Marrying a Citizen of the U.K.? How to Get a Green Card for Your New Spouse

Procedural requirements when engaged to or marrying a British citizen and applying for U.S. residence (an immigrant or K-1 visa) for your new husband or wife.

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

If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is marrying someone from the United Kingdom, and you would like to sponsor your British husband or wife for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence) based on that marriage, you will find some important legal and practical guidance below. We'll discuss both basic eligibility and the application process.

Note: This is an overview of how the U.S. immigration process works for most people. 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 bit of background on U.S. immigration law. Marriage to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident gives foreign-born people a direct path to a U.S. green card, which is a stepping stone to U.S. citizenship. 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 and are already married or soon will be, your new spouse will become your "immediate relative" in the lingo of U.S. immigration law. Your spouse may therefore receive a green card as soon as the two of you successfully complete the application process. That process alone can, however, take six months to a year, or longer.

If you have not yet married and your fiancé(e) is still living in the United Kingdom, 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 marry in the United States. After the wedding, your new spouse can apply for a green card ("adjust status," using Form I-485), if desired.

You can also choose to get married first in the United Kingdom or in another country, and then apply for an immigrant visa with which to enter the the United States. The visa will turn into lawful permanent residence when your spouse arrives, and the actual green card will be sent to you by mail within the following weeks.

If you are a U.S. lawful permanent resident, your British spouse is considered a "preference relative," in category F2A of the U.S. visa preference system. Your spouse can obtain permanent residence in the U.S. only after a "visa number" (space for another permanent resident) has become available. 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." This often adds two to five years to the application process.

U.S. permanent residents (green card holders) cannot petition for fiancés to receive K-1 visas to the United States. Marrying first is the only option.

Application Process for Green Cards Based on Marriage

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 petitioner (sometimes called the sponsor) is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident
  • you have entered into a legally valid marriage (or will be, if applying for a K-1 fiancé visa)
  • the marriage is bona fide (the real thing; not just a fake 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 a full explanation.)

You and your British fiancé(e) 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 (a U.S. citizen) 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—the noncitizen can apply for a K-1 visa, which is a temporary (90-day) visa with which to enter the U.S. in order to 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 London, where your fiancé(e) will apply for a K-1 visa. This involves submitting forms (most notably the online Form DS-160) and documents, getting a medical exam done and photos taken, making sure all vaccinations are up to date and that the K-1 applicant has been vaccinated for COVID-19 (unless you qualify for a waiver), and finally attending an interview with a U.S. consular official. You, the U.S. citizen 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. This involves preparing and submitting Form I-485 plus other forms and documents (such as financial information including the sponsor's promise of support and proof of bona fide marriage), having fingerprints (biometrics) taken, and paying a fee. After that, the two of you will attend a green card interview at a USCIS office in the state where you live.

Procedures for Your Spouse to Come from the U.K. on an Immigrant Visa

If you and your loved one are already married, and your spouse is currently in the United Kingdom, you will start the green-card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS, together with supporting documents and a fee. (See either 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 U.S. petitioner's, immigration status. If you are a U.S. citizen, your British spouse can continue on with visa processing. If you are a U.S. permanent resident, your spouse must wait until the National Visa Center (NVC) says it has an immigrant visa available. This could be soon or could be months or years. 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?)

The next step is for the foreign-born spouse to go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. This involves preparing and submitting forms and documents (such as financial information including the sponsor's promise of support and proof of bona fide marriage), having a medical exam done and photos taken, making sure all vaccinations are up to date and that the applicant has been vaccinated for COVID-19 (unless you qualify for a waiver), and finally attending an interview at and paying a fee to the U.S. consulate in London. The immigrant will need to bring additional items to this interview, including a passport that's valid for six months or more.

The U.S. petitioner may attend this interview, but is not required to. You will be given instructions on where to go; you might also want to check out the websites of individual U.S. consulates by using the State Department's page for Websites of U.S. Embassies, Consulates, and Diplomatic Missions.

Upon approval, the foreign-born spouse may enter the U.S. on an immigrant visa, at which time they become a U.S. lawful permanent resident. (The actual green card arrives some weeks later, by mail, after you pay the immigrant fee to USCIS for green card production.)

Where in the U.K. the Interview Will Be Held

Although the U.S. has a few consulates in the United Kingdom, only the one in London handles immigrant and fiancé (K-1) visas. You will be given instructions (and eventually, an appointment notice) when your case is transferred to the consulate in London. You can check its website for information on the process for applying for an immigrant visa.

If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than the United Kingdom, 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. legally (such as on a K-1 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 called an I-485, but additional forms, documents, and a fee must also be presented. The immigrant will need to attend a biometrics (fingerprinting) appointment. Later, the two of you will attend a personal interview at one of USCIS's field offices. Check out these sample questions.

Information about USCIS locations or service centers can be found at its website, www.uscis.gov.

If you're a U.S. lawful permanent resident and your spouse is living in the U.S. and will be eligible to adjust status, check the USCIS website to see how soon a green card application can be filed. The green card cannot actually be given until a permanent resident "space" opens up in category F2A, which often involves a years-long wait.

Be sure your spouse didn't commit visa fraud by using a nonimmigrant visa specifically to enter the U.S. to 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 your spouse entered the U.S. without inspection or by using a fake visa, your situation is more complicated than this article can address. You could have difficulty obtaining a spousal green card, 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 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 the U.K.

If you have married, or plan to get married in the United Kingdom, you will first need to look into the local requirements for legal marriage. These vary between England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. A register's office can give you the most detailed information; book an appointment with one for this purpose.

According to information provided by the British government, the basic requirements to get legally married include that each person:

  • have reached the age of 16 by the wedding date (and have written consent from the parents or guardians if under the age of 18 in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland; not required in Scotland)
  • in England, give notice of the marriage for 28 full days, and live in the district where you plan to marry for at least seven days immediately before giving notice of the intended marriage (staying in a hotel will be okay)
  • be lawfully free to marry (in particular, not already be married to someone else, and not violating the rules of the foreigner's home country—the foreigner might have to prove this)
  • be capable of understanding the nature of a marriage ceremony (in Scotland and Northern Ireland)
  • not be closely related to the other by birth, marriage, or adoption, and
  • in Northern Ireland, not be of the same sex.

Both civil and religious ceremonies are possible, with some limitations on where they occur. Either the local register's offices or various churches are legally empowered to perform marriages in the United Kingdom. Other "approved premises" with ceremony licenses are allowed. (In England, for example, these might include a hotel or stately home.)

If you wish to marry in the Anglican Church, expect additional requirements regarding your membership or family affiliation there. Contact the church for details.

You need to take proof of your name, date of birth, nationality, and address to the designated register office. You'll also be asked about the non-U.K. spouse's immigration status.

If you've been married or in a civil partnership before, you need to take either a decree absolute or final order, or the death certificate of your former partner.

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, the U.K. included, and will reject yours 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 the United Kingdom it considers valid.

Obtaining Documentation of a Valid Marriage in the U.S.

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.

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