If you’re married to or about to marry either a U.S. citizen or a U.S. green card holder AND hope to live in the United States, you’re probably trying to figure out the best way to apply for a green card. If this description applies to you, then you’ve come to the right place! This article lays out the different ways individuals can apply for a marriage-based green card, how these paths are similar, as well as how they are different. This article does not, however, discuss immigration pathways for those seeking permanent residency through employment-based applications, or as refugee or asylum seekers.
As you read, you might feel confused or even overwhelmed at times… don’t worry, we get it! U.S. immigration can feel like a lot to take in! That’s why SimpleCitizen has sought out to make U.S. immigration more accessible to people just like you! We offer the same assistance and expertise an immigration lawyer provides at a fraction of the cost! Need help applying? Learn how to prepare your application with SimpleCitizen here.
Understanding the Basics
Before we begin, it’s important to note that your choices will differ depending on whether you are married or unmarried, and whether that marriage is to a U.S. citizen or a U.S. green card holder. Let’s clarify what the difference is!
Defining Married vs Unmarried
Married: For the purposes of this article, married refers to any applicant that is married to a U.S. green card holder or U.S. citizen.
Unmarried: Unmarried refers to any applicant who plans to marry a U.S. green card holder or U.S. citizen but has not yet done so. Unmarried, in the context of this article, does not include employment-based applicants, or those seeking status as a refugee or asylum-seeker.
Married vs. Unmarried Paths to Permanent Residency
As previously mentioned there are different application options available depending on whether the applicant is married or unmarried. Here’s a quick list of options available to an applicant depending on whether they are married or unmarried.
- Adjustment of Status
- Consular Process
- K-1 (Fiancé(e) Visa) to Adjustment of Status
- Consular Process
The sections below will both summarize and detail the primary differences between these options and should help you better identify the path that is right for you!
Application Types for Married Individuals
These application paths apply to individuals who are ALREADY married to a U.S. citizen or a U.S. green card holder.
|Adjustment of Status||Consular Process|
|Specific Forms||Form I-130, I-130A, and Form I-485 |
Additional forms: I-864, I-131, I-765 and I-693
|Form I-130/I-130A, once approved the applicant will then need to fill-out Form DS-260 and an Affidavit of Support (Form I-864)|
Potentially a Public Charge Questionnaire, Form DS-5540, depending on your consulate.
|Cost||Form I-130 = $535|
Form I-485 = $1,225
|Form I-130 = $535|
Form DS-260 = $325
|Who it would apply to||Applying based on marriage to a U.S. citizen or U.S. green card holder – from inside the United States. The applicant must already be married and living in the United States. ||Applying based on marriage to a U.S. citizen or green card holder — from outside the United State. The applicant must already be married but living outside of the United States|
|Agencies||USCIS ||USCIS, U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security|
|Where you apply from||Inside the U.S.||Outside the U.S.|
|Where you would wait||Inside the U.S.||Outside the U.S.|
|Timeline||Variable due to COVID-19. Previous Timeline was 8-20 months. Typically takes longer for this option than for Consular Process but the applicant can wait inside the United States||Variable due to COVID-19. Previous Timeline was 6-12 months |
Typically faster than Adjustment of Status depending on the Embassy or Consulate.
|Work||Apply for work authorization using Form I-765. Once granted, the applicant is able to work in the U.S..||The applicant will not receive work or travel authorization until green card, and therefore entry into the U.S., has been granted.|
|Travel||Apply for advance parole to travel via Form I-131. Once granted, the applicant can travel without application being deemed abandoned.||Can travel if they have an additional visa that allows them to travel but their admittance will be up to the agent reviewing their case. Having a visa does not guarantee entry.|
Adjustment of Status for Married Applicants
The process of applying for an Adjustment of Status green card as a married applicant differs slightly depending on whether the applicant is married to either a U.S. citizen or a U.S. green card holder. While applicants married to a U.S. citizen can file Form 1-130 (Petition for an Alien Relative) concurrently with Form I-485 (Adjustment of Status to Permanent Resident), applicants married to U.S. green card holders cannot. Rather, they must go through something called the Visa Bulletin after they file Form I-130 (Petition for an Alien Relative). Only once the Visa Bulletin for the applicants category is current can they submit Form I-485.
