Everything You Need to Know about Marriage-Based Green Cards

Marriage-based green cards are one of the quickest ways of living in the U.S. permanently. Sadly, this means it’s also one of the most abused.

Commonly called “marriage-based green cards,” IR-1 and CR-1 immigrant visas are generally given to the spouses of U.S. citizens who want to live in the country permanently.

At the cost of following more rigorous guidelines, marriage-based green card applicants receive numerous benefits such as shorter waiting times and a quicker path to citizenship. Applying for a marriage-based green card is also quite simple; all you have to do is fill out a few forms and attend an interview.

This article will cover everything you need to know about marriage-based green cards, including the basic benefits they provide, how to file for one, and the ways in which they differ from other comparable visa types. As always, it’s recommended that you speak with an attorney before filling out any official immigration paperwork.

CR-1 and IR-1 Basics

The marriage-based green card is a way of gaining permanent residency status. U.S. citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) generally divides this green card into two preferences, however, there are few actual differences between each type.

For marriages shorter than 2 years, the U.S. citizen will petition for their spouse under the CR-1 umbrella. For marriages longer than 2 years, the U.S. citizen will petition the government for residency as an immediate relative (IR-1). Permanent residents of the U.S. may also sponsor their spouses in this way, however, the process towards citizenship changes slightly. For instance, spouses of U.S. citizens can file for citizenship after 3 years of residency, while spouses of permanent residents must wait 5 years.

Sadly, since marrying a U.S. citizen is one of the quickest paths to citizenship, people often abuse the process. For this reason, USCIS has implemented measures to ensure the validity of each and every application. USCIS requires that all applicants provide thorough documentation of their relationship so they can prove the marriage is not fraudulent.

CR-1 visa

“CR” stands for “Conditional Resident.” As mentioned earlier, CR-1s are issued to couples who have been married less than 2 years. USCIS makes this distinction to avoid “green card marriages” where people avoid the normal immigration paths by abusing this type of visa. Basically, USCIS wants to make sure you didn’t get married just to evade U.S. immigration laws.

Your CR-1 is only “good” for 2 years. When your permanent residency is about to expire, you should renew your status under the IR-1 preference detailed below. You have 90 days before the end of your conditional residency to do this. Think of the CR-1 as a normal green card that requires renewal after two years, and carries a few extra requirements. As an added bonus, the CR-1 also functions as a work permit. You don’t need to file any additional paperwork to get a job in the U.S.

While the CR-1 is based on the condition that you and your spouse stay married, there are some exceptions. If you have conditional residency, and your marriage ends through divorce or other means, you might still be able to stay in the country. Often these cases are complicated and are decided based on the particulars of your situation. However, USCIS still requires that you prove your marriage was valid.

In addition, if your spouse is a U.S.citizen or resident and abuses you in any way, you may separate from them while also remaining in the country. Further, abused spouses may also file for a new, self-sponsored residency status under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

IR-1 visa

The IR-1 gives you “immediate relative” status. The IR-1 is not conditional, and the immediate family members of any U.S. citizen or permanent resident can file for residency under this green card.

For the sake of this article, however, the IR-1:

  • Is for couples who have been married more than 2 years.
  • Lasts for 10 years (in most cases you’ll file for citizenship before this date).
  • Allows you to work in the U.S.
  • Is not conditional upon staying married.

Immediate relative green cards are one of the most popular ways to gain permanent residency in the U.S.

Filing for a Marriage-Based Green Card

While the outcomes and requirements are different, the actual filing processes for each type of visa is generally the same. The biggest factor which will affect your application is whether or not you already reside in the U.S. If the foreign spouse resides in another country, they’ll go through “consular processing,” which takes place at your local consulate. Your interview also takes place at this consulate. Residents of the U.S. however only need to file for an adjustment of status.

There are four general steps you’ll follow in this process, followed by a few more guidelines when entering the country.

1) File a Petition

The first step is for the spouse who is a permanent U.S. resident to file forms I-130, Petition for Alien Relative and I-130A, Supplemental Information. These forms start the process of establishing your relationship with a relative (spouse) living in another country. You’ll file these forms with the USCIS. If the alien spouse is already a U.S. resident, they’ll also file the I-485 Adjustment of Status application with USCIS at this time.

Spouses outside the country must go through consular processing. Basically, this means that USCIS coordinates the remainder of your green card process through the National Visa Center (NVC) at your local consulate.

The I-130 forms, however, have the same general requirements in both cases. When sending in the I-130 forms, the citizen spouse should include:

  • A copy of the marriage certificate.
  • Passport-style photos of both of you.
  • Any other information that helps establish you’re really a married couple.
    • This can include bank statements, joint property statements, or affidavits from friends.

2) Pay Fees

USCIS (or the NVC) will then tell you what fees you need to pay to continue filing your petition. There are several fees associated with visa applications. These generally cover copying and processing fees. Some common fees include:

  • I-130 filing fee – $535
  • I-485 filing fee – $1,225
  • Medical exam and vaccination fees
  • Attorney fees and the cost of postage

Each agency will give you details about the fees are required, and where to pay them, but you should expect to pay several hundred dollars at a minimum. Most applications, however, can stretch into the thousands.

