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Step-by-Step Guide To Filing a Family Green Card Application From Abroad (by Consular Processing)

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November 22, 2022

Key Takeaways

If you are a lawful permanent resident or U.S. citizen and you want to petition for a family member to get a green card, you’ll apply through consular processing. This process means you’ll interact with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the National Visa Center (NVC). This process typically takes 7–15 months and costs $1,400. This is a 14-step guide to getting a family green card through consular processing.

Table of Contents

Step 1: Pay the Form I-130 Filing Fee

There is a $535 filing fee for Form I-130: Petition for Alien Relative. You can pay this using a money order, personal check, cashier’s check, or credit card. If you’d like to pay by credit card, you must fill out Form G-1450  and include it with your paperwork. If you pay by check or money order, make it payable to “U.S. Department of Homeland Security” and be sure to write “Form I-130” on the memo line.

Step 2: Assemble Your Forms and Supporting Documents

Because you are applying through consular processing, you’ll submit forms from USCIS and the National Visa Center (NVC). You can find more information on the NVC’s forms from the U.S. Department of State’s Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC).

Here’s a list of the forms and supporting documents you need to include in your petition packet (usually in the order listed): 

  • Form G-1145: This is an optional form that authorizes USCIS to send an e-notice when it accepts your application.
  • Form G-1450: This is an optional form that authorizes USCIS to charge your credit card if you want to pay your filing fees by credit card.
  • Form I-130A (required for marriage green cards only) and proof that your marriage is valid, such as:
  • 10–15 photos of you and your partner together in a variety of settings over the course of your relationship. 
  • A letter of support from someone who knows you both well who can confirm the legitimacy of your marriage. This is especially helpful if you have been together for two years or less. They can use this letter of support template to help them prepare the letter. The person writing each letter will need to sign it in front of a notary who will then need to notarize it.
  • Proof of termination of prior marriage(s), if any, such as divorce papers, death certificate of a former spouse, or certificate of annulment (provide one of the following for each prior marriage for both spouses).
  • Proof of official name change (if applicable) via a marriage certificate (usually sufficient), court order of name change, or adoption papers.

Be sure to sign all forms in the relevant places. Also, it is a good idea to include a cover letter that lists all of the forms, supporting documents, and fee payments in your petition packet. This will help USCIS keep track of your documents as it processes your petition. You can use this Form I-130 cover letter template to get started. 

Step 3: Mail Your I-130 Petition Packet to USCIS

Mail your Form I-130, filing fee, and required supporting documents to the correct USCIS direct filing address. The mailing address will depend on where the U.S. citizen or green card holder who is petitioning for you lives. Many applicants choose to send their packet with a tracking number so they can know when it’s delivered. Do not include Form DS-260 or Form I-864 (or their supporting documents) with your packet.

Step 4: Watch for Notices About Your I-130 Petition

USCIS will occasionally mail you official notices to tell you about the status of your case and request more information if needed. These notices will go to the address you included on your Form I-130 petition. Be on the lookout for the following common notices:

Receipt Notice

USCIS will send you a notice stating that it has received your Form I-130. This notice will include a unique code called a receipt number that consists of three letters and 10 numbers, such as ABC1234567891. You can find the receipt number in Form I-797C: Notice of Action, which USCIS should have sent you 2–3 weeks after filing your application. You can use this code to track your application status.

Request(s) for Evidence

If USCIS needs any additional information to support your application, it will notify you. Requests for evidence often arrive 2–3 months after filing your application. If you get an RFE, respond as quickly as possible by following the steps in the official notice USCIS sends. You can learn more in our Guide to RFEs.

I-130 Petition Approval Notice

When USCIS approves your petition, it will send you an approval notice via mail. Keep this notice! It contains important information, including your priority date. Your priority date essentially holds your place in line and tells you when you can submit the rest of your green card application. You can check to see if your priority date is current by looking at the Visa Bulletin. USCIS approves most I-130 petitions 5–12 months after they are filed. However, the process can take as long as 13 years for applicants in some categories.

Step 5: Wait for Your Priority Date

Your priority date determines when you can apply for a green card. Several factors influence this date, including:

  • Your relationship to the petitioner, which determines your preference category
  • The number of green cards available for your category in a given year
  • The USCIS backlog
  • The country you are applying from

There are six preference categories for family green cards. 

FY 2018 FY 2019 FY 2020 FY 2021 FY 2022
I-821D Request for Initial Deferred Action 10.4 months 8.9 months 4.4 months 5.9 months N/A**

*Most applications prepared by ImmigrationHelp.org are in these preference categories.

Once your priority date becomes current and a visa is available for you, USCIS will forward your petition to the National Visa Center (NVC) for processing.

