Many of you who follow me or Matt on social media noticed that last year we moved to the US. But, what many of you don’t know is that I’m actually not American. I’ve lived in the US before, but always on a student visa, so I’ve never had a green card before. Now I do, since a lot of you have questions about the whole process I decided to write this post, share our story and give our advice.
How to Get a Marriage-Based Green Card for the USA
* Our Story & Advice *
Most people who never had to deal with any international relationships have no idea that moving to a country of your spouse (regardless of the country) isn’t easy. It’s hard and it will cost you a lot of nerves and money. Plus, don’t think that once you get your green card that’s the end of your troubles…
USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) will deny a marriage-based green card case if it does not receive sufficient evidence of a bona fide marriage and/or if it determines that the marriage is a sham. Plus your application will be denied if your spouse doesn’t make enough money.
Getting married to a person from another country won’t grant your citizenship, passport, and even residence permit automatically. In the US you might even get prosecuted for fraud if you marry your loved one without doing a proper research.
What to do if you want to get married and/or move abroad to the US to live with your American partner?
If you don’t believe in marriage, but dating someone from a foreign country and especially the US, you most likely have to change your mind. The US doesn’t have a rule like the Netherlands, Australia and the UK where you can register as a domestic partnership to ‘import’ your partner. Getting an employment-based visa was never easy, but with current administration limiting the number of visas available each year even more, it’s even harder. You need to be legally married.
Myths About Applying for a Green Card based on Marriage
Myth 1: Your racial background might slow down the process.
All applications are processed at the same time, regardless of your nationality or the color of your skin. The only thing that can slow your application down is a presence of a criminal record, insufficient earnings of your American partner, or lack of some other documents. They process the application based on the date of submission.
Myth 2: There are yearly limits on all immigrant visas.
There are visa quotas (number of visas that can be issued to citizens of any country in a fiscal year) and since the current administration even less of them are available each year, but it only matters in case of employment-based preference visas. Family-based immigrant visas are excluded from this rule and are unlimited.
Different Ways of Applying for a Green Card: Pros & Cons
There are different ways of getting your green card, depending on your situation. Each has many cons (trust me, there is no ideal way of doing it) and requires a lot of research. Regardless of the option you choose, your American partner needs to make enough money to support you, or you’ll have to find someone to co-sign your sponsorship (read more about it further down).
Option 1) Fiancee visa (K1).
If you live abroad and your partner lives in the US, the traditional option is to apply for a fiancee visa. It’s basically a visa that allows you to come to the US and marry him/her within 90 days, then adjust your status and apply for a green card.
What are the cons?
After collecting necessary documents (read further down for documents) and submitting the application, the minimum wait time is about 9 months. Sometimes it takes more than 12 months to receive this visa and during this time you can’t travel to the US to visit your partner almost at all (there are exceptions to this rule if you already hold a valid visa, but it’s only for very short periods of time). Yes, it sucks.
Also, you need to readjust your status once you get married, which means that this visa gives you nothing more than a valid entry to the US to marry. It’s only the best option if you don’t hold a valid visa for the US and never visited.
While you can plan a nice proper wedding in the US, be careful, since no one can really tell you when your documents will be processed and once you receive your visa you’ll only have a 3-month window to marry. I know a person who counted 9 months to their wedding but received an interview date back in their home country a day later so had to hold a mock wedding in the US with the family and return to their country a day later. Then, a week later, come back to the US to get married in a courthouse. It might be slightly costly if you get unlucky.
Option 2) Spousal visa (IR1)
A spousal visa is for those who are already married to a US citizen and want to immigrate to the US, or when both spouses lived abroad before deciding to move to the US.
What are the cons?
The first con for many people is actually getting married abroad. So it was in my case. While getting married in the US is easy; you just apply for a marriage license with your ID and then book an appointment, some countries require more things.
For instance, in case of Poland (the country of my original citizenship), they required Matt to submit a petition to the Supreme Court to remove the condition of signing the statement that he’s not been married before, since the US doesn’t follow the same rule. I was told we would have to wait about 6 months, if not longer, to receive this document allowing us to get married. We really couldn’t get married in any other country immediately since most require a residency of at least one spouse.
