If you are marrying someone from India, 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.
Warning: This is a general overview of how the process works for most people. Your situation might contain complicating factors or qualify for exceptions; see an attorney for a full analysis.
ALSO: Owing to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, U.S. consulates around the world are canceling or limiting visa appointments to emergency ones, and most offices of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the U.S. are closed for visits and interviews. Travel is also ill-advised at this time. The below describes how the process normally works; expect changes and delays.
First, a little 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 immigrate, nor U.S. citizenship.
If you are a U.S. citizen, your new spouse becomes your "immediate relative," and might receive an immigrant visa and 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(e) is still in India, 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 for the two of you to get married in the U.S.—and then your new spouse can apply for a green card, if desired. You can also choose to get married first in India or another country, and then apply for an immigrant visa with which to enter the United States. The visa will turn into a green card when your spouse arrives.
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 U.S.). 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 application process often takes several years as a result.
Permanent residents cannot petition for fiancé(e)s.
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.
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 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 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 Mumbai, India.
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.
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 have already married, and your spouse is currently in India, you would start the permanent resident application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS. (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 continue on with visa processing.
Spouses of permanent residents must wait until the National Visa Center (NVC) says they can apply for an immigrant visa. The State Department publishes a Visa Bulletin to let you know when your application date is approaching. (See How Long Is the Wait for Your Priority Date To Become Current?)
Next, your spouse will go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. This means your spouse submits paperwork to, and attends an interview at, the U.S. consulate in Mumbai. The U.S. petitioner is not required to attend, and in most cases would not be allowed to attend.
Upon approval, your spouse enters the U.S. on an immigrant visa, at which time he or she becomes a lawful permanent resident (and receives a green card by mail soon after).
Although the U.S. has consulates in several cities in India, most of them do not process immigrant visas based on marriage. At this time (2019), only the consulate in Mumbai handles immigrant visas or fiancé visas.
You will be given instructions on where to go when you apply, or can check the websites of individual U.S. consulates by using the State Department's page for Websites of U.S. Embassies, Consulates, and Diplomatic Missions.
If your spouse happens to be living in another country than India, the consulate there would likely be the one to handle the case.
If your spouse initially came to the U.S. legally (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 status, he or she is most likely eligible to apply to adjust status without leaving 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, however, your spouse entered the U.S. without inspection or by using a fake visa, or you are a permanent resident whose spouse is no longer in legal status or has worked illegally in 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 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 India, you will first need to look into India's requirements for legal marriage.
According to information provided by the U.S. consulate, valid Indian marriages can take the form of either a religious or a civil ceremony. Some, but not all religious ceremonies will lead to a certificate that is considered sufficient for U.S. immigration and other legal purposes. If you don't receive the necessary sort of certificate, you might be able to get one from the Registrar of Marriages.
You might be asked by the Indian authorities to provide a "no objection letter," which is basically an affidavit in which you state that you are not currently married, and are eligible to marry. The U.S. consulate can help you prepare this.
If you're doing a civil ceremony or if you and your intended spouse are of different religions, you might also be asked to register your marriage under a law called the Special Marriage Act. Plan ahead, because this involves a marriage officer publishing a newspaper ad allowing people to object to the marriage within 30 days from the date of your initial application.
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, India included, and will reject your marriage certificate if it doesn't come from the proper source.
So-called "Arya Samaj" ceremonies, though legal in India, have led to a number of consular rejections. They are popular among couples, because they do not require the same rituals as other marriages; they may be performed in about an hour, with the priest, fire, and other elements acting as witnesses. If this is your choice of marriage ritual, your best bet is to present not only the Arya Samaj marriage certificate, but a certificate showing you registered the marriage with the Indian government, along with extra evidence that the marriage is bona fide.
Check the State Department's Country Reciprocity Schedule to get further details on what documents from India 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.