Start to Finish: Green Cards for Spouses of U.S. Citizens Living Abroad

If you are a U.S. citizen married to a foreign national who is living abroad, this article is for both of you—we’ll go step by step through the process of obtaining a marriage-based green card.

(If your circumstances are different, check out this overview of the marriage-based green card process, explained in plain language.)

The “Consular Filing” Process

Estimated time: 9-12 months to obtain green card
Estimated cost: $1,200

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 green card holder. The spouse seeking a green card is called the “beneficiary.”

Critical elements of an I-130 filing package include:

  • Marriage relationship form (I-130): $535
  • Supplemental information form (I-130A): $0
  • Proof that the sponsoring spouse is a U.S. permanent resident (copy of green card)
  • Proof of the sponsoring spouse’s nationality (copy of birth certificate and passport)
  • Proof that a legally valid marriage exists (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 or death certificate for the previous spouse)
  • Proof of name changes for both spouses, if any (typically, a name change order)
  • Proof of the beneficiary spouse’s nationality (copy of birth certificate and passport)

The total government filing fees for this step are $535.

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 7-9 months. 


Step 2: Green Card Pre-Processing at the National Visa Center (NVC)