Different countries offer different pathways to citizenship. For the US, citizenship via marriage to a US citizen is especially common. Marrying a US citizen, however, does not guarantee you citizenship. The path and timelines to citizenship via marriage can also take a long time. Getting married to a US citizen simply helps in obtaining a green card and is the first step of your journey to full citizenship.
Obtaining a Green Card is the First Step in Obtaining Citizenship via Marriage
Even obtaining permanent residency is not the end of the story. You still have to fulfill additional criteria before you can be eligible to apply for naturalization. This rule is governed by Section 319(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
There are numerous requirements that you have to meet before you can file form N-400 (Application for Naturalization). Here we examine the most common scenarios that couples find themselves in. We will then explain the overall process of obtaining a green card.
Scenario A: Consular Processing for Non-Immigrant Living Abroad
The first step here is to file the I-130, the Petition for Alien Relative, which can be filed with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The I-130 is a visa category that is for immediate family members. The primary purpose of this petition is to establish the existence of a valid marriage. You have to file your application with the USCIS office with jurisdiction in your area of residence.
You also need to file a supplemental information form called the I-130A. The US citizen sponsor has to take care of this on behalf of their spouse (the “beneficiary”).
This petition kicks off a process that can last 7-10 months. This timeline starts once the USCIS has everything it needs. If they require more information or documents to finish processing, they will send you a “Request for Evidence” (RFE).
If you receive an RFE, don’t panic. You’ve essentially been given a chance to save your case from rejection or denial. The first thing you should do is bring the RFE to your attorney. He or she will be able to help you decide on the appropriate action. The USCIS will give you a window of time in which to respond, after which your petition will likely be denied. You can either give a full response with all of the evidence requested, a partial response with some of the evidence requested, or you can withdraw your petition.
The Green Card Application
The beneficiary has to undergo “Consular Processing.” This is a pathway to obtaining a green card that is available for spouses of US citizens living abroad. The other option would be Adjustment of Status, but this is only available to those already living in the US through a nonimmigrant visa.
The USCIS office will transfer the case to the National Visa Center (NVC). The NVC gathers the necessary forms and documents. They then decide whether the spouse is ready for an interview at a US embassy or consulate abroad. For spouses of US citizens, this process starts right after handover from USCIS. This stage can take 3-5 months to complete.
Your spouse can file an immigrant visa application (known as the DS-260) after paying processing fees. An Affidavit of Support (Form I-864) may also be required. You have to satisfy the NVC that all documents and information are in order. Provide missing information if requested to do so.
The NVC will likely take 1-2 months to make a decision. The completed application package is then transferred to the relevant US consulate or embassy. This usually takes 3-5 months.
Interview and Approval
Take a deep breath: you are almost there. Before your spouse can travel to the United States, they will have to go through the following:
- They have to undergo a medical exam with a doctor approved by the Department of State. The US consulate/embassy handling your case will provide a list of eligible doctors.
- They have to provide an approved address before the interview. This will ensure timely delivery of your passport once an approved visa stamp is obtained.
- He or she may have to undergo fingerprinting (otherwise known as a biometrics appointment). This is more of an administrative procedure to conduct background and security checks. Your local consulate/embassy will have specific instructions for your spouse to follow.
Once the above steps have been completed, your spouse is required to attend a green card interview. This interview takes place at the embassy/consulate at the time and date specified in the interview notice.
You have to convince the consular official handling your case that your marriage is not fraudulent. Only then will he/she give your spouse approval. This can even be on the spot, depending on unique case-by-case situations. It also depends on the level of comfort a consular officer has in your application.
The most important thing about the interview is to be both prepared and honest. Take a look at our list of common marriage-based green card questions to prepare. Answering “I don’t know” to a question is far better than lying, since being exposed for fraud can result in you being temporarily or even permanently barred from entering the US.
Arriving in the US
Once your spouse has received a visa stamp, they will need to pay a USCIS immigrant fee. The fee covers the postage costs of sending the physical green card to the couple’s US address.
