This is the same process no matter which state you are in.
This is an account of how me, an American citizen, and my future wife who was foreign-born got her a green card. Let me start by saying this process was not extremely difficult. In the end, after paying about $1,800 in application/processing fees and $400 for required medical expenses and vaccinations, three months later (we made one mistake on our form that we had to correct that probably delayed the process by a month) our do-it-yourself application was approved.
Here are the basics of how to apply for a green card, or in other words, how to apply for permanent residence through marriage. To begin, these were the forms we submitted with our successful application:
- I-130 (instructions) Petition for Alien Relative
- G-325A Biographic Information – Each spouse needs to fill out his/her own copy
- I-485 (instructions) Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status
- I-864 (instructions) Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A of the Act
- I-693 (instructions) Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record
- I-765 (instructions) Application for Employment Authorization (optional)
- I-131 (instructions) Application for Travel Document (optional)
Before talking about the specifics of these forms I should mention one detail about our situation. My wife came to the U.S. from a European Union country, and as such had looser visa requirements (called the visa-waiver program- she basically had to say she wasn’t a former member of the National Socialist Party or a terrorist and she could come to the U.S. for three months without a visa). Countries participating in the visa waiver program include Japan, Australia, Canada; 37 countries in total. Really it doesn’t matter how a spouse has legally arrived in the U.S., just as long as he or she is here.
Officially, if the spouse is coming to the U.S. for the purpose of getting married, his or her American partner needs to fill out an I-129F Petition for Alien Fiance(e), also known as a K-1 Visa. In our case my wife (girlfriend at the time) came as a tourist and we decided to get married after she arrived. So we did not fill out an I-129F form, which saved us having to wait months apart for the K-1 Visa to be approved, my wife having to make visits to the American Consulate in her country, and a $340 application fee.
A note on this however- it seems that Homeland Security can technically say a person has violated the law if a Green Card is not issued within a person’s original visa limit (usually 90 days). This appears to be what happened in the case of the American Khalifah al-Akili’s British wife, who was threatened with arrest on charges of overstaying her visa. This case probably also had other motivations behind it though, because this happened while al-Akili was in a federal prison on terrorism charges.
In my case my wife received her Green Card with no problems. If my memory serves me correctly, as long as you have submitted an Application to Adjust Status (I-485) your spouse can remain in the US until a final decision has been reached.
A note regarding same-sex marriages: the US Supreme Court has recently ruled same-sex marriages should be recognized by the federal government, so all of this information also applies for same-sex marriages as well.
The Nitty Gritty of the Immigration Forms
You can print off all these forms and apply through mail or online on the USCIS webpage. My wife and I submitted all these forms in the same envelop to the same address by mail.
I-130 Petition for Alien Relative: $420
This form is submitted by the person with U.S. citizenship or permanent residence to the USCIS. Supporting documents, detailed below, are required to prove two things: (1) that the filer is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, and (2) that you are both married to each other.
The person submitting this must provide proof of U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status with a copy of one of the following (I used a copy of my birth certificate):
- Birth Certificate from somewhere in the United States
- Valid, unexpired U.S. Passport
- USCIS- (formerly INS)-issued certificate of naturalization or citizenship
- U.S. embassy- or consulate-issued Report of Birth Abroad (of an American, form FS-240), or an original (not a copy) statement that you are a U.S. citizen with a valid passport
- In cases where someone does not have any of these they may use an affidavit, school record, church record, or census record, showing U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status, though this is a bit more complicated
To prove that you are married simply submit a copy of your marriage certificate. Easy, right? Okay, there are a few more things you will need than just that:
- If either of you were previously married you will need to submit official documents showing a legal divorce
- Two passport-style color photographs of you and your spouse taken in the last 30 days
- Each of you will need to include a G-325A Biographic Information form – these are quick, self-explanatory and don’t cost anything extra
- If you can, submit something that shows your marriage is genuine, like a joint rental agreement, joint bank accounts, the birth certificates of your children, or joint ownership of property
If your marriage certificate (or any other necessary document) is in a language other than English you will need to get it translated by someone who can certify both that he or she has provided a complete/correct translation and that the translator is capable of translating the language into English.
I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status: $985 + $85 for biometrics
The I-485 application can be filed together with the I-130 Petition. The purpose of the I-485 is to change your status (in my wife’s case, she was in the U.S. as a tourist, allowed to stay three months) to that of a permanent resident, and is completed and filed by the foreign spouse. This form is pretty straight forward and you just take it line by line. On Part 2: Application Type, my wife checked box “H,” and wrote in, “Married U.S. citizen.”
Notice to all mobsters, international drug lords, spies, and members of terrorist organizations: be careful when filling out certain portions of this form, you may be denied based on your answers to questions like, “Have you ever conspired to engage in political assassination, hijacking, or terrorist activity,” or “Do you intend to engage in espionage while in the United States?”
I-864 Affidavit of Support
Up to this point my wife and I were fairly confident her application for permanent residence was going to be all right, and then we read that I needed to make more than $15,510 per year in order to sponsor her. In my case here, I made enough money to support us both and we weren’t on any government assistance or social welfare programs, but that still wasn’t enough to allow me to sponsor my wife. On the other hand I understand that the government has to draw the line somewhere, and we would run into this same obstacle in the future when I was applying for a residence permit in the socialist Mecca of Sweden.
