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 might be eligible for a family based visa or green card (U.S. residence). 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.
This article will provide:
Your fiancé or spouse will have to go through a multi-step application process to get a U.S. visa or green card. It will be your job to start the process, by preparing and submitting to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) either a:
Once USCIS has approved this petition, the immigrant is primarily responsible for the next steps in applying for an immigrant visa or green card. The details of how that's done depends on a number of factors, including whether you are a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident, where the immigrant is now, and, if that's in the U.S., whether the immigrant got here legally.
Be aware that while a fiancé visa allows U.S. entry (and then the rest of the application process happens in the U.S.), a spouse cannot enter the United States until both the visa petition and subsequent applications have been approved.
Also, 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. at all, until you're married.
What's more, U.S. permanent residents can petition for a spouse only after a visa becomes available in that category. Owing to annual limits on visas, spouses of permanent residents often spend time on a waiting list, due to high demand. The wait has been known to average up to two years (though there was no wait in early 2023).
One more thing to be aware of is that every type of visa application involves several stages, including preparing and submitting application forms, having a medical examination done, going to an appointment for fingerprinting (biometrics) and clearing various security checks, and waiting for various approvals from USCIS. The time it takes to get through all this has become especially long since the COVID-19 pandemic, owing to extended office closures.
Don't misuse a tourist visa, visa waiver, or other temporary visa for U.S. entry. 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 K-1 fiancé visa, the would-be 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'd do better to also provide documents such as copies of love letters (or emails or texts), 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 up, U.S. 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 might 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 fraud or sham to get a green card.
As part of the application process, you'll have to prove all of the above things. Legal marriage is usually the easiest part 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 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 (bona fide) and not a sham, 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, all immigrants must show that they are "admissible" (for instance, do not have a criminal record or a communicable disease like tuberculosis, and are not likely to need government financial assistance as a "public charge"). For more about this topic, see Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.
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).
In addition, you could definitely 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.