The Path to U.S. Residency: Green Cards via Marriage Explained

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What is a Marriage-Based Green Card?

A marriage-based green card grants authorization for the spouse of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident to live and work anywhere in the United States with "permanent resident" status. This status can be maintained indefinitely, or the individual can choose to apply for U.S. citizenship after three years of marriage, provided certain conditions are met.

Key Facts and Figures

As of January 2024, the average processing time for a marriage-based green card application is approximately 9.3 months. The application cost varies depending on the couple's residency: it is $3,005 for couples residing in the U.S., and $1,340 for cases where one or both partners are living abroad. The application process begins with the U.S. resident spouse filing Form I-130 to prove the legitimacy of the marriage.

This form is crucial as it establishes the bona fide nature of the relationship, which is a core requirement for the approval of the green card. Following this, further documentation and interviews are typically required to ensure the marriage is genuine and not solely for immigration purposes. These steps are designed to protect the integrity of the immigration system while facilitating the reunion of families.

Step-by-Step Guide to Obtaining a Marriage-Based Green Card

Securing a green card through marriage involves a detailed, multi-step process designed to verify the legitimacy of the marital relationship and the eligibility for U.S. residency. Here’s how it typically unfolds:

  1. Establish the Marriage Relationship: The process begins with the U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse filing Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. This form serves as proof that the marriage is legitimate and not just arranged for immigration benefits.
  2. Application for Residency: Depending on where the foreign spouse is residing, the next step involves applying for permanent residency. If the spouse is in the U.S., they would file Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. If residing abroad, the spouse needs to apply through Form DS-260, Immigrant Visa Electronic Application.
  3. Green Card Interview: The final step is the green card interview, which both spouses may need to attend. This interview is conducted to further assess the authenticity of the marriage and review the details provided in the application forms.

Additional Considerations

During this process, applicants will need to gather and submit a variety of documents, including proof of the citizen spouse’s status, proof of a legitimate marriage, and financial documents, among others. The typical approval time can vary, but as of January 2024, it averages around 9.3 months. The costs also differ based on the couple's location and specific circumstances: $3,005 for applicants residing within the U.S., and $1,340 for those applying from abroad.

This guide aims to help you navigate through the complexities of applying for a marriage-based green card, ensuring you understand each step and what is required to successfully achieve U.S. residency through marriage.

Key Documents to Prepare for a Marriage Green Card Application

When embarking on the process of obtaining a marriage-based green card, it's crucial to start collecting the necessary documentation early. Below is a preliminary list of documents you will need, with more detailed requirements provided later in this article:

  1. Legal Marriage Certificate: This serves as proof of your marriage.
  2. Proof of Divorce from Previous Marriages (if applicable): This document is necessary to demonstrate that all previous marriages have been legally dissolved.
  3. Proof of Legal Entry into the U.S. (for the beneficiary): This includes any records of the beneficiary's entry into the United States.
  4. Birth Certificate (for the beneficiary): Essential for verifying the beneficiary’s age and nationality.
  5. Proof of U.S. Citizenship or Permanent Residency (for the sponsor): Necessary to establish the sponsor's eligibility to apply on behalf of a spouse.
  6. Evidence of a Genuine Marriage: This can include joint bank statements, photos together, joint lease or mortgage documents, and other materials that prove the marriage is bona fide and not just for the purpose of obtaining a green card.

Timeline for Obtaining a Marriage-Based Green Card

The process for obtaining a green card through marriage typically takes about 9.3 months, though this duration can vary slightly depending on whether the U.S. sponsor is a citizen or a lawful permanent resident. The timeline reflects the comprehensive evaluation involved in verifying the legitimacy of the marriage and the eligibility of the parties involved. This ensures that the process adheres to legal standards and is fair to all applicants. 

Critical Update for Spouses of U.S. Green Card Holders: Visa Bulletin Changes

In September 2023, there was a notable amendment in the Visa Bulletin for the F-2A category, which affects spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 of the U.S. Green Card holders. This revision is expected to cause considerable delays in the processing times for green cards for spouses of green card holders. This change underscores the importance of timely application submissions and may necessitate additional planning and preparation for those affected to accommodate the extended waiting periods.

Can a spouse who has been granted a marriage-based green card apply for U.S. citizenship afterwards?

Typically, lawful permanent residents who are married to U.S. citizens are eligible to initiate the naturalization process by filing Form N-400 after three years of marriage. This eligibility is known as the "three-year rule."

This specific rule is applicable exclusively to those who have obtained their green cards through marriage. It contrasts with the "five-year rule," which is relevant to most other green card holders who must wait five years before applying for citizenship.

To meet the requirements under the three-year rule, the applicant must have continuously resided in the United States for three years prior to filing for citizenship. They must have been physically present in the U.S. for at least 18 months within this period. The applicant is also required to live with their U.S. citizen spouse during these three years and demonstrate good moral character. Furthermore, all standard conditions for naturalization must be fulfilled.

