Direct Consular Filing, Explained
Understanding the fast-track option for an I-130 form filed abroad
What is Direct Consular Filing?
Direct consular filing allows a sponsoring spouse to file Form I-130 (family sponsorship form) — the first step of the marriage-based green card process — with a U.S. Department of State or U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency outside the United States. This process is often much faster compared with filing Form I-130 with a domestic U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) lockbox facility in the United States.
But direct consular filing has limitations, too. First, it’s not available to everyone: Only sponsoring spouses who temporarily live outside the United States and meet other requirements can take advantage of this option. Second, it can be used only to file Form I-130 abroad — it won’t speed up the handling of other green card paperwork, such as Form DS-260 (online immigrant visa application) and Form I-864 (financial support form).
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Who Can Use Direct Consular Filing?
For most spouses seeking a green card, direct consular filing is only available if the couple meets all of the following conditions:
- The sponsoring spouse is a U.S. citizen currently residing outside the United States or a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) who is outside the United States for an extended period of time.
- The sponsoring spouse can prove that they are temporarily living in — not just visiting — a country other than the United States.
- The sponsoring spouse’s permanent home is — or will be — in the United States.
- The couple has an exceptional circumstance (see below) — unless an international USCIS field office is available in the country where the sponsoring spouse currently lives.
What counts as an “exceptional circumstance”?
A qualifying “exceptional circumstance” includes any of the following:
- A medical emergency, affecting either the sponsoring spouse or the spouse seeking a green card and requiring urgent travel. This might include a pregnancy where the expectant mother will soon be unable to fly.
- A military deployment, but only if the military service member received far less notice than normal.
- A change in employment, but only for a sponsoring spouse who is a U.S. citizen living abroad and whose work or job offer requires them to relocate to the United States on short notice.
- A threat to personal safety, if either the sponsoring spouse or the spouse seeking a green card has credible fears about their security.
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How Long Does Direct Consular Filing Take?
Check the average processing time at your current country’s international USCIS field office to get a clearer sense of how long you’ll wait for your I-130 to be approved. Keep in mind that processing times change, depending on the workload and available resources at each facility.
Unfortunately, current wait times are not available at U.S. Embassies or consulates, but the process is expedited and will usually take weeks rather than months.
The cost for direct consular filing is $535 to file Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative). Note this is only the first step of the green card application, and it does not include additional costs to submit a green card.
Where Can You Direct-File?
Sponsoring spouses can file their Form I-130 with a U.S. consulate or embassy (agencies of the State Department) or — if available — with an international USCIS field office (agency of DHS).
The right place to file depends on whether or not you have exceptional circumstances that qualify you for direct filing.
- If you do have an exceptional circumstance: You can file your I-130 with your nearest U.S. consulate or embassy.
- If you do not have an exceptional circumstance: You may use direct filing only if the country where you currently live has an international USCIS field office.
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How to Use Direct Consular Filing for an I-130
If you do have exceptional circumstances
- Start by contacting your local consulate or embassy. They will be able to explain whether you can use direct filing for your I-130. (Not all consulates are equipped to handle green card applications, so it’s important to check.) They will also be able to help you decide whether you should submit your I-130 to the consulate or embassy or to an international USCIS field office.
- Submit your I-130 form, along with proof of the sponsoring spouse’s residency in the consulate, embassy, or international USCIS field office’s jurisdiction, the standard 535 filing fee, and any other supporting documents ordinarily required for your situation. Check with your consulate or embassy for information about acceptable documentation and preferred means of payment.
If you do not have exceptional circumstances
- Check whether the country where you currently live has an international USCIS field office.
- If it does, you can submit your I-130 application along with proof of the sponsoring spouse’s residency in the international USCIS field office’s jurisdiction, the standard $535 filing fee, and any other supporting documents ordinarily required for your situation. Check your local field office’s web page for information about acceptable documentation and preferred means of payment.
Remember that whatever your circumstances, you always have the option of filing via the regular USCIS lockbox in the United States instead of using direct consular filing. Your petition will not be expedited if you file at a lockbox, but you won’t have to deal with the complexities of the direct filing system.
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Requirements and Special Considerations
There are also some important limitations to direct consular filing:
- Residence: The sponsoring spouse will have to show that they are actually living in the country from which they are filing the I-130, which may mean producing documents such as residence permits, visas, or apartment leases.
- Financial support: You’ll also need to show that the sponsoring spouse is “domiciled” in the United States in order to file Form I-864 (financial support form). “Domicile” refers to the sponsoring spouse’s primary residence, which they plan to maintain. That could become more complicated if you’ve previously documented that the sponsor is living overseas. There are exceptions to the domicile rule for U.S. citizens employed abroad by the U.S. government, research groups, religious organizations, and international organizations, as well as for green card holders who are employed by such groups and have filed a Form N-470 (officially called the “Application to Preserve Residence for Naturalization Purposes”). Sponsoring spouses who plan to establish U.S. domicile prior to or at the same time as their spouse’s arrival in the United States are also exempt from the rule, though this can be somewhat harder to document.
- No right to appeal: If you’re applying based on exceptional circumstances, USCIS has the final say. If a USCIS officer decides your circumstances do not qualify, there’s no option to appeal and no way to request that the decision be reconsidered. If your request is denied, you’ll have to resubmit your I-130 to a USCIS lockbox in the United States.
- Not always a shortcut: Remember that consular officers will approve your I-130 only if you have a simple, clear-cut case. If your case is more complex, and consular officers are not sure whether they can approve your I-130, they’ll send it to a domestic USCIS field office in the United States for review. That adds time on top of the usual wait time of filing with the USCIS lockbox in the United States.
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