If you are marrying someone from Nigeria, 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. We'll cover basic eligibility and the steps you will need to take, whether the immigrant is residing in the United States now or overseas.
This is a general overview of how the process works for most people. Your situation could involve complications or qualify for exceptions; see an experienced immigration attorney for a full analysis.
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 may receive a green card as soon as the two of you make it through the application process. This can take six months to a year, or even longer.
If you are not yet married and your fiancé(e) is still in Nigeria, you can, if you are a U.S. citizen, petition for them to enter the U.S. on a K-1 visa in order to get married in the U.S.—and then your new spouse can apply for a green card ("adjust status," using Form I-485) if desired. Alternatively, you can choose to get married first in Nigeria or another country, and then apply for 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 fiancé(e)'s entry to the United States.)
If you are a lawful permanent resident, your new spouse becomes a "preference relative," in category F2A, and 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." Annual limits on the number of persons who can become permanent residents in each category and from each country often create a wait, due to high demand. The wait is often between two and five years.
Permanent residents cannot petition for fiancé(e)s. You would need to marry first, then apply for an immigrant visa.
The application process for a green card based on marriage 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:
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 you two have held an informal ceremony that does not count as an official marriage in the location where it was held—you can apply for this temporary (90-day) K-1 visa with which your fiancé(e) 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). After USCIS approves this petition, it will arrange to transfer the case to the U.S. consulate in Lagos. Your fiancé(e) 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 visa interview, though it is not required.
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 primary form for which is the I-485). 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 husband or wife have already married, and your spouse is currently in Nigeria, you would start the green-card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS, to prove that the two of you are really married and that you are 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 continue on with visa processing. Spouses of U.S. permanent residents could hit a delay at this point. Depending on visa availability and demand, they will likely have to wait for a current priority date. One bit of good news is that, by the time you receive approval of the I-130, some, if not all, of the waiting time will have passed. 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.)
Next, your foreign-born spouse will go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. This means your spouse submits paperwork to, and attends an interview at, a U.S. consulate in Lagos. (The U.S. petitioner may attend, but is not required to.)
Upon approval, your spouse enters the U.S. on an immigrant visa, and becomes a lawful permanent resident (or a lawful conditional resident, if the marriage is less than two years old at that time). Assuming you've paid the $220 green card production fee (also called the immigrant fee) to USCIS, the green card arrives in the mail several weeks later.
Although the U.S. currently has two consulates in Nigeria, located in Abuja and Lagos, all immigrant visa decisions are made at the consulate in Lagos. (Fiancé visas, which technically are not immigrant visas, are processed as if they were immigrant visas, so the only place to get one is in Lagos.)
The NVC will let you know when your case file is transferred to Lagos and instruct you on on what to do next. Spouses and fiancé(e)s can also find instructions at www.ustraveldocs.com/ng/en/.
If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than Nigeria, the consulate there would likely be the one to handle the case.
A foreign-born spouse who came to the U.S. legally (such as on a fiancé or student visa or as a tourist), might be eligible to apply to adjust status in the United States; in other words, take care of the whole application process without leaving the country. 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.
But if you're a permanent resident, your spouse must still be in legal status, with unexpired permission to be in the country. 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 U.S. government might not tell you when your wait is over—but you can 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 could have serious 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 some tips on doing that.
If you have married, or plan to get married in Nigeria, you will first need to look into Nigeria's requirements for legal marriage to a noncitizen. The consulate might be able to provide you with some guidance, or a local attorney could do so.
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, Nigeria included, and will reject your marriage certificate if it doesn't come from the proper source. Check the State Department's Country Reciprocity Schedule for Nigeria to get further details on what documents from Nigeria it considers valid. (Click on "Marriage, Divorce Certificates.")
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.
Although hiring an immigration attorney to help with your visa or green card application is not required, it can make your life much easier. Even if you have a straightforward case, the paperwork and bureaucracy can be daunting. And if you have any complications in your case, or worry that you should hide certain information from U.S. immigration authorities, consulting an attorney will be essential. See How Expensive Is an Immigration Lawyer?