After collecting necessary documents (read further down for documents) and submitting the application, the minimum wait time is about 12-15 months. I heard that some cases took 18 months, and again – you can’t travel to the US while you wait unless you apply for a special non-immigrant spousal visa K3 that would allow you to wait in the US.
Option 3) Adjusting your status in the US
The last method is a preferred method by every immigration lawyer since it’s the easiest and fastest. Everyone I consulted recommended it, and this is what we ended up doing. I entered the US as a tourist to visit Matt, waited the minimum 60 days to remove the condition of not entering the US just to marry, then applied for the adjustment of status.
Important: If you marry someone right after you enter the US your application to adjust status will be denied and you might be fined. This option only works if you have a proof of legal entry into the US, so if you enter illegally your application will be denied (proof of legal entry is different than overstaying your visa).
You don’t have to submit a bunch of documents that you have to submit for Fiancee and Spousal visas, such as police records from every country you lived in for the last 5 years. If you’re from one country, that’s not a problem, but if you’re a serial expat like me getting these police reports are costly, time-consuming and difficult.
You can’t have a proper wedding. Since everything has to be done last minute, the only thing we could do was get married at a courthouse or in Las Vegas. Most couples choose to have another proper wedding with the family once the green card process is over.
Since you enter as a tourist and have to wait to get married and then wait for your documents to get adjusted, you will have a few months of doing nothing. You can’t work, you can’t travel abroad, you can’t get a driver’s license, you can’t study, you can’t even volunteer in most places.
If I didn’t have my blog I’d have gone crazy doing nothing…
Do You Need a Lawyer?
While we hired a lawyer based on some recommendations I can confidently say that you probably don’t need a lawyer. Getting an immigration lawyer isn’t cheap and she or he is basically going to fill the documents for you based on questionnaires and show you where to sign them.
In my case, the lawyer we had was very nice, but having her actually made the process slightly slower and I wish I knew about it beforehand (more on this further down).
What Documents We Had to Submit
To get married we didn’t need much. We went to Las Vegas, flew some aerobatic planes and saw Cirque du Soleil the day before. The next day we flew over Grand Canyon with a helicopter, then took a taxi to downtown to get our marriage license, got back to the hotel to change before the pre-ordered limo picked us up to go to the chapel. In an hour we were done and married. It was an eventful weekend in a non-traditional sense.
Once we got married we had to wait 14 days to receive our wedding certificate. While you wait for your marriage certificate you could fill all the documents and get a medical examination, so the day it arrives you could send it out to speed up the process. In our case, it wasn’t possible since we hired a lawyer.
She wanted us to wait until we received our marriage certificate and only then send her our information and documents, in order for her to start filling our application (I didn’t see much sense in it since all you have to fill is a date the marriage took place, which we obviously knew).
Once we sent everything, we received an email saying that they will fill our application within 2 weeks, which is a long time and we had no idea that it would take that long. Then, we had to correct everything, sign the forms and send to her by post. It took a month longer than we planned on.
Our application was finally submitted on August 24th, two months after we got married – a month later than we could have sent it on our own since once you have all the documents it will take you a few hours to fill everything out.
Forms we had to submit:
- Form G-28, Notice of Entry of Appearance (only if you have a lawyer)
- Form I-485, Application to Adjust Status
- Form I-130A, Supplemental Information for Spouse Beneficiary
- Form I-131, Application for Travel Document
- Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization
- Form G-28, Notice of Entry of Appearance (only if you have a lawyer)
- Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative
- Form I-864, Affidavit of Support
Supporting Documents we had to submit:
- My proof of legal entry into the country (copy of US visa, immigration stamp from of last entry to the US)
- Six passport photos of Anna & Two photos of Matt
- Form I-693 (sealed medical) for Anna
- Signed apartment lease from the US
- Marriage certificate
- Matt’s tax returns for the past 3 years
- One filing fee check in the amount of $1,760
It’s important to send I-131 & I-765 forms together with the main application, otherwise, it’s not free and you might be stuck without a possibility of working and traveling for even a year.
Issues You Might Experience When Filling the Application for Marriage Based Green Card
- Your American spouse has to sponsor you for the first few years you’re in the US, which means that he or she will be responsible for your financial losses, court fees and none of you can claim benefits of any kind.
They need to make a salary that’s 125% above the poverty line (100% if they’re active military) which is $20,575 per year if you don’t have kids (higher for Hawaii and Alaska).
