If you are marrying a US citizen as a foreigner one of the major potential benefits is being able to get permanent residency and a Green Card. However this process is not automatic, nor is it quick and it is certainly not cheap.
We will outline the process, timeline, documents, fees, interview, etc. for the foreigner and the US citizen spouse assuming that the foreigner is currently legally in the US as a tourist or another non-immigrant visa. It is certainly possible to do this without a lawyer, particularly if your case is completely normal with no anomalies in the background of the foreigner or the US citizen and no questions about the bona fide nature of the marriage. This can save you many thousands of dollars in legal fees.
If you are illegally in the US as a foreigner, essentially the process is the same in theory however you may face additional hurdles, background checks, financial audits and interview steps to end up being successful. Remember this is different to the K-1 visa and K-3 visa which are meant for foreigners who are fiancees and wives of US citizens who are currently outside the US and get those visas from a US Consulate. Also since the Supreme Court ruling last Summer, legally married gay couples also are eligible for this process.
Ultimately the benefit to obtaining a Green Card as a foreigner is to freely travel in and out of the US without restriction, freely move from employer to employer and/or hold multiple jobs in any capacity, choose not to work and not have to be tied to any employer, have access to some social service benefits and generally enjoy most of the benefits of a US citizen outside of voting and serving in some Government roles.
- Obtain a marriage license (cost varies by state/city between about $10-$115)
- Get legally married (cost varies wildly depending on civil vs. wedding)
- Get medical exam from approved USCIS doctor (est. $100-$500)
- Collate and fill official documents including; I-130, G-325a, I-485, I-131 (optional), I-765 (optional), I-693, I-864, I-485a (optional), I-601 (optional), G-1145 (optional)
- Collate proof and required documents including; Cover Letter, I-94, Passport Photos, Marriage License, Passport ID Page copy for both, Passport Visa Page copies, Copies of DS-2019 if applicable, Official IRS Tax Return Summaries for both, Bank Statements, Travel Tickets, Photos, Lease Copies, Payslip copies for both, Any series of documents showing period of cohabitation (i.e. monthly bank statements), Birth Certificate copies for both, Affidavit Letters copies signed by 3rd party people proving marriage validity, Any other documents and history showing joint life
- Write checks for I-130 ($420) and I-485 ($1,070 includes $85 biometric fee). If forms I-131 for advanced parole for travel and I-765 for employment authorization are filed at same time as I-485 no additional fees are required
- Put together package and send to USCIS Chicago Lockbox
- Receive notification of biometrics assessment and foreigner attends nominated facility
- Receive Employment Authorization card, along with Advance Parole approval
- Receive notification of interview date and couple to attend USCIS interview at nominated location (in some cases a second interview may be required)
- Received approval notification and Green Card in the mail
(A great guide for putting together your packages can be found here and a step by step help for filling out all the different forms is here. The USCIS official guides themselves on each form’s page are pretty good as well)
Now all going well that process can take 3-4 months from beginning to end if you are diligent at each point of the process and your case presents no red flags or missing information. However this whole process can take many years as well and of course they could be denials at any point in the process for any reason. Some may be able to overcome like paying back taxes and applicable penalties owed to the IRS but others like the marriage not deemed to be legitimate may not be able to reversed.
Often the process is determined by the caseload of USCIS workers at the time or the individual assessing your case or conducting your interviews at each stage. If in doubt give more proof documents as you would for any other non-immigrant visa US Consulate interview. Sometimes it can be a month or two between updates at each stage but you can receive updates online at USCIS at sign up free for text message notifications as well.
- Get your medical exam done as early as possible
- Find out the marriage license rules in your state as might be a waiting period between getting license and being allowed to get married
- Include as many proof documents as possible including pictures of the two of you together (ideally in different cities and times), pictures with friends and family, boarding passes, every financial document, postcards, IRS summaries going back 5yrs, etc.
- In your interview be natural and answer questions about your life in a future context and not as if you have memorized for a test. It’s ok to laugh and talk about your life together, engagement, honeymoon and plans for future!
- Often you might be able to go do your biometrics exam before the nominated date on your sheet. Search google for experiences in your city and the best times to go for less volume
- Sign up for email and text notifications at USCIS for your case numbers
- Do NOT travel outside the US during this time unless you have received Advanced Parole authorization
- Make copies of your entire package before sending in case anything goes missing and you can bring this just in case to your USCIS interview