What to expect from the H-1B to green card timeline and application process
If you’re an H-1B holder who fell in love and married an American or a lawful permanent resident (green card holder), you can apply for a marriage-based green card to ensure you’re able to stay in the United States permanently and continue working. A green card also gives you an eventual pathway to U.S. citizenship.
The process can be complicated, and there are important differences depending on whether your spouse is a U.S. citizen or a green card holder, so it’s worth making sure you understand the process.
In this article, you will learn:
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Unlike many temporary visas, the H-1B visa is a “dual-intent” visa that holders can use to come and work in the United States even while they’re seeking permanent residence. That’s important because it means H-1B holders can apply for green cards freely from inside the United States, without being suspected of having misrepresented their intentions when they first arrived.
The precise application process — and, crucially, the H-1B to green card processing time — varies significantly based on whether you’re married to a U.S. citizen or green card holder.
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Two Paths to a Green Card
There are two pathways for switching from an H-1B visa to a marriage green card. Which path you’ll follow depends on whether you are married to a U.S. citizen or a green card holder.
Let’s look at each path more closely:
Path 1: If you’re married to a U.S. citizen
Spouses of U.S. citizens have a straightforward route to a marriage green card. You’ll need to file the family sponsorship form (Form I-130) to establish your relationship and the green card application (Form I-485) to request a green card.
H-1B holders married to a U.S. citizen may file the family sponsorship form and the green card application at the same time. This process is known as “concurrent filing,” and it helps reduce how long it takes to go from H-1B to green card. See the “timeline” section below to find out how long you’ll have to wait.
IMPORTANT: Once you’ve filed Form I-485, you should obtain a travel permit before taking any trips outside the United States. If you travel without a permit, the U.S. government will consider you to have abandoned your green card application, and you will need to restart the process from the beginning.
Get a work permit
Due to the lengthy application process, it’s typically a good idea to apply for a work permit (officially called the “Employment Authorization Document,” or EAD) at the same time as filing your other paperwork. After submitting your marriage-based green card application, you’ll receive your work permit — usually within around 150 days, though USCIS processing times are getting longer due to a backlog of applications.
If your H-1B visa expires while your green card case is pending and you don’t have a separate work permit, you’ll have to stop working until you receive work authorization again.
The work permit application (Form I-765) is free to file and won’t impact the outcome of your green card application. Many applicants file work permit applications as a preventive measure in case their H-1B visa expires while they’re waiting for their green card.
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Path 2: If you’re married to a green card holder
H-1B holders seeking a green card through marriage to a permanent resident face a more complicated process and longer wait times than applicants married to U.S. citizens.
Like the spouses of citizens, H-1B holders married to green card holders must file the family sponsorship form (Form I-130) to establish their relationship, and the green card application (Form I-485) to request a green card.
However, spouses of green card holders can’t use concurrent filing to submit all their paperwork at once. Instead, they must file the family sponsorship form, then wait to receive a visa number. (Visa numbers are issued immediately to the spouses of U.S. citizens, but not to spouses of green card holders.) Only after receiving a visa number will you be able to submit your green card application.
That means significant additional delays. Most H-1B holders have to wait approximately two years after filing the family sponsorship form before they can continue the process by filing their green card application.
IMPORTANT: Once you’ve filed Form I-485, you should obtain a travel permit before taking any trips outside the United States. If you travel without a permit, the U.S. government will consider you to have abandoned your green card application, and you will need to start the process from the beginning again.
Get a work permit
Like the spouses of U.S. citizens, H-1B holders who marry legal permanent residents can apply for a work permit (officially called the “Employment Authorization Document,” or EAD) at no extra cost when applying for a green card. But there’s a catch: the work permit application (Form I-765) can only be filed alongside your actual green card application, not your family sponsorship form. Until you receive a visa number and submit your green card application, you’ll use your existing H-1B visa to remain in the United States and continue working.
That can cause problems if H-1B holders reach the 6-year maximum on their visas before becoming eligible to apply for a green card. In such cases, they will have to leave the United States and continue the green card application through what’s known as “consular processing.” Only after the green card is issued can the applicant return to the United States and continue working.
Due to the long waiting periods for spouses of U.S. green card holders, it is important to begin the green card application process as soon as possible after you are married. The more time you have left on your H-1B visa, the more smoothly your application is likely to go.
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The timeline for getting a marriage-based green card depends on whether you’re married to a U.S. citizen or green card holder:
Boundless streamlines the application process for marriage green cards by helping you avoid common problems, such as forgetting to include an important supporting document, which can cause delays or even denial. Learn more, or get started now!
What if my H-1B visa expires before I get my green card?
The timeline is especially important for H-1B holders, because they typically have to leave the United States after their sixth year in H-1B status, and must return to their home country for a year before being eligible to re-apply for another H-1B visa. If your visa expires before you file your green card application you’ll have to leave the United States and continue via consular processing, even if you’ve already had your family sponsorship form approved.
To avoid a long separation, it’s sometimes possible to obtain another temporary visa, such as an F-1 student visa, when your H-1B visa expires. Unfortunately, while such visas allow you to remain in the United States, they aren’t employment visas, so you won’t be able to keep working for your H-1B employer.
If you’re in H-1B status, check your options early, and keep an eye on current H-1B processing times, since it’s much easier to move to a marriage-based green card if you have plenty of time left on your visa.
What if the sponsoring spouse’s status changes?
Green cards based on marriage to a U.S. citizen can be obtained more quickly and easily than those based on marriage to a green card holder, so one way to speed up an H-1B holder’s green card application is for the sponsoring spouse to seek citizenship.
If the sponsoring spouse gains U.S. citizenship while their partner is seeking a marriage-based green card, they can notify USCIS to upgrade the case. Spouses of U.S. citizens can immediately file their complete green card application, along with a work permit application. This significantly speeds up the process, and allows the H-1B spouse to continue working in the United States even after their H-1B visa expires.
Even if the H-1B spouse has already left the United States, you should still notify USCIS to upgrade your case. This will likely help you to reunite with your spouse sooner.
Planning to file for citizenship? Boundless can help with both naturalization and marriage-based green card applications, and you can check your eligibility without providing any personal or financial information. Learn more, or start your application now.