The way the Visa Bulletin works can be pretty complicated but here is a brief overview! Again, remember that this step only applies to applicants married to U.S. green card holders NOT to applicants married to U.S. citizens.
What is it
The Visa Bulletin is released every month by the U.S. Department of State. It shows which green card applications are eligible to move forward based on when the I-130 (or I-140 for employment-based applications) petition was originally filed.
Because the U.S. congress sets annual limits on the amount of green cards that can be issued, and because the number of annual applications often far-exceeds that quota, there is a large backlog of applications. This backlog leads to wait times for new applicants, which are published monthly in the Visa Bulletin.
After filling Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, you’ll be able to check the Visa Bulletin to see your place in line which can then help you estimate how much time it will take before you can apply to be issued a green card.
How does it Work
First, the spouse of the applicant seeking a marriage-based Adjustment of Status must file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. They are considered the petitioner of the applicant. Once Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, is approved, one must wait for the priority date in one’s immigrant visa category to become current (see the date listed in the Notice of Action, and check when it is current by clicking here) be sure to check the current month and year. When the date listed is current, it is time to file Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. This is the required form for becoming a Permanent Resident.
Another primary difference between those married to U.S. citizens and U.S. green card holders is the flexibility that exists in regards to violating the terms of one’s status. The spouses of U.S. citizens are more likely to be forgiven for things such as overstaying a visa or working without authorization. This same forgiveness is not extended to the spouses of U.S. green card holders. If you or your spouse have violated the terms of your status as the spouse of a U.S. green card holder, it is recommended that you get a lawyer to assist you.
For monthly updates on the Visa Bulletin, see this page.
Understanding Intent and Misrepresentation
Another important thing to be aware of as someone applying for a marriage-based Adjustment of Status are intent and misrepresentation. If applicants are not careful, they could potentially put themselves at risk of being flagged for or even committing immigration fraud. This applies to both the spouses of U.S. citizens and U.S. green card holders.
In short, USCIS wants to make sure that when an applicant entered on a temporary, non-immigrant status (such as a temporary work permit or student visa), their intention was not actually to gain an immigrant status. If they feel like the applicant misrepresented their intent, that applicant’s case is much more likely to be flagged for potential fraud. An example of this would be an applicant entering on a non-immigrant student visa and then getting married shortly after their arrival. Such behavior could appear to indicate that the individual misrepresented their intent to come to the United States.
A case is much more likely to be flagged for immigrant intent if the applicant gets married or submits an application to adjust status within 90 days of entry into the United States. Applicants who share these circumstances should prepare to address this in their interview with USCIS. This can be overwhelming or scary for applicants. Luckily, SimpleCitizen offers guidance on instances like this through the law firm review offered with our Deluxe and Professional Marriage-Based Green Card Application package. Learn more here.
Required Forms for Marriage-Based Adjustment of Status
There are a number of forms required to apply for an Adjustment of Status.
- Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative:
For more information on this form check out these resources!
For more Information on filling form I-130 as someone who is married to a U.S. green card holder check out this article.
- Form I-130A
Since the petitioner is filing for their spouse, the spouse must fill out and sign Form
I-130A, Supplemental Information for Spouse Beneficiary.
Learn more about Form I-130A and how to file it here
- Form I-485. Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status:
Learn how to file this form here
Additional forms that are needed include:
- Form I-864, Affidavit of Support
- Form I-693, Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record.
Learn more about how to file this form here.
- Form I-131, Application for Travel
Learn more about this form here
- Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization
Check out our step-by-step guide to Form I-765 here
The overall cost of the application will vary slightly depending on the applicant, but the filing fees are consistent. The total cost for filing the above listed forms is currently $1,760. This cost is broken up into three primary parts: the filing fee for Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) which is $535, and the filing fee for form I-485 (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status) which is $1,225 as well as the biometrics exam fee which is $85 for each applicant. (depending on age) The other forms are free to file as long as they are filed concurrently with Form I-485.
Who does this route apply to?
Applying for a green card through an Adjustment of Status applies to applicants that are a) married to a U.S. citizen or U.S. green card holder and b) are applying from inside the United States.
