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

Practical and procedural guidance regarding obtaining U.S. residence for the spouse of a U.S. citizen or resident.

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

If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is marrying someone from Kenya, and you would like to sponsor your new husband or wife for a marriage-based U.S. visa or green card (lawful permanent residence), you will find some important legal and practical guidance below.

This article will acquaint you with:

  • a would-be immigrant's basic eligibility for a fiancé visa (K-1) or a green card based on marriage to a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident
  • the main steps in the immigration application process for a foreign-born person coming from overseas
  • the main steps in the immigration application process for a foreign-born person already living in the U.S., and
  • how to obtain documentation of a valid marriage.

Note, however, that this is a general overview of how the U.S. immigration process works for most people. Your situation could 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. residence. Contrary to popular rumor, however, the foreign national does not immediately or automatically receive a green card or U.S. citizenship.

If you are a U.S. citizen and already married or about to be, your new foreign-born spouse becomes your "immediate relative," and may receive a green card as soon as the two of you successfully complete the application process. This can take several months.

If you are not yet married and your fiancé is still in Kenya, you can, if you are a U.S. citizen, petition for them to enter the U.S. as a fiancé in order to get married in the United States. After the wedding, your new spouse can apply to USCIS for a green card, through a process called adjustment of status (the primary form for which is the I-485, which you'll submit with other forms and documents and a fee). The two of you will attend a green card interview at a local USCIS office. There, your spouse will hopefully be approved for U.S. conditional residence. You can also choose to get married first in Kenya or another country, and then apply for an immigrant visa with which to enter the U.S. (the equivalent of a green card).

If you are a lawful permanent resident, your foreign-born spouse is considered a "preference relative," in category 2A of the visa preference system. Your spouse can complete the process of applying for a green card (and enter the U.S.) only after a visa number has become available. Annual limits on the number of visas given out in category 2A sometimes create years-long waits. The waiting time changes periodically, which makes it difficult to predict just how long you will need to wait for your spouse to immigrate. But it's usually two to five years. And the application process itself adds more months to the process.

U.S. permanent residents cannot petition for fiancés; they will have to marry first before filing a spousal petition.

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 of all this is to prove that:

  • the U.S. petitioner is a citizen or permanent resident
  • a valid marriage has occurred (or will occur, in the case of a fiancé visa)
  • the marriage is bona fide (not a 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 details.)

You might, however, have more than one option as to where and exactly 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 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), together with supporting documents and a fee. After USCIS approves the I-129F, it will transfer the case to the U.S. consulate in Nairobi, Kenya. Your fiancé will apply for a K-1 visa there. This involves submitting forms and documents and a visa application 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 Kenya on an Immigrant Visa

If you and your loved one are already married, and your spouse is currently in Kenya, you will start the green-card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS, together with supporting documents and a fee. After USCIS approves the I-130, spouses of U.S. citizens can continue on with visa processing, while spouses of permanent residents must wait until a visa is available in category 2A.

After paying various fees and submitting documents to the National Visa Center in New Hampshire, the next step is for your spouse to go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. This means your spouse submits additional paperwork and an application fee to, and attends an interview at, a U.S. consulate in Nairobi, Kenya. 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 time.

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

The U.S. currently has one embassy in Kenya, which is located in Nairobi and handles both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas.

You will be given instructions (and eventually, an appointment notice) when your case is transferred to the embassy in Nairobi, and can also check the embassy's website for information.

If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than Kenya, 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 initially came to the U.S. on a nonimmigrant (such as on a fiancé, student, or tourist visa), and you are a U.S. citizen, your spouse can most likely apply to adjust status in the United States. The main form for this is an I-485, but other forms and supporting documents and a fee must also be included. 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 be 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 rather than a U.S. citizen, 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 necessarily 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 Kenya

If you have married, or plan to get married in your fiancé or spouse's home country, you will first need to look into Kenya's requirements for legal marriage. Start by contacting the local Registrar General's office. Be prepared to bring your U.S. passport, evidence that any prior marriages were terminated (such as death or divorce certificates), prepare paperwork, pay a fee, and comply with a waiting period. You can get married in the Registrar's Office or a church.

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, Kenya included, and will reject yours if it doesn't come from the proper source. Check the State Department's page with "Reciprocity and Civil Documents by Country" to get further details on what documents from Kenya 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. 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 Help With Your Application

A lawyer is not required in order to submit a marriage-based green card application; but hiring one can ease the process significantly. The lawyer can analyze your foreign-born spouse's eligibility, help spot and deal with trouble areas, prepare the paperwork, and (if you'll be adjusting status in the U.S.) attend the interview with you. See How to Find a Good Immigration Lawyer For Your Case.

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