If you are marrying someone from Russia, and plan to sponsor your new husband or wife for a U.S. marriage-based green card (lawful permanent residence), here is some important legal and practical information, covering everything from:
(Warning: This is a general overview of how the process works for most people. Your situation might contain complications or qualify for exceptions; see an 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 several months.
If you are not yet married and your fiancé is still in Russia, 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. Your new spouse could then apply for a green card, if desired.
You can also choose to get married first in Russia 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 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 foreign-born 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 has developed, based on one's "priority date." The wait often takes around two years, though there's been no wait at all recently (early 2023).
Permanent residents cannot petition for foreign-born fiancés. You would have to get married first, and then apply for an immigrant visa.
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 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) K-1 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 this, it will transfer the case to the appropriate U.S. consulate. 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 petitioner, are allowed to attend this 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 two of you will attend a green card interview at a USCIS office near your U.S. home. Upon approval, your spouse becomes a U.S. conditional resident, and should receive the actual green card by mail not long after. It will have a two-year expiration date, and you'll need to submit a joint petition to remove the conditions (Form I-751) soon before those two years expire.
If you and your husband or wife have already married, and your spouse is currently in Russia, you would 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, it will forward your file to the NVC, so that the foreign-born spouse can move forward with visa processing.
Spouses of permanent residents 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." The good news is that there's been no wait recently (as of early 2023). And even if a wait develops, by the time you receive approval of the I-130, some, if not all, of the wait time will have passed.
Next, your spouse will go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. This means your spouse initially submits paperwork to the National Visa Center (NVC). The NVC will connect you to the Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC). After you and your spouse submit all the appropriate paperwork through the online CEAC system, the NVC will transfer the file and schedule the immigrating spouse for an interview at a U.S. consulate. (The U.S. petitioner may attend, but is not required to.) For details on this part of the process, see What Happens Between I-130 Approval and Consular Interview.
Upon approval, your spouse enters the U.S. on an immigrant visa, at which time your spouse becomes a lawful permanent resident (or a lawful conditional resident, if your marriage is less than two years old at that time). Assuming you've paid the immigrant fee to USCIS, the green card arrives in the mail several weeks later.
Although the U.S. has consulates in several cities in Russia, most of them do not process immigrant visas based on marriage. Only the U.S. consulate in Moscow normally handles immigrant visas, which for this purpose includes fiancé visas. However, because the U.S. has suspended consular services in Russia owing to its invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. consulate in Warsaw, Poland will currently be the one to handle the case.
You will be given instructions 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 Russia already, 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 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. But again, there was no wait as of early 2023.
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 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 your fiancé or spouse's home country, you will first need to look into Russia's requirements for legal marriage.
According to information provided by the U.S. consulate, Russian marriages require the U.S. citizen to have their visa registered by a landlord or sponsor and to get an official translation of the information page of your passport, which you can do at any certified translation center that has a Russian notary public.
The U.S. citizen will also need complete a "marriage letter," which is standard affidavit form (svidetel'stvo) in which you state that you are not currently married. Normally, the form must be completed in Russian and notarized at the Embassy in Moscow, for which you would need to make an appointment in advance and pay a fee. Then you'd need to have the marriage letter authenticated at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, given the hostilities in Ukraine, the U.S. consulate has ceased providing this service; see its website for the latest suggestions.
If you have been previously married, be sure to gather certified divorce, death, or annulment certificates to prove that it ended. You'll need to get an apostille stamp on these from the U.S. as well. An apostille is a form of state certification that's acceptable abroad. Check with your state records agency for details.
The next step if marrying in Russia is to contact the ZAGS (Zapis Aktov Grazhdanskogo Sostoyaniya) office where your fiancée or fiancé is registered and submit your documents for inspection. The ZAGS office will schedule the civil service wedding 32 days from the date of registration. You do not have to remain in Russia during this time.
After the 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, and will reject your marriage certificate 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 Russia 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.
You could make your life easier by hiring an experienced immigration attorney to handle your family visa case. The attorney can analyze the facts of your case and spot any potential problems, prepare the paperwork, and monitor the progress toward approval.