The salary has to be consistent for the past 3 years, with the most recent year being the most important. If he/she was sick and couldn’t work, there are exceptions to this rule, but you’ll have to provide documents supporting it and find a co-sponsor (it doesn’t have to be a family member) who’s willing to provide their tax returns and sign the paper stating these responsibilities.
- Both of your names have to be on the apartment lease and not everyone wants to put someone who’s in limbo (once you get married you’re without any status for a while, since you’re not a tourist anymore and your tourist visa becomes invalid automatically) on a lease.
- Medical examinations aren’t usually an issue unless you live in a state that doesn’t get many immigrants. We lived in Colorado at the time and getting my medical examination was a mission.
All green card applications require a medical examination. It has to be conducted by one of the designated doctors that you can find at this website. I found 6 doctors available in my area, however, once I called them it turned out that most of them won’t accept me since my husband isn’t registered at their family clinic.
Since we were both new to Colorado, the only doctor that was willing to take me was a ‘traveling doctor’ who was basically taking up everyone around the state who couldn’t get a regular appointment.
He also charged $500 per visit (plus costs of vaccinations, blood tests, and other necessary tests), which ended up being about $850 in my case. In comparison, my friends paid about $125 in NYC (plus treatment costs).
Since he was a traveling doctor without an office, I had my first appointment in a small room inside a tattoo studio near Denver (not kidding!). I had to show him my medical records from Poland and find the dates of my last vaccinations to:
- Tetanus and Diphtheria Toxoids
- Haemophilus influenzae type B
- Hepatitis B
- Any other vaccine-preventable diseases recommended by the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices
I had to get a TB test and schedule another visit to receive a vaccination for Tetanus as I was missing it. My next visit to check my TB results was in front of some office in Boulder, before meeting the doctor again for a final vaccination and documents in another strange building.
What Happens After You Send the Application?
While the green card application is pending, you are not permitted to travel outside the United States. You also can’t work, study, volunteer or anything.
If you leave after you get married in the US you usually won’t be able to come back to the US, and even if somehow you’ll be able to get back in using your old visa, your green card application will be withdrawn.
You can read online about cases when someone left the US while the application was pending because of an emergency (eg. death in the family) without getting an additional permit, the I-130 can still get approved, however, the I-485 won’t be. You’ll have to reopen the case outside of the US at your Embassy and wait outside of the country for about 6 months, if not longer. (read further on what to do if you have to leave the US)
After you send off your application you’ll receive a receipt notice within 2-3 weeks. It will come to your home address, so it’s important to put a correct address and notify USCIC online as soon as you move. If you’re planning on moving to another state while your application is pending, check with your friends if you could temporarily use their address in your new state. That’s what we did when moving to California, since moving the application from one state to another will slow down your application.
While there is a way to check your case status online on USCIS website, the only thing you’ll be able to see there is that they received your application. Nothing further got ever updated in my case, so don’t bother checking and stressing about it.
You are typically scheduled for a biometrics appointment within 4 weeks. Again, you’ll get a letter notifying you when and where to go. Bring your passport and marriage certificate with you (it doesn’t say you have to bring it, but I was told upon arrival that you have to). They’ll take your picture and fingerprints and you can be done in 15 minutes.
The combo card (combined work permit and travel document based on applications I-131 & I-765) usually comes within 3-4 months. It used to come within 60-90 days, but these days (2019) you’re looking into more 100+ days but it can take as long as up to 6 months. My combo card was issued after 104 days, but it didn’t actually reach me until 114 days.
Why did it take so long? Since the new administration, most applicants are being sent an additional Request for Evidence (RFE). Before, only those whose applications were missing some documents received this request. We got one too since Matt’s job isn’t a typical W-2 type of job. If your spouse is self-employed be prepared for it. We had to submit Matt’s work contracts, invoices, bank statements. You never know what exactly you need to submit, so try to gather as much as you can.
As we were originally told that I’ll receive my travel permit within maximum 90 days, but the rules have changed in the meantime, we planned on leaving for a honeymoon to Tanzania after 95 days. It was a big mistake because I didn’t receive my Combo Card in time. We got lucky in the end as we got approached for a work project in Tanzania in the meantime and I got another project in the Netherlands right after.
