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Green Card Process For Marriage to a US Citizen

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.

The Timeline

  1. Obtain a marriage license (cost varies by state/city between about $10-$115)
  2. Get legally married (cost varies wildly depending on civil vs. wedding)
  3. Get medical exam from approved USCIS doctor (est. $100-$500)
  4. 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)
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. Put together package and send to USCIS Chicago Lockbox
  8. Receive notification of biometrics assessment and foreigner attends nominated facility
  9. Receive Employment Authorization card, along with Advance Parole approval
  10. Receive notification of interview date and couple to attend USCIS interview at nominated location (in some cases a second interview may be required)
  11. 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.

Top Tips

  1. Get your medical exam done as early as possible
  2. Find out the marriage license rules in your state as might be a waiting period between getting license and being allowed to get married
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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
  6. Sign up for email and text notifications at USCIS for your case numbers
  7. Do NOT travel outside the US during this time unless you have received Advanced Parole authorization
  8. 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

Top 5 Misconceptions about US Immigration

It is interesting amongst all the about US Immigration and foreigners trying to navigate the system to live, work and study in the US so many common misconceptions exists about the most basic elements of Immigration. So just thought it would interesting to do a mini piece on these fallacies which are held by foreigners and US residents alike.

1. The vast majority of illegal immigrants come across the Mexican border
This is not even close to true with Pew research suggests that up to 50% of the 11m illegal immigrants in the US currently are visa overstayers usually on the Visa Waiver and B-1/B-2 business and tourist visas. Thus a great portion of illegal immigrants in the US are from countries like the UK, Ireland, Canada, etc. Another argument used to stricter land border control is terrorism which may be sound but often the 9/11 attacks are used as the basis of this when all the hijackers arrived here legally on a visa by plane.

2. Foreigners can just come to the US, apply for jobs and start working and change jobs when they desire
This as far from the reality as can be the case. A foreigner needs to have a sponsor employer to begin working in the US under visas like the H-1B, TN-1E-3, or L-1. Each of these visas have very specific criteria around background experience and qualifications, nature of the role, annual visa quotas, minimum pay level, whether family can work, fees, etc. To get a job usually involves coming to the US and interviewing with many companies but there is no visa that allows that. You can only get a work visa after you have secured employment and coming to the US on tourist visas to search for work is both officially and unofficially frowned upon and can result in border agents preventing you entering the US at all. So you may see a Catch 22 here. Additionally if you want to change employers, this whole process largely needs to happen again and you can’t just start a new job because the work visa is tied to the employer. Additionally every work visa has a limit and some can only be renewed a finite amount of times and even the ones that can be renewed technically indefinitely may be denied.

3. An Immigrant can stay in the US and can apply for or are eligible for a Green Card
There are only 4 main ways to get a Green Card; being family sponsored, being company sponsored, investing a large amount of money in the US or winning the Green Card Lottery. There is an exception for truly exceptional individuals but this is largely used by elite athletes, global prize winners in the fields (i.e. nobel, oscar, etc.) and top 1% folks and it is strict process. Therefore someone who has been working in for US for 6 years on H-1B and may have studied here on an F-1 Visa for Undergrad, Master’s & PhD over up to 10 years and thus has been living and paying taxes in the US for 15 years has no more claim current on a Green Card than a new worker who just arrived.

4. Immigrants as a whole take more from the US welfare system than they contribute and lower US wages
On average across all foreign born adults they pay about $7,800 in taxes and receive about $4,400 from the major US Government programs. If the foreigner is university educated this gap gets a lot wider. 52% of high tech Silicon Valley firms have at least one foreign founder and they include some of the biggest names in the industry from Google, Yahoo, Paypal, eBay, etc. Immigrants start more business per month than US Citizens by close to 100,000 and earn 3x the number of patent awards. Additionally working visa holders don’t have access to things like Unemployment Insurance, Medicare and Social Security even though they taxes into all these programs.
Finally work visa Immigrants have to be paid at least the prevailing wage which is essentially the average wage US workers are being paid for the same job in the same area of the country. This is set by the US Department of Labor and is updated yearly.

5. Marrying a US Citizen guarantees a foreigner the right to stay or live in the US
Actually whether the marriage takes place outside or inside the US, a legal marriage be it straight or gay, is only the beginning of a costly process and arduous process to determine whether the foreigner is allowed to legally reside in the US. This includes multiple forms, detailed background and fingerprint checks, thousands of dollars in fees, financial support documents showing significant assets and income, reference affidavits and proof documents including joint assets/photos/correspondence/leases, at least one interview and several more steps and this takes places over a period of many months or longer depending on the case. Denial rates