What to Know if You’re Marrying a Non-U.S. Citizen

A bride and groom walking on a gloomy day by a pond with an old structure.

They say that love is complicated—but until you’ve been engaged to someone who is from outside of the United States, you quite frankly don’t know the half of it. There’s no getting around it: marrying someone who is not a United States citizen (when you are) is complicated. There are more hurdles to jump through and more rules to be aware of, but that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible task! Love certainly knows no boundaries—and that includes the boundaries of a country.

While you should speak to a lawyer or an immigration expert to be certain of the exact and specific steps you need to follow for your situation, here is a short overview of what you need to know when you’re marrying a non-U.S. citizen.

There Are a Few Paths to Getting Permanent Residency for Your Fiancé(e)

When you are marrying a non-U.S. citizen who lives outside of the United States, there are essentially two paths to getting permanent residence in the country for your future spouse. You can either file for a fiancé(e) (K-1) visa or get married outside of the country and then file a Form I-130, which is called the Petition for Alien Relative.

If you are marrying a non-U.S. citizen who is currently living in the United States in another legal immigration status (such as a student or a working visa), then they may be able to file what is called an I-485 application (or an Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status) at the same time you file an I-130 relative petition on their behalf.

What Are the Requirements of a Fiancé(e) Visa?

A bride and groom standing in the doorway of an old building with ivy growing around it.

We’ve all seen movies or heard stories about foreign citizens trying to get a “green card” marriage (i.e., marrying a U.S. citizen just to gain citizenship and then divorcing a few years later), but in all reality, it would be very difficult to get this accomplished because of the stringent requirements the government has for a fiancé(e) visa.

Here are the requirements for a fiancé(e), or K-1, visa:

There are two exceptions to this two-year rule, which are (a) that meeting your fiancé(e) in person would mean that you are violating customs of your or your future spouse’s culture or social norms and (b) that the requirement to meet your fiancé(e) in person would result in “extreme hardship” for you. This, of course, can vary widely and is subjective to the opinions of an immigration official.

The fiancé(e) visa is not to be used as a way to get to know someone you have been dating and see whether or not you’d be a good fit together. Once the visa expires in 90 days—it expires. This means that this person would no longer have legal status in the United States.

If Currently Living Outside the U.S., Your Spouse Cannot Wait in the Country

If you didn’t go the fiancé(e) visa route and decide to get married outside of the States you will have to file an I-130 relative petition and wait for it to be approved. In the waiting period, your spouse is not permitted to wait in the country. If your spouse enters the country for any other reason, then this could put their application in jeopardy.

After the I-130 Is Approved, There are Additional Steps

A bride and groom standing in front of a lawn and an historic building.

Once the I-130 application has been approved, there will be additional steps for your spouse to get their official green card.

If your spouse is living outside of the U.S., they will be interviewed at a U.S. consulate in their home country. Your spouse will need to choose an agent to receive information about their immigration case, pay the required fees, submit an official visa immigration application and then send those documents to the National Visa Center.

If your spouse is living inside of the U.S., they will go through the adjustment of status process. This means they will fill out the I-485 form in addition to a few other forms (which all comprise what is called an adjustment of status package). The other forms are filled out to prove that the spouse will be financially supported, that they have been fully vaccinated, and include requests for working in the country and traveling abroad.

The Timeline Varies

Unfortunately, there is no set time on how long the permanent residence process takes. It largely depends on the volume of applicants as well as the particulars of your case.

Immigration laws are constantly changing (especially in times of political uncertainty), so if you ever have any questions about the current laws or your specific circumstances, it’s best to hire an immigration lawyer who can help you break down this often confusing process.

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