Cost of Obtaining a Marriage-Based Green Card

The government filing fees for a marriage-based green card application are $3,005 for a spouse residing in the United States and $1,340 for a spouse living abroad. It's important to note that these fees do not cover the cost of the required medical examination, which typically ranges from approximately $200 to $500, depending on the location and provider.

Marriage Green Card Process Overview

Step 1: Use Form I-130 to Establish the Marriage Relationship

The initial step in applying for a marriage-based green card is to file Form I-130, known as the “Petition for Alien Relatives,” with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The main goal of Form I-130, supported by necessary documents, is to verify the legitimacy of the marriage, ensuring it is genuine and not solely for immigration purposes. In this process, the spouse who is either a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident acts as the “petitioner” or “sponsor.” The spouse who is applying for the green card is referred to as the “beneficiary.”

Key Components for a Complete Form I-130 Submission
Essential Documents for the I-130 Petition

To ensure a successful I-130 petition for a marriage-based green card, the following items must be included in your submission package:

  1. Government Filing Fee: A fee of $675 is required to process the petition.
  2. Proof of U.S. Citizenship or Permanent Residency: This could be a copy of the sponsoring spouse's birth certificate, naturalization certificate, valid U.S. passport photo page, or green card.
  3. Evidence of a Legally Valid Marriage: Typically, this includes a marriage certificate that lists both spouses' names and the place and date of the marriage.
  4. Evidence the Marriage is Genuine: This might involve shared financial records like joint bank account statements, a joint lease, and photos of the couple together, demonstrating the relationship's authenticity.
  5. Documentation of Previous Marriage Terminations: This is generally required in the form of divorce decrees or death certificates to prove that all previous marriages by either spouse have been legally concluded.

After compiling these elements, the complete I-130 package should be mailed to the designated USCIS address. USCIS will acknowledge receipt of the application, usually within two weeks, by mailing a receipt notice to the sponsoring spouse.

Should additional information or documentation be needed, USCIS may issue a Request for Evidence (RFE) typically within two to three months. Once all required information is received, USCIS aims to make a decision on the I-130 application within 15–17 months, based on their processing times which are updated quarterly. This timeline can vary depending on specific circumstances and the completeness of the application submitted.

Timeline for Processing the I-130 Petition
Duration of the I-130 Petition Process

The average time to process Form I-130 is approximately 11 months, according to real-time tracking data from the Boundless partner, Track My Visa Now. This service provides the most current estimates based on current processing times for I-130 petitions. Once the I-130 form is approved, the next phase involves assessing the eligibility of the spouse applying for a green card.

Step 2: Applying for the Marriage-Based Green Card

The U.S. government uses two distinct procedures to determine if a spouse qualifies for a marriage-based green card, which depends on whether the spouse resides within the United States or abroad. If the spouse is in the U.S., they should file Form I-485; if outside the U.S., they should file Form DS-260.

Procedure for Green Card Applicants Residing in the United States
Filing for Adjustment of Status with Form I-485

For spouses currently residing in the United States and seeking a green card, the next required step is to file Form I-485, the official application for Adjustment of Status. This form, submitted to USCIS, is essential for establishing the spouse's eligibility for permanent residency.

Applicable Categories for Adjustment of Status Through Marriage

Adjustment of status applies to various marriage visa categories, including:

  1. IR6/CR6 for spouses and accompanying IR7/CR7 for children when the petitioner is a U.S. citizen.
  2. F2A category (F26 for spouses; F27 for children) when the petitioner is a lawful permanent resident.
  3. CF1 for spouses and CF2 for children when the U.S. citizen sponsor’s foreign spouse is adjusting status following a K fiancé visa.

This process allows individuals who are already in the U.S. to transition to permanent resident status without the need to return to their home country for visa processing.

Essential Components of an I-485 Application Package

When preparing to file Form I-485, Adjustment of Status, it's crucial to compile a comprehensive package that includes all necessary documents and fees. Here are the key elements required for a successful I-485 filing:

  1. Government Filing Fees: The total cost includes $1,440 for the green card application and an additional $85 for biometric services, summing up to $2,330.
  2. Proof of Nationality: This should include a copy of the birth certificate and the photo page of the passport of the spouse seeking a green card.
  3. Evidence of Lawful Entry: Provide a copy of the I-94 travel record and any previous U.S. visas to document lawful entry into the United States.
  4. Medical Examination Results: The examination must be conducted by a doctor approved by USCIS to ensure the applicant meets health standards for U.S. residency.
  5. Proof of Financial Support: The sponsoring spouse must submit Form I-864, known as the "Affidavit of Support," along with supporting documents such as recent tax returns and pay stubs to demonstrate their ability to support the spouse seeking a green card financially.

These components are critical to establishing both the eligibility and readiness of the applicant for permanent residency in the United States. Ensure that each document is accurately prepared and fully compliant with USCIS requirements to avoid delays in processing.