Step 6: File Form DS-261

Once your priority date is current and USCIS has sent your petition to the National Visa Center, the NVC will send you a notice by mail. This notice includes your case number, so hold onto it. You’ll need this number as you continue through the green card application process, including when you log in to the Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC) to file form DS-261: Online Choice of Address and Agent online. DS-261 is a relatively simple form that tells the State Department how to communicate with you. It is free to file, and you will submit it online as opposed to mailing it in. The State Department may take up to three weeks to process your DS-261.

Step 7: Pay the Immigrant Visa Filing Fees

You will know when the State Department processes your DS-261 because fee invoices will then appear in your CEAC account. Once these invoices are available, you will need to pay the fees via the invoices in the CEAC. They are the State Department’s application processing fee ($325) and the financial support form fee ($120) for a total of $445. It can take up to a week for the NVC to process your payment.

Step 8: File Form DS-260

Once the NVC has processed your payment, you can file Form DS-260: Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration Application through the CEAC. You may need to update some time-specific answers (jobs, addresses, and trips in particular) if there is a long delay between filing your I-130 and DS-260 forms.

Step 9: Submit Your Supporting Documents to the NVC

The National Visa Center will mail or email you a notice to confirm that it has received your DS-260. You will then need to submit your supporting documents to the NVC. The State Department provides a list of the most commonly required supporting documents.

Tips for Submitting Supporting Documents to the NVC

Different consulates have different rules for submitting supporting documents. Depending on what the NVC tells you, you will either upload, email, or mail your supporting documents.

Here are a few helpful tips:

  • It’s important to submit these documents in the way the NVC instructs. Some U.S. consulates require physical copies, while others allow you to email or upload digital copies.
  • The consulate processing your application may require additional documents. It’s always a good idea to carefully check the notice you receive from the NVC for any special requirements.
  • You must submit all of your supporting documents in one package if you are mailing them to the NVC.
  • You should submit copies of your official documents, not originals.
  • Bring the originals of your supporting documents to your green card interview at the U.S. consulate just in case.

After you submit everything to the NVC, it will gather all the forms and documents needed to process your green card application and forward them to the consulate/embassy that will be conducting your immigrant visa interview.

Step 10: Complete the Required Medical Exam

The National Visa Center will forward your case and supporting documents to your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. The embassy or consulate will contact you to arrange an in-person interview within 1–2 months of receiving your case. The interview is usually held in the following 1–2 months. Before your interview, you need to see a State Department-approved doctor for a medical exam and get a signed Form I-693 from the attending physician.

Use the USCIS Find a Doctor tool or call the USCIS Contact Center at 1-800-375-5283 to locate a nearby civil surgeon authorized to perform immigration medical exams. Let the doctor’s office know that you are contacting them to set up a medical exam appointment for immigration purposes. The doctor will provide your medical exam results in a sealed envelope at the end of your appointment. Do not break the seal or open the envelope.

You can read our Complete Guide to the U.S. Immigration Medical Exam to learn what you need to bring to the exam and what happens during the exam.

Step 11: Attend Your Green Card Interview

Almost everyone must attend a green card interview as one of the final steps of their application process. This interview has two goals:

  • To establish whether you are eligible for a green card
  • To determine whether the information you provided in your forms and supporting documents is valid

When Is the Green Card Interview?

The timing of your interview depends on the relationship you have with the person who submitted your green card petition (the petitioner or sponsor). Often, interviews occur 2–6 months after you file your DS-260. You’ll receive a notice by mail that lists your interview date, time, and location. The interview will usually be held at the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to you. The sponsor does not attend this interview.

What Happens at the Green Card Interview?

A consular officer will conduct your interview and decide whether to grant you an immigrant visa. The officer may give you a decision at the interview or they may choose to tell you later. Decisions are often made within a week unless the officer requires more information. If the officer grants you a visa, they will give you a visa packet. Do not open this packet! You’ll need to present this to the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent when you come to the U.S. and pass through customs.

You will now be able to enter the United States as an immigrant!

Step 12: Pay the USCIS Immigrant Fee

In order to get your physical green card, you will need to pay the USCIS Immigrant Fee. The fee is currently $220, and you can pay it online. You should pay the fee as soon as you have your visa packet and before you enter the U.S. This will help ensure you receive your green card as quickly as possible.

Step 13: Enter the United States

Once you have your visa packet, you can enter the U.S. When you arrive, you will give your packet to the CBP officer at the port of entry. The officer will inspect you and determine whether to admit you into the United States as a lawful permanent resident. If the CBP officer admits you, you will then have lawful permanent resident status and be able to live and work in the United States permanently.

Step 14: Receive Your Green Card!

You should receive your green card within 2–3 weeks of entering the U.S. if you paid the immigrant fee before you arrived. If not, you should receive your card within 2–3 weeks of entering and paying the USCIS Immigrant Fee.

Congratulations, you are now an official, card-carrying permanent resident of the United States!

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