As a foreign national, there are two steps to achieving U.S. citizenship through marriage. You must first become a lawful permanent resident, otherwise known as a green card holder. Once that is achieved, you can then apply for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen. If you are already in the United States as a green card holder, then you’re halfway there. This article gives you a complete guide on how to obtain United States citizenship as the spouse of a U.S. citizen.
Marriage to a U.S. Citizen: The Pathway to Citizenship
Different countries offer different pathways to citizenship. For the U.S., citizenship via marriage to a U.S. citizen is especially common. While there are other means of gaining U.S. citizenship such as through an employment-based green card, being the spouse of a U.S. citizen can offer the smoothest and fastest route. Marrying a U.S. citizen, however, does not guarantee you will be granted citizenship. The path and timelines to citizenship via marriage also require various processes. Getting married to a U.S. citizen simply helps in obtaining a green card and is the first step of your journey to full citizenship.
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.
Obtaining a Green Card: The First Step Towards U.S. Citizenship Through Marriage
There are two possible ways through which a foreign spouse to a U.S. citizen can obtain a green card. This will depend on whether the foreign spouse is in the United States or in another country. In either case, the U.S. citizen spouse will be the one to initiate the process as the petitioner, while the beneficiary (the foreign spouse) will play his or her part in turn. These location-dependent scenarios are explained below:
Scenario A: Consular Processing for a U.S. Spouse Living Abroad
The first step here is to file the I-130, the Petition for Alien Relative, which will be filed with the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 should endeavor to give a full and well-detailed response with all of the evidence requested.
The Green Card Application
Once the I-130 petition has been approved, the beneficiary has to undergo “Consular Processing.” This is a pathway to obtaining a green card that is available for spouses of U.S. citizens living abroad. The other option would be Adjustment of Status, but this is only available to those already living in the U.S. 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 U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. For spouses of U.S. citizens, this process starts right after handover from USCIS. This stage can take 3-5 months to complete.
The green card application beneficiary (the foreign 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.
The NVC will likely take 1-2 months to make a decision. The completed application package is then transferred to the relevant U.S. consulate or embassy. This usually takes 3-5 months.
Consular Processing Appointments
Take a deep breath: you are almost there. Before a foreign spouse can travel to the United States, he or she will have to go through the following:
- Undergo a medical exam with a doctor approved by the Department of State. The U.S. consulate/embassy handling your case will provide a list of eligible doctors.
- Provide an approved address before the interview. This will ensure the timely delivery of your passport once an approved visa stamp is obtained.
- 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 give you the specific instructions to follow.
Marriage-Based Green Card Interview and Approval
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. You will need to convince the consular officer of the authenticity of your marriage in order to obtain green card application 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.
Green card denials and varying processing timelines can also come into play, however. It may help to learn about each possible outcome before your interview.
Arriving in the U.S.
Once the foreign 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 U.S. 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: Adjustment of Status for a U.S. Citizen Spouse Living in the US
This is a relatively less-intensive and shorter process compared to scenario A. The green card applicant spouse can choose to go through adjustment of status process only if he or she is already in the U.S. under a nonimmigrant status (such as a K-1 or K-2 visa). This means his or her existing nonimmigrant status will be adjusted to an immigrant or green card status. The good news is that, by virtue of being in the U.S., the applicant 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)
- I-693 Form, Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record
- I-765 Form, Application for Employment Authorization Document (optional)
- I-131 Form, Application for Travel Document (optional)
Because each application is treated on a case-by-case basis, your adjustment of status case may also require supporting evidence in order to establish your eligibility for a green card. You should read and follow the USCIS instructions carefully when filing your I-485. Additionally. you should work with an experienced marriage-based green card immigration lawyer for guidance.
Attend Adjustment of Status Appointments
After submitting your green card adjustment of status petition, the USCIS will follow it up by sending you notifications for your appointments which include a medical examination, biometrics screening, and a one-on-one interview.
After attending the medical examination, 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, one month after filing your application, you 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 a marriage-based green card interview for your spouse. However, unlike in Scenario A, the sponsoring U.S. 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?
Now that you have become a green card holder, the next step is to apply for naturalization, which means citizenship by a means other than birth. Every citizenship applicant will need to file N-400 Form, Application for Naturalization, in order to become a U.S. citizen. 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 three years immediately preceding the date of filing Form N-400, Application for Naturalization.
