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

Guidance for U.S. citizens and permanent residents marrying in South Korean or marrying a South Korean citizen in the United States.

By , J.D. University of Washington School of Law
Updated 6/15/2023

If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is marrying someone from South Korea, and you would like to sponsor your husband or wife for a marriage-based U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence), keep reading for some important legal and practical guidance as to both:

  • eligibility for a green card based on marriage to a U.S. citizen, and
  • procedures for obtaining it.

This is a general overview of how the U.S. immigration system works for most married couples. Your situation might 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 little background on how U.S. immigration law works. Getting married to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident gives noncitizens 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 to U.S. citizenship.

If you are a U.S. citizen and already married or soon to be, your new foreign-born husband or wife is your "immediate relative" in the language of U.S. immigration law. Your spouse may receive a green card as soon as the two of you successfully complete the application process. That process can, by itself, take several months.

If you have not yet gotten married and your fiancé is still living in South Korea, 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 in the United States. After the wedding, your new spouse can apply for a green card through a process known as "adjustment of status."

Or, you can choose to get married first in South Korea or in 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 not a U.S. citizen but a U.S. lawful permanent resident, your new South Korean 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 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 often develops, based on one's "priority date." The wait often takes between two and five years.

U.S. permanent residents (green card holders) cannot petition for fiancés. You will have to get married before proceeding with U.S. immigration.

Overview of Obtaining a Marriage-Based Green Card

The application process for a marriage-based green card involves multiple steps, most notably submitting forms and documents to and attending an interview with U.S. immigration authorities. The purpose is to prove to the U.S. government that:

  • the U.S. petitioner really is a citizen or permanent resident
  • the two of you have entered into a valid marriage (or plan to, if applying for a K-1 fiancé visa)
  • the marriage is bona fide (the real thing; 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 and your South Korean fiancé or spouse might, 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 marriedor have held an informal ceremony that does not count as an official marriage in the location where it was helda K-1 visa might be appropriate. It is a temporary, 90-day visa, which your fiancé can use to enter the U.S. in order to take part in 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 the I-129F, it will transfer the case to the National Visa Center (NVC), which will then transfer the case to the U.S. consulate in Seoul, South Korea.

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. Upon approval, your spouse becomes a U.S. lawful permanent resident. (If you've been married for fewer than two years on this approval date, however, your spouse becomes a "conditional resident," which is almost like permanent residence except that you must apply to have it made permanent after two years.)

Procedures for Your Spouse to Come From South Korea on an Immigrant Visa

If you and your loved one are already married, and your spouse is currently in South Korea, you will start the green-card 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, what happens next depends on your, the petitioner's status. If you are a U.S. citizen, your South Korean spouse can continue with visa processing. If you are a permanent resident, your spouse must wait until a visa is available in category 2A.

The next procedural step is for your spouse to go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. After paying fees and submitting documents to the National Visa Center (NVC) in New Hampshire, your spouse submits additional paperwork to, and attends an interview at, the U.S. consulate in Seoul, South Korea. (The U.S. petitioner may attend, but is not required to.)

Upon approval, your spouse enters the U.S. on an immigrant visa, immediately becoming a U.S. lawful permanent resident. (If you've been married for fewer than two years on this entry date, however, your spouse becomes a "conditional resident," which is almost like permanent residence except that you must apply to have it made permanent or unconditional after two years.)

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

The U.S. consulate in Seoul handles immigrant and fiancé (K-1) visas. You will be given instructions (including appointment instructions) when your case is transferred there, and can also check its website for information.

If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than South Korea, 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 entered the U.S. on a nonimmigrant visa (such as a fiancé, student, or tourist visa), and you are a U.S. citizen, he or she can most likely apply to adjust status in the United States. The main form for this is an I-485. The two of you will attend an interview at one of USCIS's field offices.

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 if you are a permanent resident rather than a citizen and your spouse is in 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 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 South Korea

If you have married, or plan to get married in South Korea, you will first need to look into that country's requirements for legal marriage. According to information provided by the U.S. consulate there, the only "legal" Korean marriages are civil, rather than religious ceremonies. (You can also hold a religious ceremony, if you wish, but it won't count for U.S. immigration purposes.)

At a minimum, the U.S. citizen will need to prepare the following:

  • A valid United States passport or other proof of U.S. citizenship
  • A driver's license, military identification document, or other photo ID.
  • What's called an "Affidavit of Eligibility for Marriage," which affirms that you are free and eligible to marry, signed in front of a notary public at the U.S. consulate (for a fee).
  • A translation into Korean of the Affidavit of Eligibility for Marriage.
  • If you've been married before, proof that these marriages ended, such an original or certified copy of a divorce decree, annulment certificate, or death certificate.
  • If you are under the age of 19, written permission to marry from both your parents.
  • Processing fees.

After completing everything on this list, make an appointment to take it to the U.S. consulate. They will review it all, and provide a notary for you to sign the Affidavit in front of.

Your Korean fiancé should check with the local ward or city office for instructions on what to prepare in order to get married.

When the two of you have everything ready, you'll need to take it to the local ward office (Gu Cheong) for approval. You will get married and (most likely a few days later) receive a "Verification of Registration of Marriage."

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, South Korea included, and will reject yours if it doesn't come from the proper source. Check the State Department's list of Civil and Reciprocity Documents by Country to get further details on what documents from South Korea 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.

Getting Legal Help

You could make your life easier by hiring an experienced immigration attorney to handle your marriage-based 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.

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