Footnotes aside, ultimately one of my relatives agreed to sponsor my wife, and it was he who therefore filed form I-864, not my wife or myself. An important point about this: it is a good idea to make sure whoever is being sponsored (i.e. my wife in this case) has good medical insurance. If my wife were to get cancer or be in a bad car crash, my sponsoring relative could be liable to pay the medical bills. The same can go for lawsuits, et cetera, so the sponsor may also want to consider some kind of liability insurance.
To be a sponsor a person’s income needs to be above the federal poverty guideline for their household size. For example for me to sponsor my wife I would need to make more than $15,510- the federal poverty level for a household size of two (my wife and I) at the time I’m writing this. The sponsor will need to have his or her income figures as reported on federal taxes for the preceding three years, along with a copy of the most recent year’s federal tax return. Note that the value of the sponsor’s total assets (house, etc) can also be included when figuring an eligibility for sponsorship.
I-693 Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record: No cost to file
My wife and I completed this form in two parts: first she received a few vaccinations she didn’t have records of, although she was sure she had had them before (MMR and Tetanus). Then after being cleared on her tuberculosis and syphilis tests, she took these results and her vaccination records to an official civil surgeon. This was probably our strangest experience of the entire process as we were interviewed by a doctor (together and separately) who was obviously a fundamentalist Christian (we were tipped off by several crucifixes and bibles), who asked us questions as if she had received screening instructions from both the federal government and Jesus.
Anyhow, the important things to know are what vaccinations the alien needs to have and to find a government-approved civil surgeon. And don’t forget to have the civil surgeon fill out his or her portion of the I-693 and give it to you in a sealed envelope – marked, “Do not open, for USCIS use only” – for you to turn in with the rest of your application forms and papers. Besides communicable diseases (until recently this included HIV/AIDS) with an emphasis on STDs, the civil surgeon will ask about mental disorders and drug and alcohol addiction/abuse.
You can use the USCIS’s Civil Surgeons Locator to find a doctor who is authorized to fill out an I-693. I don’t know if there is actually some kind of international standard for recognized vaccinations. Luckily my wife (from a former Soviet Republic) had a vaccination record issued by the World Health Organization for some of her required shots, and our civil surgeon recognized these as valid. USCIS shows all of their required vaccinations here on their webpage, a list comprised of:
- Measles, Mumps, and Rubella
- Pertussis (Whooping Cough)
- Hepatitis B (only the first shot is required)
You can shop around for approved civil surgeons, who don’t necessarily have to be the ones who dole out the vaccines (in our case we found the county health department to be the cheapest provider of these). Altogether we paid about $100 for the civil surgeon exam and $300 for tests and vaccinations.
I-765 Application for Employment Authorization: $380 (free if filed with I-485)
I-765 is known officially as an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) and more commonly as a work permit application. It is a very basic one-page form that the foreign spouse can submit along with everything else, and is not required, although it does provide the applicant with the right to work in the United States upon approval. This is definitely worth doing now — it is free to file if you do this with form I-485.
I-131 Application for Travel Document: No cost if you filed I-485
This form is also not required but we wanted to get this to be safe. What I-131 does is allow its holder (the foreign spouse) to leave the country while the I-485 (green card) application is being processed. From the time my wife submitted her application it took about three months before she received her green card, and she received permission from her I-131 to leave the country after about one month (both applications were submitted together). That’s not a huge difference, but we weren’t sure how long the process would take. So we decided to submit an I-131 in case an emergency came up and she needed to go home. If she hadn’t had an approved I-131 and did leave the country before she received her green card (I-485 approval) then she may have had to start the entire green card process over upon re-entry to the U.S. The I-131 application is a simple three-page document and required my wife to write something like, “Applying to travel home in an emergency.”
My wife received notification of her biometrics appointment about a month after she submitted her paperwork. For this she simply reported to the federal building to have her fingerprints and picture taken, a process lasting about 15 minutes.
When I was researching this part on the internet I came across horror stories of spouses being taken to separate rooms and asked what their partner’s favorite sex position was, or if the spouse had any scars or tattoos in private areas- questions to make sure your marriage isn’t phony. About two and a half months after my wife’s application we received a notice to come for an interview to my hometown’s federal building for an interview that would turn out to be fairly quick and painless. However my spouse and I did not fall under any “false marriage” red-flag categories, rumored to include things like:
- Different religions
- Different races
- Language barriers
- Significant age difference
We brought originals of all the documents we used in the various forms we filed and tried to be relaxed (note for others, also bring copies of these originals). Our federal agent interviewer asked basic questions to determine if we were mentally unstable, being coerced, drug addicts, sex workers, alcoholics, or communist sympathizers (okay, not the last one). She also asked about when I proposed to my wife and we brought pictures showing the two of us together in family situations. After about 45 minutes our interview was complete.
Two weeks later, after a total of about three months, my wife’s green card application was approved with all the trimmings, arriving by mail. As credit to the United States immigration process, I will say that my wife had relatively few problems and a quick approval in the U.S. However, you could also say we paid for that, as the U.S. immigration process cost us about $2,200.
If you still have questions after reviewing this page please see the Ask a Question page.