Applying and waiting
Applicants both apply and wait from inside the United States. Leaving the country before either Advance Parole or Permanent Residency has been granted could result in the termination of the applicants petition. In this case, they would then need to reapply and wait from outside the United States through the Consular Process method.
Previously, the average wait time for Adjustment of Status applications was 8-20 months. These wait times vary depending on the office filed through and the particulars of the case. However, applicants are not able to pick and choose which office they work through. Rather, your field office will be assigned to you based on where you live. Learn more about office-specific wait times here.
Work and Travel
Working and traveling in the United States is allowed as long as the applicant meets at least 1 of the following requirements
- They have applied for and been granted the Work and Travel Permit (Obtained through filing forms I-765 and I-131)
- They have an additional valid visa that signifies dual intent (ie. an H-1B Visa) that also authorizes work and travel
- Their green card has been granted
As previously mentioned, leaving the country before either Advance Parole (Form I-131) or Permanent Residency has been granted could result in the termination of the applicants petition. In this case, they would then need to reapply and wait from outside the United States through the Consular Process method.
Consular Process for Married Applicants
The forms required for this application cannot be done all at once. Rather, they are broken down into two primary steps.
Step 1: Fill out and submit Form I-130, Petition for an Alien Relative
Step 2: Once Form I-130 has been approved, the applicant must then fill-out and submit two more forms
- DS-260, Immigrant Visa Application
- Form I-864, Affidavit of Support
To learn more about applying through the Consular Process, check out this guide!
Form I-130 = $535
Form DS-260 = $325
Who does this route apply to
Applying for a green card through the Consular Process applies to applicants that are a) married to a U.S. citizen or U.S. green card holder and b) are applying from outside of the United States.
Applying and waiting
Applicants both apply for and wait for their green card from outside of the United States. Initially, applicants file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, through USCIS. Afterwards, the agencies they work with are the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In the past, average wait times for applications submitted via Consular Process have ranged from 6-10 months, depending on the embassy or consulate.This route tends to have shorter wait times than applying for an Adjustment of Status from within the United States.
Work and Travel
Applicants applying through Consular Process will not be granted entry to the United States until their green card has been granted. For this reason, they will not obtain work or travel authorization for the U.S. until permanent residency has been granted.
However, if applicants have an additional visa that allows them to travel into the United States they are able to use it during the waiting process. That being said, entry is not guaranteed. Rather, their admittance into the United States will be up to the agent reviewing their case. If said officer believes the applicant is at risk of overstaying their visa, they can deny the applicant entry into the United States.
Application Types for Unmarried Individuals
As a refresher, this section is specifically for applicants intending to marry either a U.S. citizen or green card holder.
|K-1 to adjustment of status||Consular Process|
|Specific Forms||Form I-129F, Petition for Alien Fiancé(e)|
Form DS-160, K-1 Fiancé(e) Visa
Form I-485, Adjustment of Status
Additional forms for Step 3: I-864, I-131, and I-765
|Forms I-130 and I-130A, once approved you then need to fill-out Form DS-260 and an Affidavit of Support (Form I-864)|
|Cost||1) Petition for Alien Fiancé(e): Form I-129F = $535|
2) K-1 Visa Application: Form DS-160 = $265
2) Green card application: Forms I-130 and I-485 = $1,760
|Form I-130 = $535|
Form DS-260 = $325
|Who it applies to||Fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens planning on getting married within 90 days of entering the U.S.||Individuals filing from outside the U.S. that are married to a U.S. citizen or green card holder. |
Unmarried applicants must first marry before this route is available to them.
|Agencies||Petition for Alien Fiancé(e) (Form I-129F): USCIS|
K-1 Fiancé(e) Visa (Form DS-160): U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (Through the National Visa Center or NVC)
Adjustment of Status (Form I-485): USCIS
|USCIS, U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Homeland Security|
|Where you apply from||Petition for Alien Fiancé(e) (Form I-129F) – Outside the U.S. |
K-1 (Fiancé(e)) Visa (Form DS-160): Outside the U.S.Adjustment of Status (Form I-485): Inside the U.S.
