If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, and you are engaged or already married to a citizen of another country, that person may be eligible for a green card. However, many people believe, wrongly, that they can just bring their fiancé or spouse to the U.S. and the immigrant will be given an instant green card or even U.S. citizenship—a belief that has led to sad cases of people being sent right home again.
Your fiancé or spouse will have to go through a multi-step application process. It's your job to start the process, by submitting either a fiancé visa petition (only available if you're a U.S. citizen) or an immigrant visa petition. That means filling out Form I-129F for a fiancé for Form I-130 (here's more information on filling it out if the sponsor is a U.S. citizen or if the sponsor is a U.S. permanent resident).
Your fiancé or spouse can't enter the U.S. until both the visa petition and subsequent applications have been approved.
Note: If you're not yet a U.S. citizen, but you have U.S. permanent residence (a "green card"), you cannot bring your fiancé to the U.S. until you're married—and even then, you can bring your spouse only after he or she spends some years on a waiting list.
No matter what, be prepared for a long wait. Every type of visa application involves several stages, including application forms, a medical examination, fingerprinting, and various approvals.
Don't misuse a tourist visa, visa waiver, or other temporary visa. If the immigrant used a tourist or other visa to get to the U.S., or the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) for the primary purpose of getting married or applying for a green card, see an attorney. The immigrant could be found liable for visa fraud, and denied the green card as a result.
The requirements for the fiancé visa and the marriage visa are different.
To qualify for a fiancé visa, the immigrant must:
Also, the immigrant must be coming from another country—a fiancé visa won't be given to someone who is already in the United States.
As part of the fiancé visa application process, you'll have to prove your intention to marry. A simple statement signed by both of you will often be enough, but you can also provide documents such as copies of your love letters, phone bills, and wedding ceremony contracts. You'll also have to prove that you've met within the last two years, by submitting copies of plane tickets, hotel bills, dated photographs, or similar proof.
This meeting requirement causes problems for many couples. If you simply can't afford to meet, the immigration authorities will say, "Tough luck." If, however, you haven't met because of proven cultural customs or extreme hardship to the U.S. citizen spouse, they may be willing to lift the meeting requirement for you.
To be eligible for an immigrant visa, or green card, based on marriage, the immigrant must be:
Also, the marriage must be the real thing, not just a sham to get a green card.
Within the application process, you'll have to prove all of the above things. Legal marriage is usually the easiest to prove, by simply providing a copy of your marriage certificate—though people who get married outside the U.S. sometimes have a little trouble, because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) usually demands that the certificate come from a government office, rather than a church, a ship's captain, or some other nongovernmental place.
To show that the marriage is the real thing, you'll have to provide copies of documents such as joint bank statements, children's birth certificates, photos of the wedding and afterwards, love letters, and more.
To qualify for any type of visa or a green card, every immigrant must show that he or she is "admissible" (for instance, does not have a criminal record or a communicable disease like tuberculosis). For more about this topic, see Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.
How and where the immigrant applies for a green card depends on a number of factors, including who he or she is marrying, where the immigrant is now, and, if he or she is in the U.S., whether he or she got there legally. For details on these matters, and help completing the application forms, assembling the appropriate documents, and having a successful interview, see Nolo's other articles on Marriage-Based Green Cards or get Fiancé & Marriage Visas: A Couple's Guide to U.S. Immigration, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).