Congratulations on your engagement! If you’re visiting this page, it probably means that either you or your partner isn’t a U.S. citizen, but you are planning on building your life as a married couple in the United States. What’s the best path for you and your fiancé or fiancée? (For simplicity, below we’ll use “fiancé” to mean either a male or female engaged partner.)
Note: If you’re already married, or if your future spouse already lives in the United States, the fiancé visa isn’t available. Refer to our explanation of marriage-based green cards for a detailed discussion of what happens next!
How is a Fiancé Visa Different from a Marriage-Based Green Card?
Fiancés of U.S. citizens have two primary options for immigrating to the United States:
- The future spouse could come to the U.S. on a fiancé visa (the “K-1 visa”), which means that the marriage then happens in the United States.
- Alternatively, you could first get married outside the United States, and the U.S. citizen spouse could sponsor the foreign spouse for a green card (the “I-130 petition,” sometimes also referred to as the “IR1 / CR1 process”).
For engaged couples, there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these two options. The right choice for your budding family will depend on factors such as where you want to hold your wedding, how quickly the foreign husband or wife wants to come to the United States, and how cost-conscious you are. Read on for a clear comparison of the two processes.
The K-1 fiancé visa is available to fiancés of U.S. citizens who are living outside of the United States and intend to get married within 90 days of arriving in the United States. The K-1 fiancé visa requirements include:
- Both you and your fiancé must be single and eligible to be married under U.S. law. (This means that same-sex couples are eligible for the K-1 fiancé visa, whether or not the foreign spouse’s home country recognizes same-sex marriages.)
- If you or your fiancé have been married previously, you’ll need to provide divorce or death certificates for any previous spouse.
- The sponsoring partner must be a U.S. citizen. U.S. green card holders are not eligible to apply for fiancé visas.
- You and your fiancé must prove that your relationship is authentic—through photos, correspondence, and written statements from people who know you as a couple.
- You must have concrete wedding plans in the United States. You can show this through invitations, venue reservations, or other proof that the wedding is not a vague dream but a specific, planned event.
- You must have met in person at least once in the past two years. This requirement can be waived for religious practices or in cases of extreme hardship to the U.S. citizen partner.
- The U.S. citizen partner must meet certain income requirements, earning at least 100% of the federal poverty guidelines when applying for the fiancé visa, and earning 125% of these guidelines when the foreign partner applies for his or her green card.
Marriage-Based Green Card
The marriage-based green card process (initiated with an I-130 petition) is open to spouses of U.S. citizens and U.S. green card holders (permanent residents). Requirements include:
- You and your spouse must have a legally valid marriage, typically proven with a marriage certificate showing the names of both spouses, the place of marriage, and the date of marriage. (The marriages of same-sex couples and heterosexual couples are equally valid under U.S. law.)
- You must prove that any previous marriages for both spouses have been terminated (typically with a divorce or death certificate).
- You and your spouse must prove that your marriage is not fraudulent, using evidence like a joint lease, joint bank account statements, and pictures together.
- The U.S. citizen spouse must earn at least 125% of the federal poverty guidelines.
Most engaged couples could potentially meet the requirements for either the K-1 fiancé visa or the marriage-based green card, and may choose between these paths based on differences in the timeline and cost.
Estimated time: 13 months to obtain green card
Estimated cost: $2,025
If you decide to apply for a K-1 fiancé visa, here’s what the process and timeline will look like:
- The U.S. citizen partner completes the appropriate government form (a “I-129F petition”), and mails it to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), along with the $535 filing fee.
- Once the petition is approved, the National Visa Center (NVC), which is run by the U.S. State Department, assigns a case number and forwards your paperwork to the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to where the foreign fiancé lives.
- The foreign fiancé completes a visa application (Form DS-160), submits it online (or according to the local consulate’s instructions), and pays the $265 visa fee.
- The foreign fiancé goes to an interview at the U.S. embassy or consulate, and presents any requested documents during the interview.
- The foreign fiancé gets a visa stamp in his or her passport and uses it to enter the United States within six months.
This part of the process generally takes approximately 7 months. But you’re not done yet! Once the foreign fiancé has entered the United States, here are the next steps to keep in mind:
- The couple gets married within 90 days and files a green card application (Form I-485, technically called an “Adjustment of Status” application), including the $1,140 filing fee and the $85 biometrics fee for fingerprinting.
- If the foreign partner intends to seek employment or travel outside of the United States while the green card application is being processed, he or she must file for a work permit (“employment authorization document”) and a travel permit (“advance parole”).
This second part of the process takes approximately 6 months, so the total time from start to green card is around 13 months. The total cost is $2,025, not including any necessary translations, travel to and from the consulate, medical exams, or other minor costs.
Marriage-Based Green Card
Estimated time: 9-15 months to obtain green card
Estimated cost: $1,200
If you and your fiancé decide to get married outside of the United States and apply for a marriage-based green card instead of a fiancé visa, you can expect a different process and timeline:
- The first step is to get married! (That’s the fun part.)
- The U.S. citizen spouse submits the marriage relationship form (I-130 petition) and other required materials to USCIS, along with the $535 filing fee.
- Once the petition is approved, the National Visa Center (NVC) assigns you a case number and forwards your paperwork to the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to where the foreign spouse lives.
- You file a green card application package with the NVC, including an online form (DS-260) and the $445 filing fee.
- The foreign spouse attends an interview at the U.S. embassy or consulate, and presents any requested documents during the interview.
- If the case is approved, the foreign spouse receives a visa stamp in his or her passport that allows for travel to the United States. At this point you’ll need to pay the $220 Immigrant Fee to USCIS online, ideally after you’ve picked up your visa but before you depart for the United States.
- The foreign spouse becomes a U.S. permanent resident as soon as he or she enters the United States. Typically 2-3 weeks later, the physical green card is mailed to the couple’s U.S. address.
On average, it takes around 9-15 months to complete this marriage-based green card process, and the total cost is $1,200, not including translations, travel to and from the consulate, medical exams, or other minor costs.
Which Path Should I Choose?
Generally speaking, the K-1 fiancé visa makes more sense for engaged couples if one or more of the following is true:
- You want to be together in the United States as soon as possible—typically 7 months for a fiancé instead of 9-15 months for a spouse.
- You want to hold your wedding in the United States.
- There is an impediment to getting married abroad (for example, a same-sex couple where one fiancé lives in a country that does not recognize same-sex marriages).
On the other hand, the marriage-based green card process generally makes more sense for engaged couples if:
- You are cost-conscious ($1,200 in fees for a spouse instead of $2,025 in fees for a fiancé).
- You want the partner seeking a green card to immediately become a permanent resident when he or she arrives in the United States.
- You plan to hold your wedding outside of the United States.
- You don’t mind waiting longer for your partner to arrive in the United States—typically 9-15 months instead of 7 months. (Your spouse can make a temporary visit sooner, but there are special travel considerations to keep in mind.)
Both processes result in the foreign partner actually getting the green card about 13 months after the application process starts. In both cases, if you have been married for less than two years at the time the green card is approved, you will need to file another form (the I-751 petition) to “remove the conditions” and obtain a permanent green card.