|Outside the U.S.|
|Where you wait from||Petition for Alien Fiancé(e) (Form I-129F): Outside the U.S. K-1 Fiancé(e) Visa and Interview (Form DS-160): Outside the U.S. Adjustment of Status (Form I-485): Inside the U.S.||Outside the U.S.|
|Timeline||Processing time for Petition for Alien Fiancé(e): Form-129F: 5-7 months Processing time for K-1 Visa (Form DS-160): Varies depending on Embassy. See estimated interview wait times here. |
Adjustment of Status (Form I-485): 8 – 20 months
|Has averaged between 6-12 months in the past but will likely be longer due to delays associated with COVID 19.|
|Work and Travel||Awaiting K-1 (Fiancé(e)) Visa: Unable to work or travel in the United States unless they have another valid visa that allows them to do so. |
Once a K-1 Visa has been granted, applicants can travel into the United States for up to 90 days to get married.
Awaiting Adjustment of Status: can only work and travel once Work and Travel permit has been granted
|Won’t get work or travel authorization until green card, and therefore entry into the U.S., has been granted.|
If an applicant has an additional visa that allows them to travel they are able to use it during the waiting process. However, their admittance will be up to the agent reviewing their case.
|Pros||Can potentially gain entry to the U.S. faster. Don’t need as much evidence of joint living and finances because they know you are just starting a relationship. Can get married inside the U.S.||Simpler process since there are less steps. You enter the U.S. as a green card holder. Can work and travel upon entry to the U.S. Cheaper/faster path to permanent residency. Available option for those engaged to U.S. permanent residents|
|Cons||Can take longer to be granted permanent residency, more expensive, enter U.S. as a temporary visitor not as a permanent resident so have to wait longer for work and travel authorization. Available to the fiancé(e))s of U.S. citizens only, not the fiancé(e)s of U.S. permanent residents||Requires more evidence compared to K-1 path. Have to get married outside of the U.S. Can take longer to be granted entry to the United Stated|
Consular Process for Unmarried Applicants
If you do not want to go through the K-1 Fiancé(e) Visa process the other option would be to get married and then follow the consular process for married applicants, as outlined above. They are listed in the same table as the Fiancé(e)-to-Adjustment of Status path to help you compare the two.
K-1 to Adjustment of Status for Unmarried Applicants
What is a K-1 Visa?
A K-1 Visa is a visa issued to the foreign fiancé(e) of a U.S. Citizen that allows them to enter the United States temporarily. Upon arrival to the United States, the couple has 90 days to get married.
In order to be eligible for this type of Visa, the couple must meet two primary requirements
- Both met each other once within the last two-year period (exemptions are available)
- Both must be legally free to marry in the United States
Step 1: Petitioner files Form I-129F, Petition for Alien Fiancé(e)
The petitioner, usually the U.S. Citizen Partner, must file Form I-129F, Petition for an Alien Fiancé(e) with USCIS. The filing fee for this form is currently $535. Find the PDF version of this form as well as the filing instructions here.
Step 2: Receive Notice of Action (I-797C)
After a few weeks, applicants usually receive Form I-797C, Notice of Action, from USCIS. This indicates that the application has passed basic checks and is awaiting adjudication. It is during this adjudication that the petition will either be approved or denied. It usually takes anywhere between 8-10 months for a petition to be approved.
Step 3: Approval and Jurisdiction Transfer to National Visa Center
Once the petition has been approved by USCIS, they transfer jurisdiction of the case to the National Visa Center (NVC) which is a segment of the U.S. Department of State. Here the NVC will issue the applicants a case number. This case number is very important so be sure to keep it in a safe place!
Once NVC assigns the application a case number, it will forward the I-129F packet (application) to the embassy of the home country of the foreign fiancé(e).
Step 4: Filing for a K-1 Visa (Form DS-160)
After the application has been forwarded to the embassy closest to where the foreign fiancé(e) lives, the applicant is then able to fill out Form DS-160 to apply for their K-1 Visa and pay their DS-160 Filing Fees ($265). Form DS-160 is filled out and submitted online. To access the form, click here. For answers to frequently asked questions about Form DS-160, check out this helpful link!
