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

Procedural requirements when marrying a French citizen and applying for U.S. residence for your new husband or wife.

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. green card (lawful permanent residence), you will find some important legal and practical guidance below.

(Warning: This is a general overview of how the U.S. immigration process works for most people. 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 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. He or she may receive a green card as soon as the two of you successfully complete the application process; though that can, by itself, take several months.

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 visain order to get married. Your new spouse could then apply for a green card, 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, he or she 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 has developed, based on one's "priority date." The wait often takes around two years.

U.S. permanent residents (green card holders) cannot petition for fiancés.

Application Process for Getting a Green Card Based on Marriage

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:

  • the U.S. petitioner is a citizen or permanent resident
  • you have entered into a valid marriage (or will, if applying for a K-1 fiancé visa)
  • the marriage is bona fide (the real thing; not just a fake 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 French fiancé or spouse may, 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 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 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 France on an Immigrant Visa

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 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, 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 (an average of two years, based on his or her "priority date") until a visa is available in category 2A.

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, at which time he or she becomes a lawful permanent resident. 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 France the Interview Will Be Held

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, and can also check its website for information.

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.

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), he or she may 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 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 major 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 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 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 France

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, at least one of you must have resided in France for at least 40 days before the wedding date. And you’ll need to post a “banns” (public announcement of the intended marriage) at least ten days before the wedding date.

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).

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 fiance) may be asked to prepare or bring:

  • Your valid U.S. passport and proof that you have a visa or lawful residence in France.
  • Two forms of proof showing that one of you has lived in France for the requisite 40 days.
  • Copies of your respective birth certificates, issued within the last three months and containing an official government Apostille stamp. It would be best to obtain your birth certificate before leaving the U.S., because the U.S. consulate cannot handle this for you. You will likely also need to have it translated into French, by a certified translator.
  • An affidavit of marital status (certificat de célibat ou de non-remariage) or in its place, an "attestation tenant lieu de certificat de coutume et de célibat," in which you basically state that you are free to marry. It requires appearing before a U.S. consular officer.
  • If either of you has been previously married, proof that the marriage was legally terminated, i.e. through death or divorce.
  • Processing fees.

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 Country Reciprocity Schedule to get further details on what documents from France it considers valid.

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. You will need to obtain a marriage certificate from a local government office. A church certificate, for example, is not enough.

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