We knew that since we won’t receive my permit on time we had to make our honeymoon a work trip to make it all happen.
Getting an Emergency Travel Parole
Since I didn’t receive a Combo Card and had to leave the US, my only option was to apply for an Emergency Travel Parole. It’s something different than a regular Advanced Travel Parole. It’s meant for those who have an emergency (eg. sick relative) or need to leave for work reasons, but it’s not always granted. If your reason is a holiday, honeymoon, or family visit, then forget it – the request won’t be granted.
In order to even apply for this Emergency Permit I had to receive letters from both of my clients hiring me (in this case tourism boards and safari company), stating how much am I being paid, why I’m the one they’re hiring, what will they lose if I don’t come. I also had to write a letter stating my financial loss in case I don’t go and describe how my career would suffer. Print all the supporting documents like flights, reservations, itinerary, two passport photos and a copy of my original I-131 application.
We went to the USCIS field office in downtown LA with these documents to ask for my permit. You technically should do it with an appointment that’s pretty much impossible to get. While we ended up being able to talk to someone in one of the windows, it was a big fail.
They barely wanted to attend us since they said I still have 5 days to leave, so it’s too early to even apply for the emergency travel parole. When they finally looked at my letters, documents and everything it turned out that we were missing some forms, but that was a minor issue since they handed them to us. They also asked me for the financial statements of each client for the past year (it wasn’t going to happen obviously).
Traveling Outside of the US on an Advanced Travel Parole
Once you have your Combo Card you can work and travel freely. Technically, because it’s not that simple. In terms of re-entering the US, you can’t check in online for any flight, because your document isn’t on the list. If you’re a woman and decide to change your last name, your passport will be under a different name than your Combo Card and you might encounter various issues at the airport. I have on several occasions.
Once you arrive in the US you will have to go straight to the officer (same line as for people with ESTA entering the US for the first time), as your card won’t scan at any automated booths. Some officers will tell you to try, but it won’t scan, so don’t waste your time waiting in two lines.
Once you reach the officer they’ll take your fingerprints as usual and then ask you to wait for another officer to bring you to a room for those who get detained. It’s a standard procedure for people with travel parole.
I did it for the first time at JFK. You sit in a room and wait, watch people getting interrogated and getting denied entry by not having the correct visa, until someone calls your name and gives you your passport back. You’ll get a special stamp that says ‘Paroled’.
Depending on the line it can take from 20 minutes to over an hour. From my experience the longest it takes at LAX, the shortest at MSP since they didn’t even bother to detain me and stamped me at the counter last time.
Working on a Combo Card
Working on a combo card can get tricky if you’ve never worked in the US before. First of all, barely any bank will open you a bank account of any kind. Separate or joint with your spouse. It’s absolutely ridiculous. We went to some banks a few times and they told me that since I only have this weird document (Combo Card) it doesn’t match any of their things in the system, so I need to use my passport, but my passport has a different last name. I also needed proof of address and since apparently, a valid lease isn’t enough proof, I need a bill with my name and address.
Getting a bill or any kind of job isn’t possible without a valid Social Security number. Officially, there is a rule that you can only get an SS number within 90 days of arrival to the US, but I couldn’t do it since I didn’t have any residency documents allowing me to do that within my first 90 days.
Otherwise, you need to wait until you have your green card. I somehow managed to get my SS with just my Combo Card in Los Angeles, but I heard that not everyone is that lucky and it depends on the friendliness of the person attending you.
Back to the bill issue. Since I’m new to the US system I have no credit score (it turned out that my score was assigned as 222), so getting any sort of bill attached to my name was a problem. We were able to set up a T-Mobile family plan under Matt’s name, then call up and change it to my name as the main account holder after the first month. However, we did have to pay a deposit since I have no credit, which was I believe $500.
I returned to the same bank (for the sake of not shaming them I won’t state the name of the bank) with the bill and they refused me again, this time saying that they want my name to match my passport so I should have a bill under my maiden name. It didn’t make any sense since it wasn’t my name in the US.
The only bank that finally opened my account was Bank of America, but I did have to try twice before it finally happened. Obviously, I can’t have any credit card without a credit score despite making money, so we’ll have to start from getting me a store credit card first: Target, Starbucks or something to build up my credit score. I was told that maybe in 2 years I can try applying for one. We will see.