3) Provide Supporting Documents

There are several other supporting documents each spouse should send along to USCIS or the NVC:

  • Form I-864, Affidavit of Support: This is a document stating that the petitioning U.S. resident promises to “sponsor” their spouse who is coming to the U.S. In other words, they promise to accept all financial responsibility for their husband or wife planning to join them in the United States.
  • Passport: The immigrant spouse must show proof of a valid (up-to-date) passport from their home country.
  • Civil Documents: This includes birth certificates, marriage certificates, adoption papers, and any other civil documents. These must be translated into English, if applicable.
  • Medical Forms: You must complete a medical exam by an approved physician and receive all vaccinations required by the U.S. government. Once you complete the exam, the physician will give you forms to submit with your required documents.

All applications must be originals, with the original signatures. Civil documents (and passports) can be photocopies. It’s a good idea to use a photocopier to make an exact replica of the packet you send in. This will help you if there are any questions about the packet or if you need to re-submit evidence.

4) Interview

After receiving your application and all documents, USCIS will schedule a date for your interview. If the spouse is outside of the U.S. this interview will take place at the consulate with a NVC representative. The examiner will fingerprint the alien spouse, then ask you several questions about your relationship.

There are several basic questions they’ll ask to make sure your marriage is legitimate. Bringing copies of letters, emails, photos, and other tangible documentation of your marriage is recommended. Financial commitments are another great way to prove your marriage. Bank accounts, mortgage agreements, car titles, and other similar commitments all help prove the validity of your marriage. Children, however, serve as the best proof of a valid marriage.

If you fail to convince the interviewer that your marriage is authentic, you’ll also have to participate in a fraud interview. While the name is frightening, it’s actually a pretty common process. Many couples who perform the fraud interview still receive their green cards. During this interview, the interviewers will separate you from your spouse and interview each of your individually to see if your answers match.

Generally, however, there’s not much to worry about. Examples of things they’ll ask include:

  • When and where did you meet for the first time?
  • Where did you go for your first date?
  • Who proposed?
  • Did your parents approve of the match?
  • Tell me about your wedding.

The interviewer is mostly looking for discrepancies in your answers. As long as you answer the questions truthfully, you’ll pass this interview easily.

Entering the Country after Receiving your Visa

This step only applies to spouses living outside of the country. Once you pass your immigration interview, you’ll get a passport, your visa, and a sealed packet that contains all your documents. It’s important that you keep the packet sealed – don’t open it! You must give this packet to an immigration officer when you arrive at the border.

To enter the country after receiving your visa, you’ll need to follow a few quick steps:

  1. Bring both your passport, visa, and sealed packet of documents with you to the border.
  2. Make sure you’re at an approved Port of Entry in the United States.
  3. Pay the USCIS Immigrant Fee.
  4. Present your visa and sealed packet to the U.S. Immigration official at the Port of Entry.
  5. Enter the country.

After you enter the U.S., you’ll still need to file for permanent residency using form I-485, detailed earlier. The USCIS will then mail your official Permanent Resident Card (green card) to you.

How Long does it Take?

Processing times can vary. On average the total process will take between 8 – 10 months, however each case is different. You waiting time will depend heavily on your individual family circumstances and the foreign spouse’s country of origin. For this reason, most applicants hire an immigration attorney to help them avoid unnecessary delays in the process.

Further, there are several other things that can delay approval of your application:

  • Incorrect or Incomplete Information: The application process can be confusing, even when there isn’t a language barrier. Make sure you fill out all the information completely and correctly.
  • A Criminal Background (or Previous Overstayed Visa): These violations can delay your application significantly and may result in rejection of your application.
  • Suspicion of Fraud: In your interview, if the questioner is suspicious of the legitimacy of your relationship, they may require you to sit for a second “fraud” interview.

What about K-3 Visas?

The USCIS originally created the K-3 visa to cut down on the waiting time for spouses entering the country. In the past, after filing form I-130 (Petition for Alien Resident), couples had to wait a long time before receiving approval for entry. The K-3 visa allows spouses to enter the country quickly under a non-immigrant visa, then apply for their green card afterwards.

In essence, you’ll wait out the I-130 processing time inside the country, rather than being barred from entry.

Advantages of a K-3 visa

The main advantage of a K-3 visa is time. If you apply for a CR-1 or IR-1 visa, you must wait for approval before being allowed to enter the U.S. While a CR-1 or IR-1 visa takes several months, you can usually get a K-3 temporary visa in a few weeks. Over the course of the entire permanent residency process, the K-3 visa can save you several months of waiting time.

Disadvantages of a K-3 visa

To get a K-3 visa, you have to file Form I-129F, Petition for Alien Fiancé in addition to form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. If you want to be a permanent resident, you’ll also have to file Form I-485, Application to Adjust Status, to change your status from temporary to permanent.

These additional forms mean more time and more money in fees. In addition, you can’t work under the K-3 visa. A CR-1 or IR-1 visa comes with a work permit already.

Basically, if you want to stay as a permanent resident in the United States, it will save you time and money to apply for a CR-1 or IR-1 visa.

Conclusion

Spouses of permanent U.S. residents can apply for marriage-based green cards to live in the U.S. permanently. This process can vary depending on how long you’ve been married, as well as where the alien spouse is currently living.

Although it can take several months, getting a marriage-based green card is still one of the fastest ways of gaining permanent U.S. residency.

Remember to always contact an experienced immigration attorney to see if you’re eligible for a marriage-based visa. An attorney can help you through the application process and make sure you can enter the country safely and easily.

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