Foreign spouses of U.S. lawful permanent residents can only apply for their marriage green card through consular processing. This means that they will have to submit their green card application through the U.S. embassy or U.S. consulate in their home country to become lawful permanent residents themselves. This article explains the step-by-step consular processing timeline for getting your green card as the spouse of a U.S. green cardholder.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Written May 25, 2022
Step 1: Your Spouse Files Form I-130
According to U.S. immigration law, U.S. citizens or permanent residents can petition for their family members and immediate relatives to receive a green card. Your first step in applying for a marriage green card is to have your spouse file Form I-130: Petition for Alien Relative with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
This form primarily establishes your eligibility for a green card because you are the spouse of a U.S. permanent resident. Your spouse who has permanent resident status is the “sponsor” or “petitioner.” You, the foreign national, are the “applicant” or “beneficiary.”
After you pay the $535 filing fee and mail your Form I-130 petition to USCIS, you will receive a receipt notice by mail. You should receive this within two weeks. If USCIS needs more supporting documents, they will send you a Request for Evidence (RFE) within two or three months. Usually, the application processing time for the I-130 petition will be 7 to 10 months.
Step 2: Wait for a Visa Number
If USCIS denies your Form I-130, they will send you a notice that explains why they denied your immigration petition and whether you can appeal the decision. If USCIS approves your Form I-130, they will send your application to the National Visa Center (NVC). You should also receive an approval notice for your I-130 as Form I-797: Notice of Action.
You will now file your green card application with the NVC. However, you cannot submit this application until an immigrant visa number becomes available. The U.S. Department of State sets annual limits on the number of visa petitions they will receive and process. You will have to wait until a visa is available for the date of your petition or your priority date. The State Department releases a monthly visa bulletin that shares if you are eligible to file your visa packet.
This processing time usually takes around 8 to 10 extra months after USCIS approves your I-130 petition. However, it can vary depending on your home country.
Step 3: File Forms DS-261 & DS-260
After a visa number becomes available, you can now submit your immigrant visa application. This application includes Form DS-261 and DS-260. The NVC will then determine whether you are eligible for a visa interview.
Form DS-261: Choice of Address and Agent is quite simple. You will tell the U.S. Department of State how to communicate with you. There is no fee, and it will take up to three weeks for processing.
Afterward, you will need to pay the immigrant visa processing fee online. This fee will be a total of $445. $325 of the cost is for the State Department’s application processing fee, and $120 of the price is for the financial support form. This fee can take up to a week of processing.
After the State Department processes your immigrant visa fee payment, you can now submit Form DS-260, the immigrant visa application. You will have to include your case number, beneficiary ID number, and invoice number from the initial notice that NVC sent to you. After submitting this form online, you need to print the confirmation page to bring to your visa interview. NVC should send you a notice the same day by mail or email that confirms they received your DS-260.
You then need to submit your Form I-864: Affidavit of Support to the NVC. Depending on which U.S. consulate processes your application, you will email, mail, or upload the form to the NVC. If the NVC needs more information, they will send you a list of missing documents within one or two months. If they have everything they need, you will likely receive a decision within 3-5 months.
Step 4: Attend Medical Examination and Biometrics Appointments
Before attending your visa interview, you will have to participate in several other appointments.
First, you will need a U.S. immigration medical exam. This exam needs to be performed by a State Department-approved doctor. The U.S. consulate processing your application package should send you a list of approved doctors. This exam can vary in cost by country but usually costs around $200. After your exam, the doctor will provide you with a sealed envelope. This envelope contains your exam results and vaccination record, which you must bring to your interview.
Second, you will need to submit an address where USCIS can send your passport after they place the U.S. visa stamp in it. Your U.S. consulate will have the appropriate instructions on its website.
Finally, you need to attend a fingerprinting appointment at a visa application support center. This center is typically at a different address than the consulate itself. This step is just a procedural step for background and security checks. You will not have to answer any questions about your marriage or green card eligibility at this appointment.
Step 5: Attend Consular Interview
The final step in your green card application process is the green card interview. You will attend the U.S. consulate or embassy interview in your home country. The NVC will send you an appointment notice with the date, time, and location. Your spouse will not attend this interview.
Still, it is a good idea to prepare for this interview with them to ensure you have all the facts of your application and relationship right. If the consular officer believes your marriage is legitimate, your green card application could be approved right then and there.
What Happens Next?
If U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves your application, you will receive a U.S. visa stamp in your passport that allows you to travel to the United States.
You will need to pay the $220 USCIS Immigrant Fee online for USCIS to print and mail your physical green card. Usually, you will receive the card at your U.S. address two to three weeks after arriving in the United States.
This time frame of the entire process is usually 27 to 46 months and costs around $1,400.
If you have been married for less than two years when USCIS provides your green card, your green card will show “CR1.” CR1 means you received a “conditional residence green card” valid for two years. Afterward, you will need to file another form to “remove the conditions.” USCIS uses this as a check to ensure your marriage is real.
If you have been married for more than two years when USCIS provides your green card, your green card will show “IR1” for an “immediate relative green card.” These are valid for ten years, and renewal is simple.
Unlawful Presence and Consular Processing
You will apply for your green card through consular processing if you currently live overseas. However, if you already live in the United States, you may use adjustment of status. This process is beneficial for people who entered with a valid visa at a U.S. port of entry or are immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen. However, this process is not available for people who overstayed their visas or entered the United States illegally. You would likely need to leave the United States and use consular processing in those cases.
There are risks to this. For example, if you unlawfully remain in the United States for 180 days or more and then leave the United States for consular processing, you may be barred from returning to the United States. If your unlawful stay lasted between 180 days to one year, you'll face a three-year ban. If your unlawful stay lasted over one year long, USCIS might bar you for 10 years.
You should consult an immigration lawyer in this situation. You may be able to apply for a waiver through Form I-601A, but approval is rare and you will need a lawyer’s help with the process.