Be sure to heep the following information for your records
- The USCIS receipt number also known as a case number
- Principal Applicant
- Interview location
Step 5: Schedule and Have Interview
Once the status of the case is “Ready” the applicant is then able to reach out to their local U.S. embassy and schedule their K-1 Visa Interview. However, Form DS-160 must be submitted, the medical examination must have taken place, and the application fees must be paid before the interview can take place. The applicant should make sure they bring all required documents to the interview to avoid any delays or complications. This includes the receipt number from their application payment as well as the printed confirmation information for their completed DS-160 application.
Step 6: Visa Granted, Enters USA
If their visa is granted, the foreign fiancé(e) will get a visa stamp in their passport which can then be used to enter the United States within 4 months of its issuance. Remember that this is a temporary Visa, so be sure to enter the U.S. before it expires.
Step 7: Get Married Within 90 Days of Entry
After entry into the United States, applicants have 90 days to get married. This is because the Fiancé(e) status automatically expires 90 days after entry and cannot be extended. The applicant must leave the United States at the end of the 90 days if they are not yet married.
Call-out: In the case when marriage does not happen within 90 days AND the fiancé(e) does not depart, they will violate U.S. immigration law. This could affect their future eligibility for U.S. immigration benefits and may result in removal r(deportation).
Step 8: Apply for Adjustment of Status to Gain Permanent Residency
After marriage, the next step is for the couple to file for a green card (Form I-485, Adjustment of Status). If the foreign partner intends to work in the U.S. or travel outside of the country while their application is being processed, they must also file for a Work and Travel Permit (Forms I-765 and I-131, respectively) and From I-864, Affidavit of Support. Filing these forms concurrently with Form I-485 results in the waiving of their fees.
Listed below are the required forms for this step in the application process:
Form I-485. Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status:
- Learn how to file this form here
Form I-864, Affidavit of Support
- Learn how to file this form here,
Form I-131, Application for Travel
- Learn more about this form here
Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization
- Check out our step-by-step guide to Form I-765 here
Going the K-1, Fiancé(e) Visa to Adjustment of Status route is often the most expensive option for applicants, totaling approximately $2,560.
1) Petition for Alien Fiancé(e) (Form I-129F) = $535
2) K-1 Fiancé(e) Visa Application Fee = $265
3) Green card application: Forms I-130 and I-485 = $1,760
Who does this route apply to
This route applies to anyone who is engaged to a U.S. citizen and who plans to get married in the United States before applying for Permanent Residency.
Applying and waiting
- Petition for Alien Fiancé(e) (Form I-129F) – Outside the U.S.
- K-1 (Fiancé(e)) Visa (Form DS-160): Outside the U.S.
- Entry to the United States is only allowed once the K-1 temporary visa has been granted. Applicants are then able to marry inside the United States and apply for an Adjustment of Status.
- Adjustment of Status (Form I-485): Inside the U.S.
- Petition for Alien Relative (Form I-129F) = 8-10 months
- K-1 Visa Application: Varies by embassy/consulate
- Green card application: 10-24 Months
In total, the timeline for the fiancé(e) path to permanent residency varies greatly depending on the circumstance of the case such as the citizenship of the applicant, wait-times at the specific embassy, etc. On average, start to finish wait times average anywhere between 13 and 27 months.
Work and Travel
Rules surrounding work and travel differ depending on which stage in the process the applicant is at. Below, the information is broken up into the two primary stages.
- Petition for Alien Fiancé(e) and K-1 Fiancé(e) Visa: Applicants must wait for their Fiancé(e) Visa from outside of the United States and, as a result, will be unable to work or travel in the United States.
- Green card application via Adjustment of Status: Applicants both apply for and wait for their green card inside of the United States. During the waiting period they will be unable to work and travel until a Work and Travel Permit has been granted. Leaving the country before Advance Parole or Permanent Residency has been granted could result in the termination of the applicants petition. Working without the proper authorization could affect future eligibility for U.S. immigration benefits and may result in removal (deportation).
SimpleCitizen’s Eligibility Quiz
In order to make sure you are eligible to apply and that you choose the correct application for your situation, you can use SimpleCitizen’s free eligibility quiz here.
By answering just a few easy questions you can determine if you are eligible to apply.
If you have a questions about your eligibility or are unsure how to get started, here are a few options:
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