Marrying a U.S. Citizen - What You Should Know

In a Nutshell

Congratulations on finding your life partner! Now is the time to figure out the logistics of getting married to your U.S. citizen spouse. This article explains how you and your spouse can live permanently in the United States. A marriage green card allows the spouse of a U.S. citizen to live and work anywhere in the United States. The article also explains the visa considerations to bear in mind when deciding whether to get married in the United States or abroad.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Updated April 26, 2023

How Can You Live With Your Spouse Permanently in the United States?

U.S. immigration law provides pathways for you to live with your spouse permanently in the United States by applying for a marriage-based green card. Marriage-based green cards allow spouses of U.S. citizens or green card holders to live and work in the United States. As a green card holder, the U.S. government grants you lawful permanent resident status. Eventually, you may also gain eligibility to apply for U.S. citizenship and a U.S. passport through the naturalization process. 

You need an immediate relative to “sponsor” your application. For marriage-based green cards, your sponsor is your spouse. If your spouse is a U.S. citizen, you won’t need to wait long for your application to be processed. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) allows you to begin the green card application process as soon as you have married your U.S. citizen spouse. USCIS’ processing times can vary and sometimes takes months or years for complex cases (if you have children, for example). In general, it takes between 14–28 months to obtain your marriage-based green card if you apply from within the United States. If you apply from outside the United States, it will take between 17–24 months.

Sponsoring U.S. citizen spouses must provide supporting documents to prove that they pay their taxes and have enough income to support your life in the United States financially. Sponsors will need to complete Form I-864: Affidavit of Support for their partner’s green card application. Form I-864 is a legal contract in which a sponsor agrees to support you if you do not find a source of income or employment in the United States.

Where Should You and Your U.S. Citizen Spouse Marry?

You and your soon-to-be spouse should carefully consider whether it makes more sense to get married in the United States or abroad. Here’s a breakdown of the difference.  

Marrying in the United States

If you and your U.S. citizen spouse marry in the U.S., you will apply for your marriage green card through the adjustment of status (AOS) process. But before diving into that step, let’s go over the 90-day rule.

90-Day Rule 

USCIS uses the 90-day rule to assess whether green card applicants have willfully misled the U.S. government about their initial intentions for entering the country. When you applied for your visa, you must not have intended to remain in the U.S. beyond its expiration date. And you should not apply for AOS within the first 90 days of your stay in the United States. If you break this rule, USCIS will likely deny your case.

However, don’t be afraid to start this process even if you’ve fallen out of status. If you entered the United States legally but fell out of status, USCIS can choose to forgive this during your adjustment of status process.

Adjustment of Status (AOS) 

If you and your partner live in the United States, you are likely on a temporary work or visitor visa. To apply for a green card after marrying in the U.S., you’ll be adjusting your temporary visa status. This is a process called adjustment of status. You and your partner should marry and register your marriage with local officials to begin this process. Your U.S. citizen spouse will act as your “sponsor” during the application process. Together, you will need to file Form I-130: Petition for Alien Relative (to be completed by your spouse) and Form I-485: Application to Adjust Status

Check out our Complete Guide to the Adjustment of Status Process for more important information about what you need to prepare for. 

Marrying Outside of the United States

If you live outside of the United States, you will have two options for applying for a green card through marriage: consular processing and K-1 visa status. 

Consular Processing

You and your partner can marry abroad and apply for your green card through consular processing. To apply through consular processing, you’ll send application materials to your local U.S. embassy or consulate and wait in your home country until further notice. This immigration process may take several months. You will be able to continue your regular employment abroad while you wait for approval.

Your U.S. citizen spouse will act as your “sponsor” during the application process. Your sponsor must file Form I-130: Petition for Alien Relative, and then you must file Form DS-160: Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application. You’ll also need to complete a medical exam and an interview at your selected U.S. embassy or consulate. If approved, you will obtain your green card once you arrive to the U.S. With a green card, you’ll immediately be able to access immigration benefits available to lawful permanent residents.

K-1 Visa

The K-1 visa, also known as the fiancé visa, allows intended or likely future spouses of U.S. citizens to first come to the United States before marrying their partners. Once married, the non-U.S. citizen partner can then adjust their immigration status to a green card. You and your partner may obtain a K-1 visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate. For a foreign national partner to be eligible for the K-1 visa, the couple usually must have seen one another in person within the last two years. 

This visa option is conditional on a foreign partner marrying their U.S. citizen partner within 90 days of entering the United States. If the couple does not marry in time, the foreign spouse must leave the United States. If you come to the United States on a K-1 visa and marry your partner in time, you’ll next file Form I-485: Application to Adjust Status. You’ll also need to complete a biometrics appointment and, in some cases, an interview. If you wish to find employment or travel outside of the United States while your green card application is pending, you should first file for a work permit and a travel permit

Valid Marriages

When deciding where to marry, keep the above factors in mind. You should also be aware that the U.S. government will only consider applications for those who entered into valid civil marriages, as determined by the laws of the country in which you married. If you and your partner are a same-sex couple, you should review the marriage laws of your selected country to make sure that your marriage is legally valid. If the jurisdiction you marry in recognizes your marriage as a valid civil marriage, so will the U.S. government.