What's Better for Low-Income Couples: K-1 Fiancé Visa or Marriage-Based Immigrant Visa?

When it comes to both direct expenses and ability to prove sufficient income, the K-1 fiance visa can present greater hurdles than a marriage-based immigrant visa.

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

If you are a U.S. citizen whose foreign-born fiancé lives overseas, and you would like to have your fiancé immigrate to the United States, you have an important choice to make. Should you:

Among the things to take into account might be timing, your personal preferences as to where to hold the wedding ceremony, and expense. But if your income is low—in particular, low enough that you are likely to need to call on a family member or friend to serve as a "joint sponsor"—there are some especially good reasons to choose the marriage-based visa and avoid the K-1 fiancé visa. This article will discuss these and other money-related factors in making your choice.

(Need a review of what we mean by these different types of visas and who is eligible? See Legal Requirements for a Marriage-Based Visa or Green Card and Legal Requirements for a K-1 Fiancé Visa.)

Also note that if you are a U.S. lawful permanent resident, you are not eligible to file a K-1 fiancé visa at all, but would need to marry first then sponsor a spouse for a green card.

Cost Difference Between K-1 Fiancé Visa and Marriage-Based Visa

The total cost of the marriage-based and K-1 visa processes involves more than just visa fees and plane tickets. At a minimum, in both cases, you will have to pay for various forms of travel, one or two medical exams, and other government fees, as discussed next.

Costs of Travel Between U.S. and Home Country

With either type of visa (K-1 or immigrant), the non-U.S. citizen will, if all goes well, need to travel to the U.S. after receiving the visa. In neither case is the U.S. citizen required to travel overseas to attend the visa interview (though they might choose to). So far, the two types of visas present no difference in travel costs.

However, there is one more travel-related cost to figure into your budget: Before you can file a K-1 fiancé visa petition (USCIS Form I-129F), you two will need to have met at least once in person within the two years preceding the date you file the fiancé , unless you qualify for an exception to this rule. So, if you've been conducting your courtship long-distance so far, or haven't seen each other in a while, the U.S. citizen will most likely need to travel overseas to meet the immigrant first.

(Then again, there are cases in which spouses haven't yet met in person, having married via proxy or Skype. They will need to meet at least once, to consummate the marriage.)

You will also need to arrange for the non-U.S. citizen to travel to the U.S. consulate in their home country at least once, to attend a visa interview. This is the same regardless of whether you apply for a fiancé visa or a marriage-based visa.

Immigration Medical Exam Costs

The cost of the required medical exam can also be a significant factor in the finances of immigrating families, especially because only certain chosen doctors can complete the medical exams and issue the report.

If you choose the K-1 visa, your fiancé's medical exam (conducted in the home country, at a cost that varies by physician) will be reviewed again later by USCIS, after your fiancé has entered the U.S., married you, and applied for adjustment to permanent residency. At that point, USCIS might discover a problem. Perhaps the vaccination record (Form DS-3025) was not completed properly, for example, or was not included as part of the first medical examination. Or perhaps the doctor committed some other error. Or the medical exam might have expired: the results are normally considered good only for two years.

The all-too-common result will be that the foreign-born fiancé needs to have a medical exam completed again, in the United States. U.S. civil surgeon rates are typically in the range of $150 to $500.

Government Fees for Immigration Applications and Green Card Processing

Immigration filing fees change frequently, so check the current USCIS list of filing fees for the complete set of forms for both options. Also consider that if your fiancé has children who also need to immigrate, they will each eventually need to file either form I-485 or Form DS-260.

Government Fees as of April 1, 2024 for K-1 Process

The filing fees for the K-1 process is $675 for Form I-129F (filed with USCIS), $265 to apply for the K visa (paid to the U.S. consulate), and $1,440 for Form I-485 and the adjustment of status packet (filed with USCIS), which includes biometrics services but does NOT include separate and additional fees if the immigrant wants to apply for a travel permit (Advance Parole, on Form I-131, for a fee of $630) and/or a work permit (EAD, on Form I-765, with a one-half price fee of $260). That brings the total U.S. government fee to minimum of $2,380 and probably more for most people.

