If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is marrying someone from France, and you would like to sponsor your French husband or wife for a U.S. marriage-based green card (lawful permanent residence), you will find important legal and practical guidance below.
This is an overview of how the U.S. immigration process works for most people. Your situation might present complications or qualify for exception; see an experienced immigration attorney for a full analysis.
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 people a direct path to a U.S. green card. 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 are already married or soon will be, your new spouse will become your "immediate relative" in the lingo of U.S. immigration law, and eligible to receive a green card as soon as the two of you successfully complete the application process. Unfortunately, that process can, by itself, take several months or even years.
If you have not yet married and your fiancé is still living in France, 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—and then your new spouse can apply for a green card ("adjust status," using Form I-485) if desired.
Or, you can choose to get married first in France or another country, and then apply for the French spouse to get 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 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 develops, based on one's "priority date." The wait is typically between two and five years (though there was no wait at all for a period of time in 2022 and early 2023).
U.S. permanent residents (green card holders) cannot petition for fiancés. You would need to marry first, then apply for an immigrant visa.
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 to the U.S. government that:
You and your French fiancé or spouse might, however, have more than one option as to where and exactly how to 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 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 U.S. consulate in Paris, France. 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 U.S. 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. Upon approval, your spouse would become a U.S. lawful conditional resident, on the way to permanent residence.
If you and your loved one are already married, and your spouse is currently in France, you will start the green-card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS. Its purpose is to prove you're really legally married, that it's a bona fide marriage (not a sham or fraud 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, what happens next depends on your, the petitioner's status. If you are a U.S. citizen, your French spouse can continue on with visa processing. If you are a permanent resident, your spouse must wait for a current "priority date" (that is, wait until a visa is available in category 2A, which could take anywhere from no time at all to five years, based on past averages). USCIS will next forward your file to the NVC, which will tell you when it's time for you to apply and connect you to the Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC). (For details, see What Happens Between I-130 Approval and Consular Interview.)
After paying various fees and submitting documents, your spouse will go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. This means your spouse submits additional paperwork to, and attends an interview at, the U.S. consulate in Paris, France. (The U.S. petitioner may attend, but is not required to.)
Upon approval, your spouse enters the U.S. on an immigrant visa, becoming a lawful permanent resident at that moment. Assuming you've paid the immigrant fee to USCIS, the actual green card will arrive by mail, normally several weeks later.
Although the U.S. has various embassies and consulates in France, only the one in Paris 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 France.
If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than France, the consulate there would likely be the one to handle the case.
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, 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 (for example, with an unexpired I-94 after an entry on a visa) in the U.S. when you apply to adjust status. But if you're a permanent resident, your spouse must still be in legal status when you submit your I-485 packet.
There is one other major consideration for spouses of permanent residents wishing to adjust status: before you can apply, you might have to wait to reach the front of the waiting list we mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, the government might not tell you when your wait is over—see How Long Is the Wait for Your Priority Date to Become Current? for guidance on monitoring your progress.
If your spouse entered the U.S. without inspection (EWI) 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 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 U.S. immigration authorities that it was legally recognized in the state or country where it took place. Below are tips on doing that.
If you have married, or plan to get married in France, you will first need to look into the French requirements for legal marriage.
According to information provided by the U.S. consulate there, the only "legal" French marriages are those performed by a French civil authority or "officier de l'état civil" in the town where the "resident" lives, such as its mayor ("mairie"), deputy mayor ("adjoint") or town councilor ("conseiller municipal"). You may, if you wish, also hold a religious ceremony afterwards (and will need to present your marriage certificate to whomever conducts this ceremony).
Same-sex marriage is legal, but the exact requirements vary by state.
The city hall or "mairie" is the place to start for further information on documentary and other requirement. You (and in some instances, your French fiancé) might be asked to prepare or bring:
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, France included, and will reject yours if it doesn't come from the proper source.
Check the State Department's Reciprocity list to get further details on what documents from France 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.
For personalized assistance with applying for lawful permanent residence based on marriage to a U.S. citizen or green card holder, consult an experienced attorney. The attorney can analyze your case, help address any legal issues, strategize the fastest way forward, prepare the paperwork and help you gather documents, and monitor its progress toward approval.