- Been living in marital union with the U.S. citizen spouse who has been a U.S. citizen during all of such period. This includes the three 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 three 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 the knowledge and an understanding of U.S. history and government (also known as civics).
- Have good moral character and attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States.
When Can I Apply for Citizenship After Getting My Green Card
As the spouse of a U.S. citizen, you will need to remain in your lawful permanent resident status for at least three years before you can apply for citizenship. This is one of the advantages of being married to a U.S. citizen compared to the green card sponsoring spouse category, which requires at least five years of waiting before being eligible for citizenship.
Naturalization Through Marriage Application Steps
Citizenship by naturalization (either through marriage or other means) is a process in which a non-U.S. citizen chooses to become an American citizen. While the United States will grant you all the benefits and rights given to all its citizens, you must also be ready to fulfill your duties as a citizen. Becoming a U.S. citizen means you:
- owe your allegiance to the United States
- are entitled to its protection
- should always exercise your rights and responsibilities
If you fulfill all the eligibility requirements listed and agree to those rights and responsibilities above, you can begin your journey to becoming a U.S. citizen by doing the following:
File the N-400 Form
The U.S. citizenship application process contains what the USCIS calls 10 Steps to Naturalization. The first two steps concern eligibility criteria, which you have already fulfilled, having completed your marriage-based green card and having been under that status for at least three years. Therefore, you can move onto the next stage by preparing your N-400 form, which is also known as Application for Naturalization.
The N-400 form contains different items and requires several supporting documents. You should carefully read and follow the instructions on this USCIS webpage to have a clearer understanding of how to complete the application form successfully. You must submit your N-400 form with the following:
- A copy of your green card
- A copy of your marriage certificate
- Evidence of your spouse’s employment in a foreign country (if applicable)
- Two passport-style photographs
- Payment receipt of the filing fees
The total filing cost for the naturalization application is $725, which covers the N-400 fee of $640 and a biometrics fee of $85 (if applicable). The naturalization filing fee is non-refundable regardless of the outcome of the application. However, you might be able to get a fee waiver if you meet certain conditions.
Attend the Biometrics Appointment, If Applicable
If your case requires a biometrics appointment, the USCIS will send you a notice for it after submitting your N-400 form. The notice will include the appointment time, date, and venue. make sure that you arrive there as scheduled to have your biometrics taken.
Prepare for the Naturalization Test
The naturalization application process involves tests and questions which every applicant is required to pass before he or she can be deemed eligible for U.S. citizenship.
You need to prepare well for these tests. To help applicants have a successful application, the USCIS has provided various online resources which include 100 Civics Questions and Answers with MP3 Audio, Study Guides for the Naturalization Test, and the Naturalization Self-Test. Reading through those resources will give you a good idea of what to expect at your naturalization interview.
Attend the Naturalization Interview
If you have completed all the preliminary processes, the USCIS will schedule you for an interview. You must honor the appointment by being at the location at the scheduled time with your appointment notice.
Receive a Decision from the USCIS
You should expect one of these three possible outcomes from the USCIS after the interview and test:
- Granted: If the evidence you provided in your record established that you are eligible for citizenship, the USCIS will most likely approve your N-400 application.
- Continued: If the USCIS needs you to provide additional documentation or evidence, you failed to provide correct documents, or you failed English and or/civics tests the first time, you may receive a notice indicating that your case will be continued.
- Denied: You may receive a denial notice if the evidence in your record established that you are not eligible for naturalization.
Receive the Oath of Allegiance Notice
If your N-400 form application is approved, you may be able to take part in a naturalization ceremony on the same date you have your interview. If the ceremony is unavailable that day, you will be sent a notification for the date and venue where you will partake in the naturalization ceremony and take the Oath of Allegiance.
Take the Oath of Allegiance
You are not a United States citizen until you have taken the Oath of Allegiance at the naturalization ceremony. Therefore, you must attend the ceremony and take the oath.
Understanding U.S. Citizenship
Congratulations on your successful U.S. naturalization application! Now that you are a citizen, you will need to have a full understanding of your rights and responsibilities. Here is a list of what every American citizen, either by birth or by choice, should honor, respect, and exercise.
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.