The Issue with Name Change
It turned out that changing my last name isn’t as easy as changing my documents. First of all, Clark County (where Las Vegas is located) is one of a few counties in the US that doesn’t indicate a new last name on the marriage certificate. They basically believe that it’s not their problem and people can just go to the Social Security office and change their name.
In LA County rules have recently changed and if you don’t change your last name when you get married, you’ll have to go to court and pay a couple of hundred bucks to take your husband’s name now.
Since I didn’t have any documents in the US I filled my applications with my new name: Anna Karsten (I actually left out my second name on purpose) and all my documents were issued with it. Easy peasy.
However, getting married in the US doesn’t mean that you’re married in your home country and in case of Poland it’s quite complicated. One thing that’s very American to do when you get married is to keep your maiden name as a second name. You absolutely cannot do this if you’re also Polish (and might be the same case with other officially Catholic countries), as then Poland won’t issue you your new passport. Your second name has to be on a list of available names (which are Catholic Saints) and since your last name isn’t, your new passport won’t be issued.
Officially, everyone in Poland has only a few months to change all the documents after getting married or will be fined otherwise. Since I couldn’t leave the US I obviously couldn’t do anything, as it cannot be done at the Embassy. I had to ask my father to hire a sworn translator to translate my marriage certificate into Polish, then give him a notarized form to act on my behalf and submit the document to the Office of the Civil Status in Warsaw. He could mail me the forms I had to sign (apparently so did Matt in Polish) and with this, we had to wait about 6 weeks until we received a letter stating that the marriage certificate has been registered. With this document, I can now head to the Embassy to get a passport with my new name.
Green Card Interview
We received an invitation for an interview for February 1st. Since I knew I would be away during those dates we called to rescheduled and a few days later I got an email saying that the request for rescheduling an interview has been granted and a new date will be issued within 60 days. A few weeks later we got scheduled for April 1st.
Update 2019: As I was informed by many lawyers, processing times have doubled since we’ve done our green card process. Now you’re looking at about 10-12 months until the interview after filling an application.
An interview is basically for an officer to check whether your marriage is legit and if you followed all the rules (like haven’t left the US without a permit). They’ll send you a letter with a list which documents to bring with you (everything you already sent) and proof of relationship like joint accounts, photos, emails, airline tickets, anything that comes to mind to prove that you’re a real couple. Both you and your spouse must be present at the interview.
Depending on the officer, the interview can be short and easy but it could also be very invigilating. Some friends barely got asked anything and the officer just went through their photos, others were asked questions like what time did he propose and about their mother in law’s phone number.
In our case, the interview lasted about 20 minutes. We were asked how we met, when did we move in together, where we lived if we’d met each other’s parents, what they thought of the marriage and what do we do for work. He wanted to see both our names on the house lease and took a copy of our joint T-Mobile bill and health insurance. While we didn’t have a joint bank account yet (since no one would give us one), having a credit card under my name attached to Matt’s account helped as the officer liked it. Then he asked me why we had to re-schedule the first interview appointment.
He didn’t look at our photos, didn’t ask about the actual wedding day or proposal. I was asked whether I wanted to change some answers to some questions on the application and when I said no, he asked those questions again. Example: whether I want to commit bigamy or if I was ever arrested.
Then the officer told us that he’s going to approve the case.
What Happens Now…?
Getting a green card is just the beginning of the process though. Since we’ve been married for less than 2 years, my first green card is only temporary and it’s called a Conditional Green Card. Depending on the situation it’s for only 2 or 3 years to remove the condition. After that, we need to re-apply for another permanent green card valid for 9 years.
We’ll need to submit the documents that we’re still together and I possibly might be stuck in the country for a few months (some friends are waiting for a new green card for over a year already because of the backlog of cases).
Once I pass 3 years of residency then I could apply for full US citizenship. For now, that’s in the future. As you can see getting a green card as a spouse is neither cheap nor easy. Instead of planning a wedding and honeymoon, you will be worrying about your application status, not being able to work, and other troubles. We wanted to give up on this process endless times but stuck with it, so if you’re thinking of giving up – trust me, you’re not alone!
For those of you in the same situation, we wish you good luck! Hopefully, in the future, the immigration issues in the US will improve.