Government Fees as of April 1, 2024 for Immigrant Visa Process

For the immigrant visa process for already married couples, filing fees for Form I-130 are $625 for online filing and $675 for paper filing to USCIS, $325 to the U.S. State Department to apply for the visa, $120 to the State Department for I-864 affidavit of support processing (if the I-864 form is reviewed by USCIS).

Then if everything is approved, you will also have to pay an Immigrant Fee to USCIS, also referred to as the "green card production fee" ($235). That makes the total government cost at least $1,305 (plus $40 if the petitioner chooses a paper filing of Form I-130).

The bottom line is that application fees for a K-1 visa total significantly more than for an immigrant visa.

Differences in Income Requirements Between Fiancé and Marriage-Based Visas

Whether you are seeking a fiancé or marriage-based visa, the U.S. citizen petitioner's income and/or assets (or your joint sponsor's income and/or assets—see below) must be above a certain level to be able to bring a fiancé or spouse to the United States. This is to help show that the non-U.S. citizen will not become a "public charge."

The amount of income and/or assets the U.S. petitioner needs to show at the time of the immigrant obtaining the visa for U.S. entry, however, depends on whether you choose the K-1 or marriage-based visa.

If you get married first and then petition for a spouse to immigrate to the United States, you have to show that the sponsor's income and/or assets are not below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. The numbers change a little bit each year, so check USCIS Form I-864P for the current numbers.

If you are not yet married and you apply to petition for your fiancé to immigrate to the U.S., you have to show only that the sponsor's income and/or assets are not below 100% of the federal poverty guidelines. (Also see How Much Income a K-1 Fiancé Visa Applicant's Sponsor Needs to Show.)

Of course, after you're married and it comes time for the non-U.S. citizen fiancé to apply for a green card (adjust status) in the U.S., which should happen mere months later, you will have to meet the higher, 125% requirement. But if the foreign-born fiancé can find work in the United States by the time of your adjustment of status interview, your household income might have improved such that you can reach this level—particularly .

Differences in Joint Sponsorship Requirements Between Fiancé and Marriage-Based Visas

If your income and assets are such that you can't meet the poverty guidelines requirements at all—not even at the 100% level—one possibility is to look for a joint sponsor, as described in Strategies When an Immigrant's Sponsor's Income and Assets Are Too Low.

Although the sponsorship forms that you must sign are both called "Affidavit of Support," the two do not have the same legal effect.

When a U.S. citizen signs the affidavit of support form for a spouse (Form I-864), their responsibility to support the foreign-born spouse or repay the U.S. government for any means-based public assistance that the spouse receives is a serious, legally binding one. In fact, it lasts until the foreign-born spouse becomes a U.S. citizen, has accomplished 40 work quarters credited toward Social Security, dies, or permanently leaves the United States. This obligation continues even if the U.S. citizen and spouse later divorce.

When the U.S. citizen signs an affidavit of support form required for a fiancé (Form I-134), the citizen is agreeing to sponsor the fiancé for a more limited period of time, and the form is not considered legally binding—in other words, even if you failed to provide this support, no one could sue you to force your compliance.

This difference is important, because the U.S. consulate has discretion about whether to recognize a joint sponsor who signs Form I-134 in connection with a K-1 fiancé visa. Practice has shown that consulates, knowing that a signature on Form I-134 has almost no legal weight, often deny this recognition. That leaves the fiancé ineligible for the visa.

What's more, the typically lengthy decision-making process at the consulate means that the fiancé's case could be in process for a total time of more than a year before you find out that the K-1 fiancé application was denied due to your low income level.

Taking all of the above factors into account, most low-income couples find that the K-1 is the more difficult and financially risky visa to try for.

One strategy you might want to consider is to choose the marriage-based visa, but still have a big wedding in the United States. This is still legally possible. You have the option of first getting legally married in the immigrant's home country, perhaps in a short civil ceremony, and then having a big wedding ceremony in the U.S., at which time you can celebrate with friends after the immigration process is complete.

Getting Legal Help

For personalized assistance with applying for lawful permanent residence based on marriage to a U.S. citizen, consult an experienced attorney. See How Expensive Is an Immigration Lawyer?.

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