidavit, also sometimes called an "Affidavit of Single Status," a "Letter of Freedom to Marry," a "Single Letter," or a "Statement of Freedom to Marry," depending on the state in which the U.S. petitioner lives. Contact your Secretary of State or equivalent office. You'll then need to get this document "sealed" by the U.S. Department of State, as explained on its Office of Authentications (state.gov). Moreover, you will need to get your document authenticated by the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington D.C.

Additional public information on Ethiopia's marriage requirements is hard to come by, so you might need to hire a local attorney.

After the marriage ceremony, you will need to obtain a certificate of that marriage for purposes of U.S. immigration. The U.S. government keeps track of what documents are considered legally valid from each country, the Dominican Republic included, and will reject your marriage certificate if it doesn't come from the proper source. Check the State Department's list of Country Reciprocity Schedule to get details on what documents from Ethiopia it considers valid.

Obtaining Documentation of a Valid Marriage in the United States

If you will hold your wedding in the United States, you must abide by 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

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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