If you are marrying someone from Ukraine, 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.
This is a general overview of how the process works for most people. Your situation could involve complications or qualify for exceptions to the usual rules; see an attorney for a full analysis.
WARNING: The information below explains the normal procedures. However, the U.S. embassy in Kyiv is currently closed for security reasons, based on the Russian aggression that began in 2022. Applying for any sort of visa or entry document is therefore not an option there. If you can get yourself to some neighboring country, however, the U.S. government has stated that U.S. embassies there might be able to accommodate visa applicants. In particular, the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt has been designated to handle family visa applications from Ukraine. Also see Options for National of Ukraine Seeking Asylum, TPS, or Other Protection in the United States.
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 Ukraine, 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 the United States. After the wedding, your new spouse can apply for a green card, if desired.
You can also choose to get married first in Ukraine 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 U.S. entry.)
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 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 around two years (though in early 2023 there was no wait at all).
Permanent residents cannot petition for fiancés.
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 the I-129F, it will transfer the case to the U.S. National Visa Center, which eventually (normally) will send the case to the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. (But again, a different embassy will be used until the war ends.)
Your fiancé will apply for a K-1 visa through the U.S. 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 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 Ukraine, you would start the green-card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS. After USCIS approves the I-130, spouses of U.S. citizens may move forward with visa processing. Spouses of permanent residents, however, might have to wait for a visa to become available in their category; the wait often lasts up to two years, though in early 2023 there was no wait at all.
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. The NVC will tell you when it's time for you to move forward with consular processing and 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 the appropriate 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, instantly becoming a lawful permanent resident (or a conditional resident, if your marriage is still less than two years old at that time).
The U.S. currently has only one embassy in Ukraine, which is located in Kyiv and normally handles both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas. However, as of early 2023, the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt has been designated to handle family-based visa cases.
You will be given instructions if and when your case is transferred to a U.S. consulate. If your spouse happens to be living in another country than Ukraine, the consulate there would likely be the one to handle the case.
If your spouse initially came to the U.S. as a nonimmigrant (such as on a fiancé or student visa or as a tourist), or with humanitarian parole, and either you are a U.S. citizen or your spouse is still in valid status, your Ukrainian spouse might be eligible to 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.
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 U.S. government might not tell you when your wait (if any) is over—you'll have to figure it out yourself. USCIS has a web page that explains how. But again, the wait is nonexistent as of early 2023.
(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 your spouse entered the U.S. without inspection or by using a fake visa, or you are a permanent resident rather than a citizen, your situation could be more complicated than this article can address. You might 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's or spouse's home country, you will first need to look into Ukraine's requirements for legal marriage. Among these is that the marriage must be registered at a state civil registration office. Religious ceremonies are not officially recognized there.
According to information provided by the U.S. embassy, Ukrainian marriages may require the U.S. citizen to have legal status in Ukraine (such as citizenship, a residency permit, a visa, or an entry stamp in the passport). You will also need to submit an application and provide various documents, including proof that any previous marriages were legally ended, such as either the original or certified copy of your divorce decree or your spouse's death certificate. These documents must, if they weren't issued in Ukraine, have been property authenticated (apostilled) by the appropriate government agency in the United States or elsewhere; the U.S. consulate cannot perform this service for you.
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, Ukraine included, and will reject your marriage certificate if it doesn't come from the proper source. Check the State Department's List of Reciprocity and Civil Documents by Country to get further details on what documents from Ukraine 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 marriage-based visa case. The attorney can analyze the facts of your case and spot any potential problems, prepare the paperwork, and monitor the U.S. government's progress toward approval.