Marriage-Based Green Cards, Explained

Congratulations on your marriage!  If you are a U.S. citizen or a green card holder (lawful permanent resident) and your spouse is a foreign national, the next big thing on your mind may be obtaining a green card for your spouse. 

Generally speaking, obtaining a green card for a foreign spouse is a three-step process.  Here’s an overview of what you need to know...

Step 1:  Establishing the Marriage Relationship (Form I-130)

The first step in the marriage-based green card process is to submit Form I-130 (technically called the “Petition for Alien Relative”) to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  

The main purpose of this form is to establish that a valid marriage exists. 

The spouse filing the I-130 is called the “petitioner” or “sponsor.”  This is the spouse who is the U.S. citizen or green card holder.  The spouse seeking a green card is called the “beneficiary.”

Critical elements of an I-130 filing package include:

  • Government filing fee of $535
  • Proof that the petitioner is a U.S. citizen (copy of birth certificate, naturalization certificate, or valid U.S. passport) or a U.S. lawful permanent resident (copy of green card)
  • Proof that a legally valid marriage exists (for example, a marriage certificate showing the names of both spouses, the place of marriage, and the date of marriage)
  • Proof that the marriage is not fraudulent (for example, a joint lease, joint bank account statements, and pictures together)
  • Proof that any previous marriages for both spouses have been terminated (typically, a divorce document)

Once your I-130 filing package is complete, you will mail it to the appropriate USCIS address.  You will then get an official receipt notice in the mail from USCIS, typically within two weeks.  If USCIS needs more information or documents to process your filing package, they will send you a “Request for Evidence” (RFE) within 2-3 months.  Once USCIS has everything they need, they will typically make a decision on your I-130 petition within 6-8 months. 

After you receive notice that your I-130 petition is approved, the next step depends on whether the spouse seeking a green card lives in the U.S. or abroad...
 

Step 2:  Establishing the Spouse’s Eligibility for a Green Card  

There are two different processes for the U.S. government to determine whether the spouse seeking a green card is eligible or not.

Spouse living abroad

If the spouse seeking a green card is living abroad, the next step is to file an application package with the National Visa Center (NVC), which is run by the U.S. State Department. The NVC gathers the necessary forms and documents and decides whether the spouse is ready for an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad (called “consular processing”). The main elements of an NVC filing package include:

  • Government filing fee of $445
  • Form DS-260 (green card application filed online)
  • Proof of the spouse’s nationality (copy of the birth certificate and passport photo page)
  • Copy of a police certificate for the spouse (showing past legal infractions, if any)
  • Proof of the sponsoring spouse’s ability to financially support the spouse seeking a green card (Form I-864, or “Affidavit of Support,” plus evidence such as tax returns and pay stubs)

The NVC typically processes an application package within 3-5 months, and then forwards it to a U.S. embassy or consulate in the spouse’s country of residence.


 

 

Spouse living in the United States.

If the spouse seeking a green card is present in the United States, the next step is to file Form I-485 (technically called the application for “Adjustment of Status”).  The I-485 application is filed with USCIS and its primary purpose is to establish that the spouse is eligible for a green card. Critical elements of an I-485 filing package include:

  • Government filing fee of $1,225
  • Proof of the spouse’s nationality (copy of birth certificate and passport)
  • Proof of the spouse’s lawful entry to the United States (copy of I-94 travel record and prior U.S. visa)
  • Medical examination performed by a USCIS-approved doctor
  • Proof of the sponsoring spouse’s ability to financially support the spouse seeking a green card (Form I-864, or “Affidavit of Support,” plus evidence such as tax returns and pay stubs) 

For spouses of U.S. citizens, this I-485 filing package can often be combined with the I-130 filing package described in Step 1 above (called a “concurrent filing”).  USCIS typically processes this concurrent filing within 8-10 months. 

For spouses of U.S. lawful permanent residents, however, the I-485 filing package cannot be submitted until the U.S. State Department determines that a green card is available given various annual caps.  The wait time is currently about a year and a half, but this can vary by a few months depending on the spouse’s home country.  Once the I-485 filing package is then submitted, USCIS typically processes it within 8-10 months.

Step 3:  Interview and Approval

The final step in the marriage-based green card process is the interview.  The interviewing officer’s primary goal is to assess the authenticity of the marriage. Questions can focus on the history of the couple’s relationship, their daily activities as a married couple, and their future plans as a couple  If the interviewing officer is sufficiently convinced that the marriage is not fraudulent, he/she will approve the spouse for a green card. 

Spouse living abroad

A spouse living abroad will attend an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate in their country.  The sponsoring spouse does not attend this interview. 

A spouse living abroad will then receive a visa stamp in his or her passport, allowing for travel to the United States. The USCIS Immigrant Fee ($220) will need to be paid online before a physical green card can be issued. Typically 2-3 weeks after the spouse's arrival, the green card is mailed to the couple’s U.S. address. 

Spouse living in the United States

A spouse present in the United States will attend an interview—together with his or her sponsoring spouse—at their local USCIS office.

A spouse already in the United States will typically receive their physical green card within 2-3 weeks of case approval.

What happens next depends on the length of the marriage so far... 
If the couple has been married for less than two years at the time of green card approval, then the spouse will receive a CR1 green card (or “conditional green card”).  Conditional green cards are valid for only two years.  Couples must jointly file another petition before the expiration of this two-year period in order to “remove the conditions” and obtain a permanent green card.  (This is the Form I-751, technically called a “Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence.”)  At this stage, USCIS takes another look at the couple’s marriage to make sure that the marriage is not fraudulent, and that the couple did not marry only for immigration purposes.
 
If the couple has been married for more than two years at the time of green card approval, then the spouse will receive an IR1 green card (or “immediate relative green card”)—a permanent green card that is valid for 10 years.  In most cases, renewing this 10-year green card is a simple process, and does not require the couple to prove the authenticity of their marriage again.

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Boundless provides you with an easy-to-use, step-by-step online tool so you can complete your green card application process with confidence.

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