Spouse Visa Guide: Living Abroad and Married to a U.S. Citizen
Start-to-finish guide to “consular processing” for spouses of U.S. citizens
If you are a U.S. citizen married to a foreign national who is living abroad, this guide is for both of you—we’ll go step by step through the process of getting your marriage green card. This type of green card application process is also commonly called “Consular Processing.”
If your circumstances are different, take a look at our other Start-to-Finish guides, as well as our general overview of the marriage green card process.
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USCIS Fees Increase
The marriage green card process could get more expensive in the coming months.
In January 2023, USCIS announced a new fee structure proposal that would increase government filing costs for nearly every visa category, including marriage green cards via consular processing. To learn what costs you can expect if the proposal goes into effect, and to get timely updates on any immigration cost changes, see Boundless’ USCIS fees guide.
Step 1: Sponsorship
The first step in the marriage-based green card process is filing Form I-130 (technically called the “Petition for Alien Relative”) with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The primary purpose of this form is to establish the existence of a valid marriage.
The spouse filing this I-130 form is called the “sponsor” or “petitioner.” This is the spouse who is the current U.S. citizen. The spouse who’s seeking a green card is called the “beneficiary.”
Government Forms and Fees
This step requires $535 in government fees, two forms, and supporting documents:
There will be additional government fees, forms, and supporting documents for the next steps in this process, described below.
Once your I-130 filing package is complete, you’ll mail it to the right USCIS address. Next you’ll get an official receipt notice in the mail from USCIS, usually within two weeks. If USCIS needs more information or documents to finish processing your materials, they will send you a “Request for Evidence” (RFE) within 2–3 months.
Not sure what costs to expect? Boundless’ USCIS fee calculator can help determine the exact government fees for your application. We also help you pay your costs in installments, so you can get started now and pay later. Get started today!
Step 2: Green Card Application
Next, since the spouse seeking a green card is living abroad, USCIS transfers the case to the National Visa Center (NVC), which is run by the U.S. State Department. The NVC’s job is to gather the necessary forms and documents and decide whether the spouse is ready for an interview at a U.S. Embassy or consulate abroad (called “consular processing”).
After receiving the case from USCIS, the NVC assigns a unique case number that is then used to identify the case from that point onward. For spouses of U.S. citizens, the NVC starts processing your case immediately after receiving it from USCIS, and after – months, forwards the case to a U.S. Embassy or consulate in the applicant spouse’s country of residence.
Government Forms and Fees
Once you receive your case number from the NVC, the next step is to file the DS-261 form. This is a relatively simple form that tells the State Department how to communicate with you, and there is no fee to file it. It can take up to three weeks for the NVC to process the DS-261.
Next, you’ll need to pay a total of $445 online, covering both the State Department’s application processing fee ($325) and the financial support form fee ($120. It can take up to a week for the NVC to process your payment.
Filing the Visa Application
Once your payment has been processed, you can file the DS-260 (immigrant visa application). You’ll need your case number, beneficiary ID number, and invoice number from the original welcome notice that the NVC sent you. Once you’ve submitted the DS-260 online, you must print the confirmation page so you can bring it to your visa interview at the U.S. consulate.
After you submit your DS-260, the NVC will send out a notice (again via mail or email) confirming receipt of your DS-260, usually on the same day.
You will then need to submit your supporting documents to the NVC as well, which will include Form I-864 (technically called an “Affidavit of Support”). Depending on which consulate is processing the application, you will either upload, email, or mail all of the supporting documents to the NVC. Check here to determine which of the submission options apply to you.
If the NVC needs more information or documents to complete your NVC package, they will send you a checklist of missing documents.
Step 3: Pre-Interview Requirements
Once the NVC has completed its processing of your NVC package, the file is then transferred to the U.S. Embassy or consulate that processes green card applications in the applicant spouse’s home country. But there are still a few requirements before the interview can happen!
Before attending the green card interview, the spouse seeking a green card must have a medical examination performed by a State Department-approved doctor. The U.S. consulate processing your application will send you a list of these doctors along with your interview notice. The cost of this exam varies widely by country, but $200 is not uncommon.
Once the exam is complete, the doctor will give you a sealed envelope containing your exam results and vaccination record, which you must take with you to the interview.
Before the interview, the spouse seeking a green card must sign up online with an address to which the passport can be returned after an approved visa stamp is placed in the passport. Instructions to sign up for passport delivery are posted on each consulate’s website.
The spouse seeking a green card must also, in most countries, sign up for a fingerprinting appointment at a visa application support center (this is usually a location different from the consulate). The purpose of this appointment is for the government to take fingerprints of the spouse, in order to conduct background and security checks. These instructions are also posted on each consulate’s website.
The fingerprinting appointment is typically low-stress and can be thought of as more of a procedural step. The spouse seeking a green card will not be asked questions about the marriage or about green card eligibility at this appointment. They will simply be fingerprinted.
Boundless stays with you until the green card finish line, helping you keep on top of interview preparation, follow-on forms, and every other important milestone along your immigration journey. Learn more about what Boundless can do to help.
Step 4: Interview and Approval
The Green Card Interview
The interview is the final major step in the green card application process, and it can be the most stressful and intimidating part. Couples can help alleviate this stress by knowing what to expect and putting together an organized file to take to the interview.
A spouse living abroad will attend an interview at a U.S. Embassy or consulate in their home country, after receiving an appointment notice with the exact time, date, and location. The sponsoring spouse does not attend this interview.
Check out these resources for more details:
- Guide to the marriage green card interview
- Common interview questions (which can get very personal!)
If the consular officer is sufficiently convinced that the marriage is not fraudulent, they may approve your green card application on the spot. (It’s important to understand all the possibilities, though.)
What Happens Next
The spouse will then receive a visa stamp in their passport, allowing for travel to the United States.
Next, the USCIS Immigrant Fee ($220) can be paid online here. This fee must be paid for USCIS to produce and mail the physical green card. Typically 2–3 weeks after the applicant spouse arrives in the United States, the physical green card is then mailed to the couple’s U.S. address.
If you’ve been married for less than two years at the time of green card approval, then this green card will be marked “CR1,” for “conditional green card.” These green cards are valid for only two years, at which point you must jointly file another form to “remove the conditions,” giving USCIS one more opportunity to make sure that the marriage is real, and then get a permanent green card.
If you’ve been married for more than two years at the time of green card approval, then the green card will be marked “IR1,” for “immediate relative green card.” These green cards are valid for 10 years, and renewal is typically a simple process.
Spouse Visa FAQs
This is a tricky question, since it does vary on a case by case basis. If you’re trying to enter the U.S. on a tourist visa, it’s important to note it is always at the discretion of U.S. government officials to either permit or deny entry to a foreign spouse with a pending visa application. Boundless put together a detailed guide on how to navigate visiting your spouse in the U.S. while your application is pending. In the guide, you’ll learn more about the risks involved, better alternatives, and more.
For couples who aren’t yet married and one partner is living abroad, there are generally two immigration options available. The spousal visa process, as outlined in this guide, and the K-1 fiancé visa process. Each visa type has its own process and requirements, its advantages and disadvantages. Check out this comparison guide to help determine which option may be right for you. Boundless also offers a free, 5-minute visa quiz to help you assess your immigration options. Learn more.
One of the most important aspects of the spousal visa process is proving to the U.S. government that your marriage is legitimate, and not just for immigration purposes. This can be a complex requirement to navigate, and the general rule of thumb is to provide as much supporting evidence as possible on your application to demonstrate a comprehensive picture of your marriage to USCIS. Boundless has a guide on how to prove a “bona fide” marriage and what types of strong evidence to provide here.