Green Card Application Process for Spouses Living Abroad

Consular Processing for Spousal Visas

When a spouse resides outside the United States, the green card sponsorship process involves a different set of steps, primarily through the National Visa Center (NVC). Managed by the State Department, the NVC is responsible for compiling the required application package which includes gathering all necessary forms and documents. Once the package is complete, the NVC evaluates it to determine if the spouse is ready for an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad, a procedure known as “consular processing.”

Visa Categories Managed Through Consular Processing


Consular processing caters to several visa types, specifically designed for family reunification:

  1. CR1/IR1 for spouses and CR2/IR2 for accompanying children when the petitioner is a U.S. citizen. These visas are for immediate relatives and provide a path to permanent residency.
  2. F2A category (F21 for spouses; F22 for children) when the petitioner is a lawful permanent resident. This category is designed for the family preference system, allowing legal permanent residents to reunite with their family members.

For spouses of U.S. citizens and green card holders, the National Visa Center (NVC) usually processes application packages within 1 to 2 months. After the processing phase, the NVC forwards the completed application to the appropriate U.S. embassy or consulate in the home country of the spouse seeking a green card. This step is crucial as it transitions the application from U.S. domestic processing to the diplomatic mission abroad, where the final interview and visa issuance will occur. 

Essential Components of an NVC Application Package

When preparing an application package for the National Visa Center (NVC), it is crucial to include several key elements to ensure smooth processing and transition to the U.S. embassy or consulate for the final stages. Here's what you need to include:

  1. Government Filing Fees: Totaling $445, which includes $120 for the Affidavit of Support form and $325 for the State Department processing fee.
  2. Form DS-260: The online application for a green card, which must be completed by the spouse seeking to immigrate.
  3. Proof of Nationality: This should include a copy of the birth certificate and the passport photo page of the spouse seeking a green card.
  4. Police Clearance Certificate: This document should show any previous interactions with law enforcement agencies, providing a background check for the spouse seeking a green card.
  5. Proof of Financial Support: The sponsoring spouse must submit Form I-864, known as the "Affidavit of Support," along with supporting documents such as recent tax returns and pay stubs to demonstrate their financial ability to support the immigrant spouse.

Step 3: Complete the Green Card Interview and Wait for Approval

The concluding stage of the marriage-based green card application is the green card interview. During this interview, the main objective of the officer is to verify the legitimacy of the marriage. The questions asked will often pertain to how the couple met, their shared experiences, daily life, and their future aspirations together. If the officer is satisfied that the marriage is genuine and not merely arranged for immigration benefits, they will grant approval for the green card.

Depending on where the spouse applying for a green card currently resides will determine the interview venue and whether the supporting spouse must attend.

If your spouse lives in the United States

In this scenario, both the spouse applying for the green card and the sponsoring spouse are required to attend an interview together at their nearest USCIS office. Following the approval of the application, the physical green card is usually mailed out and should arrive within 2-3 weeks.

Green Card Interview for Spouses Living Abroad

Interview Location and Attendance for Spouses Abroad

If the spouse seeking a green card is located outside the United States, they will need to attend an interview in the U.S. Embassy or consulate in their home country. It is important to note that the sponsoring spouse is not required to attend this interview.

Following the interview, the spouse will receive a visa stamp in their passport, which authorizes them to travel to the United States. Before the physical green card is issued, an immigrant fee of $235 must be paid online; USCIS advises that this fee be paid before the spouse departs for the United States. Once in the U.S., the green card is generally mailed to the couple's U.S. address within 2-3 weeks of the spouse's entry into the country.

Marriage Green Card Denial Rates

Statistics from FY 2022

In the fiscal year 2022, USCIS processed 873,073 Form I-130 applications, which is the initial step in any family-based green card application, including those for marriage. Out of these, 133,251 applications were denied, resulting in a denial rate of 15%. In the same period, USCIS received 327,184 Form I-485 applications, which are used to adjust the status of foreign spouses or relatives already residing in the U.S., and denied 40,201 of these, marking a denial rate of 12%. It's important to note that these statistics encompass all immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and green card holders, not just spouses.

What Happens After Approval?

The future steps following a green card approval largely depend on the duration of the marriage at the time the green card is granted. This can affect subsequent requirements or conditions placed on the residency status.

Green Card Status Based on Marriage Duration

If Married Less Than Two Years

Should your marriage be less than two years old at the time of approval, the foreign spouse will be granted a CR1, or "conditional" green card, which is valid for two years. To transition from a conditional to a permanent green card, couples must file Form I-751, "Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence," within the 90 days leading up to the conditional green card's expiration. This process involves USCIS re-evaluating the marriage to confirm its authenticity and to ensure the marriage was not solely for gaining immigration benefits.

If Married More Than Two Years

For those who have been married for more than two years, the foreign spouse will receive an IR1, or "immediate relative" green card. This type of green card is considered permanent and is valid for 10 years. Renewing a 10-year green card is generally straightforward and does not typically require couples to re-verify the legitimacy of their marriage.

We hope this guide aids you in navigating the complexities of the green card process successfully. Good luck with your application, and may this guide help you achieve a smooth transition to permanent residency.

Last Updated 05/27/24 02:41:57AM

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