What Is the Process for Marrying a Non-U.S. Citizen?

In a Nutshell

Green card holders and U.S. citizens are at liberty to marry non-U.S. citizens. Their foreign spouses can get a marriage green card and live with them in the United States. The application process looks different depending on where you and your future spouse live and your respective immigration statuses. This article explains the possibilities and considerations to keep in mind when applying for a marriage green card. Specifically, the article explains what things look like if both partners are present in the United States versus if neither is and the process if only one partner is in the United States.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Updated February 17, 2023

If Both Partners Are Present in the United States

If you and your noncitizen spouse already live in the United States, they likely have a U.S. work visa or visitor visa. Your spouse can become a lawful permanent resident through a process called adjustment of status, where they will change their temporary work or visitor visa to a green card. First, you and your immigrant spouse will need to get married and register your marriage with the state or county officials where your wedding took place. 

Then you will file Form I-130: Petition for Alien Relative to start the process of obtaining your noncitizen spouse a green card. During the green card application process, you are your partner’s sponsor, or petitioner, and they are referred to as the beneficiary. The next steps depend on whether you are a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident.

If You’re a U.S. Citizen

As a U.S. citizen, you and your spouse can benefit from a shorter wait time by using the concurrent filing method. Concurrent filing means you will file Form I-485: Application for Adjustment of Status alongside your Form I-130 application. USCIS will process your application and request a biometrics appointment and in-person interview before granting your spouse a green card.

If your noncitizen spouse entered the United States legally but has since lost status, USCIS may forgive their unlawful presence during the process.

If You’re a Lawful Permanent Resident

If you are a green card holder, your spouse must maintain valid immigration status in the U.S. while waiting for lawful permanent resident status. To maintain proper immigration status, your spouse must have a valid work or visitor visa until a visa number is available to move on to the next stop of the process: filing Form I-485

Visa numbers are automatically available for spouses of U.S. citizens because U.S. immigration law considers them immediate relatives. However, spouses of green card holders must wait a while. The entire immigration process can take up to 2.5 years, and your spouse must have a valid visa the whole time. 

90-Day Rule

Regardless of your circumstances, it’s important to remember the 90-day rule set by USCIS. The agency may think your spouse misled the government when applying for a temporary visa if they apply for a green card within 90 days of entering the United States. Your spouse could have their immigrant visa application denied and their current nonimmigrant visa revoked. 

If You’re in the United States But Your Future Spouse Isn’t

You have two options if you’re currently in the United States but your future spouse isn’t: consular processing or K-1 visa status. With both options you will be temporarily separated from your spouse as they undergo the green card or visa process outside of the United States. Keep in mind that there are severe consequences for marriage fraud or immigrating to the United States under the pretenses of marriage. USCIS may require marriage bona fides when your spouse is interviewing for a visa or green card. Bona fides prove your marriage is from a genuine relationship and not purely for immigration purposes. 

Consular Processing

If you get married abroad, then your spouse can apply for a green card at a U.S. consulate or U.S. embassy in their home country, a process called consular processing. With this method, you and your spouse must file Form I-130 and Form DS-160: Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application. Your spouse will then undergo a medical exam and interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate. This process can take a while, but your spouse will get a green card when they arrive in the United States. 

K-1 Visa Status

If you don’t want to get married abroad, your spouse can come to the United States on a K-1 visa, also known as a fiancé visa, so you can marry in the U.S. Your spouse can then adjust their status to become a permanent resident after the wedding. They can get a K-1 visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate in advance. 

However, before you file for a K-1 visa, you and your spouse must have seen each other in person within the previous two years. Additionally, your spouse needs to marry you and apply to adjust their status within 90 days of entering the United States. Otherwise, they may face deportation or will have to leave the country. 

After you marry in the United States, you and your spouse will file Form I-385. Your spouse will undergo a biometrics appointment and maybe an interview. If your partner is looking for employment or wants to travel outside the U.S. during this process, they will need to file for a work permit or travel permit

If Neither Partner Is Present in the United States

Suppose you are both currently outside the United States but want to marry and remain in the U.S. In that case, your best option is the K-1 visa. You can apply for the visa with Form I-129F: Petition for Alien Fiancé. The fiancé visa will enable your future spouse to come to the United States, marry you, and adjust their status. 

If you want to marry in the United States but your spouse wants to return to their home country to apply for a green card, perhaps for employment or family reasons, you can always get married on a temporary visa. You will simply need to follow state marriage laws. You also need to understand the 90-day rule, which could deem your spouse ineligible for adjusting their status to permanent residence while in the United States. 

You can also get married and initially live abroad. If recognized local or national authorities issue a marriage certificate, the U.S. government will recognize your marriage abroad. U.S. state laws for marriage do not bind you. Instead, you will follow the laws of the country you are married in, such as specific eligibility requirements or divorce rules. However, UCSIS will not recognize polygamous relationships, underage marriages, civil unions, or domestic partnerships, even if they are valid in the country in which the marriage took place.  USCIS recognizes same-sex marriages, but you must present a marriage certificate from the country where you married.