To couples married less than two years, a conditional green card is issued. The relevant timeline is decided at the time of the card’s issuance. This conditional card expires in two years. You will need to file for form I-751 90 days before the expiration date of the conditional green card. This is the “Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence.”
The issued green card will be an “immediate relative green card” if you have been married for at least two years. This is a regular 10 year Green Card with a relatively easy renewal process.
Scenario B: Consular Processing for Non-Immigrant Spouse Living in the US
This is a relatively less-intensive and shorter process compared to scenario A.
Spouses both physically present in the US can combine the two vital parts of the green card journey. This is called “concurrent filing”. This includes filing your initial I-130 petition along with Form I-485. This form is the “Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.”
This application package must include:
- I-130, Petition for Alien Relative
- I-130A, Supplemental Information Form
- I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status (Green Card Application)
- I-864, Affidavit of Support (Financial Support Form)
- Form I-693, Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record
Your USCIS-approved doctor will give you Form I-693 in a sealed envelope after your medical exam. Include this in your application package to the USCIS office responsible for your jurisdiction.
Typically 1 month after filing your application, your spouse will receive a notice for a biometrics appointment. This will often be scheduled at the most convenient USCIS office to your location. As with the case of spouses living abroad, this is an administrative step for background and security checks.
Just like in Scenario A, if the USCIS needs more information, they will likely send you a “Request for Evidence” (RFE).
Interview and Approval
An interview notice will communicate the date, time, and location of the green card interview. The USCIS will send this once it completes all procedural formalities. The total application processing time can be anywhere between 10-13 months for the entire process.
Just as with Scenario A, the local USCIS office will schedule an interview for your spouse. However, unlike in Scenario A, the sponsoring US citizen must attend as well. If the USCIS official is convinced the marriage is genuine, he or she will probably approve your spouse’s green card application.
Green cards issued at this stage can also be conditional or immediate, as with Scenario A.
Your Spouse Has a Green Card. What’s Next?
Your spouse will need to file form N-400, Application for Naturalization, in order to obtain citizenship. Below are the general eligibility requirements under section 319(a) of the INA. An applicant must:
- Be 18 or older
- Be a permanent resident (green card holder) for at least 3 years immediately preceding the date of filing Form N-400, Application for Naturalization.
- Been living in marital union with the US citizen spouse who has been a US citizen during all of such period. This includes the 3 years immediately preceding the date of filing the application. It also includes the time up until examination on the application.
- Have lived within the state (or USCIS district with jurisdiction over the applicant’s place of residence) for at least 3 months prior to the date of filing the application.
- Maintained continuous residence in the United States as a lawful permanent resident for at least 3 years. This time must be immediately preceding the date of filing the application.
- Reside continuously within the United States from the date of application for naturalization until the time of naturalization.
- Be physically present in the United States for at least 18 months out of the 3 years immediately preceding the date of filing the application.
- Be able to read, write, and speak English and have knowledge and an understanding of US history and government (also known as civics).
- Have good moral character and attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States.
For more information, see the USCIS Policy Manual Citizenship and Naturalization Guidance. And remember: there is nothing preventing you from submitting a sound application. Do your due diligence, learn about common pitfalls and issues, and be sure to follow the instructions above before submitting your application for citizenship.
How Our Immigration Attorneys Can Help
Going through the process from alien to green card holder to US citizen is a long and complicated road filled with opportunities to make simple mistakes that can cost you money, effort, and valuable time with your spouse. For the expert, these pitfalls can be easily avoided. That’s why the best way to ensure your success is to hire an immigration attorney.
Here at Immi-USA, our team of green card and citizenship attorneys have helped countless immigrants navigate the process of becoming citizens. We will help you gather evidence, file petitions, respond to RFEs, fight denials, and even coach you through your interview and citizenship test.
To get in touch with one of our attorneys, you can fill out our contact form and schedule your consultation with our office today!