You are married and ready to start your life together in the U.S. However, as a foreign national, you have to apply for a spouse visa (marriage-based green card) first. This article focuses on the green card process for U.S. citizens sponsoring spouses living abroad, commonly referred to as consular processing.

Understanding the Spouse Visa

The first step in the process is applying for an immigrant visa. There are two types of immigrant visas for spouses living abroad:

  • Conditional Resident Spouse Visa (CR-1)
  • Immediate Relative Spouse Visa (IR-1)

The processes are the same for applying for a conditional resident or an immediate relative. The only difference between the two is the length of time that you have been married. You are eligible for conditional residency if you have been married for less than two years. You receive a green card without conditions as an immediate relative (IR) if you have been married for more than two years. A conditional resident (CR) will have to take a step down the road to remove conditions.

Only a U.S. citizen can apply for a CR or IR visa for a foreign national spouse. Permanent residents may apply for a foreign national spouse under a different, much longer process. Your unmarried children under the age of 21 can be included on separate green card applications.

In the past, couples benefited from applying for a K-3 visa that allowed the foreign national to enter the country to join her U.S. citizen spouse while her application for a green card was pending. Unfortunately, the processing times have grown much longer, and you are likely to wait about as long for a K-3 as for a green card, and incur additional costs. For this reason, it’s best to avoid this option and focus wholly on your green card process.

Ready to get started? Here’s the spouse visa process explained in six easy steps.

1. U.S. Citizen Files a Visa Petition

The purpose of this step is to prove that your marriage is valid and real. Your U.S. citizen spouse (also called the “sponsor” or “petitioner”) files form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative and form I-130A, Supplemental Information for Spouse Beneficiary with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). You, the foreign spouse, are known as the “beneficiary” in this process.

The application package should include the two forms, filing fees ($535), 2 colored passport photos of you/your spouse and the following supporting documents:

  • Copy of marriage certificate
  • Divorce decrees from former marriages
  • Proof of any legal name changes
  • Proof that your spouse is a U.S. citizen, usually through a birth certificate, U.S. passport or naturalization certificate.

In addition to these documents, you also need to provide proof that your marriage is real (also known as a bona fide marriage). You have to submit one or more of the following:

  • Joint bank account statements
  • Joint lease or documents showing joint ownership of property
  • Birth certificates of children born to you and your spouse together
  • Any other documents that that prove your ongoing union (e.g. shared bills)

Detailed instructions around documentation can be found here (pages 6-7).

Mail the completed application package to the USCIS address that is applicable to you. Within a couple of weeks, you should receive a notice in the mail from the USCIS, acknowledging receipt of your petition. It generally takes the USCIS 7-11 months to make a decision.

2. Receive USCIS Notice of Approval

The USCIS will send your spouse the decision and forward the approved petition to the Department of State’s National Visa Center (NVC). The approval notice is also known as the I-797, Notice of Action. If it’s been 30-45 days since you received your I-130 approval notice and you haven’t heard from the NVC (via email or mail), contact the NVC to make sure your case was transferred over to them.

The NVC will assign your case a number, which you will need later on. As you are an immediate relative, your visa number is immediately available and your case will be processed as soon as it is received. After several months, your case will be referred to the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your home country.

3. File Form DS-261

As soon as the NVC shares your case number with you, you can file form DS-261. This is a straight-forward form, which has no fee and can be completed online here. To start the form, you will need your case number. Once filed, you’ll need to pay $445 in fees (for the next step in the process) through the same portal. Simply click on “Fee Payment” here. You will need your case number again to make the payment.

4. Apply for an Immigrant Visa

Once your payment clears, you are ready to file form DS-260 for an immigrant visa. Form DS-260 is also completed online. Don’t forget to print the confirmation page when you get to the last screen. You will need to take this to your consulate interview. Like before, you will receive a notice acknowledging receipt of your submission.

Now, you must submit your supporting documents to the NVC. This includes a completed form I-864 Affidavit of Support, which is your spouse’s promise to support you if you don’t have the means to support yourself. Supporting documents are either uploaded online, sent via email or regular mail to the NVC. You can figure out which method applies to you here. It will take roughly 3-6 months for the NVC to process your application. Once it does, your case will be transferred to the U.S. Embassy/Consulate in your home country.

5. Attend the Consulate Interview

You will receive an appointment notice with the time, date and location of your interview. The notice will also include other instructions, such as what documents to bring and how to schedule a medical examination / biometrics (fingerprinting) appointment. As soon as you receive your interview notice, schedule the following:

Medical Examination: You must complete a medical examination before your interview date. The examination must be conducted by a doctor that is authorized by the State Department. You will be provided with direction on how to locate an approved doctor. Bring your past vaccination records to your appointment. If you do not have all the required vaccinations (or are unable to supply records of them), you will have to get those vaccinations. At the end of your examination, the doctor will give you a sealed envelope with your results. Do not open this envelope! If you would like a copy for your records, ask the doctor to provide you with one. You will take this sealed envelope to your interview.

Biometrics Appointment: This is a fairly simple appointment – you are fingerprinted and photographed. Many Embassies/Consulates require applicants to schedule their biometrics appointment before the interview. Some consulates take fingerprints at the time of the interview – your notice will indicate how to proceed with fingerprinting.

You are now ready for your interview! This is one of the final steps in the process. Your notice will indicate whether phones are allowed or not in your Consulate. Do not show up with your phone if they are not allowed. They will not hold on to them for you.

Upon conclusion of the appointment, the consular officer will finish processing your application and render a decision. You will be given a visa packet if your green card is granted. Please note that the sponsoring spouse does not attend this interview, just the foreign spouse applying for the green card. If approved, you will leave your passport with the Consulate so it can be stamped with a visa. Your passport will be returned via courier services (which you will have already paid for) or available for pick-up at a collection center (varies by country). This may take anywhere from a couple of days to a week.

6. Enter the United States

Hand the visa packet to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at the port of entry. The CBP officer will ask you questions and review the documents contained in the visa packet. You will then be admitted to the United States as a permanent resident or conditional permanent resident. In order to receive the physical green card, you have to pay the USCIS Immigrant Fee ($220). The green card is usually mailed (to your U.S. address) a few weeks after you arrive in the U.S.

Expect the whole process to take 11-19 months. Here is a summary of the costs, with and without a lawyer’s help.

I-130 Filing Fee $535
DS-260 Fee $325
I-864 Affidavit of Support Fee $120
Medical Examination Up to $200
Physical Green Card Fee $220
Total Cost (without a lawyer) $1400
Lawyer Cost (excludes filing fees above) $2000-3500 (range based on NY lawyers)
Total Cost (with lawyer) $1400 Govt Filing Fees + Lawyer Fee = $3400 – $4900

Consular processing is complex. An attorney can help you through the process and troubleshoot potential challenges you may face. Speak with an experienced immigration attorney today.

Related articles: Choosing Between a Fiance Visa or Spouse Visa

*The content and materials available via Ask Ellis are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice.

  1. Avatar
    Marx Maglanque

    Very helpful to me esp. for those who can’t afford a lawer.

  2. Avatar

    This was super helpful! I’ve been trying to find a website online that gives the information in a simple yet detailed manner and this page did just that and more! (Including all the costs at the end was the “and more” because it saved me the time of having to go back and find all the costs myself.)
    Thank you!

  3. Avatar

    Very helpful! My spouse is filling this without a lawyer. I will share with him this it will be very helpful. Can I reach you for help if we are stuck anywhere?

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