Getting married and moving in together is a huge step for any couple. But crossing borders—or even oceans—to share a life together in the United States is an even bigger milestone. Immigration is one of those unromantic but incredibly important conversation topics that’s better discussed sooner rather than later. This may be a cliché, but it’s true: communication is key to a long and happy relationship, especially when the topic is so complex and the stakes are so high.
To help facilitate your immigration heart-to-heart, we’ve asked the experts at Boundless the top 10 questions from international newlyweds who are contemplating permanent relocation to the United States. Read on as immigration policy expert Doug Rand and legal expert Anjana Prasad spell out what to expect about relocating to the United States after the big day.
Q; How can we live together in the United States if one of us is not American?
First of all, congratulations on your marriage! The first step toward a life together in the United States is to obtain a marriage green card. This will give you “permanent resident” status to live and work lawfully in the United States until you become eligible for U.S. citizenship (more on these topics below).
If you aren’t married yet, then a fiancé visa would be another option. This is different from a marriage green card and comes in two forms: a K-1 visa for engaged couples intending to marry within 90 days of one spouse entering the United States, and a (little-used) K-3 visa that allows that spouse to live in the United States while the couple waits for a marriage green card.
Q: Is it okay if we got married abroad?
Generally, yes. As long as your marriage is legally recognized in the country where it took place, the United States will recognize it, too.
Where you were married, though, isn’t as important as whether you have a “valid” relationship—one that’s documented with a marriage certificate and isn’t based on fraud. If one spouse seeks permanent residence (commonly known as a “green card”) in the United States, you’ll have to prove to the U.S. government that your marriage is authentic. And later on in the process, you’ll have to convince an immigration officer that you know each other intimately by acing some personal questions about your relationship.
Q: How long will the green card process take?
The time it takes to get a marriage green card depends on a couple of factors: first, whether the spouse seeking a green card (or “beneficiary” in bureaucratic lingo) lives in the United States or abroad, and second, whether that spouse is married to a U.S. citizen or green card holder (known officially as the “sponsor”).
If the sponsoring spouse is a U.S. citizen, the whole process could take between 10 and 17 months, depending again on where the spouse seeking a green card is currently residing. If the sponsor is a green card holder, then you’re looking at a timeline of 23 to 38 months.
Q: Can we live together while we’re waiting for the green card?
That also depends on where the spouse seeking a green card lives. If you start the process while that spouse is living in the United States, then by all means, shack up together! You’ll just need to make sure that the spouse applying for a green card can maintain a valid immigration status while you wait for approval, if at all possible.
The situation’s a bit different if you submit the paperwork while the spouse seeking a green card is living abroad. While the sponsoring spouse can visit his or her partner abroad at any time, the reverse is much more difficult—and generally discouraged—after getting hitched.
So in this scenario, unless you both agree to live abroad temporarily, be prepared for multiple periods of long-distance separation. And if you’re the sponsoring spouse, be careful not to stay abroad too long—or else, you could give the U.S. government the false impression that you plan to live permanently with your spouse abroad. In that case, you’ll need to re-establish your residency in the United States during the green card process.
Q: Do we need to make a certain amount of money to apply?
Yes, you do. Assuming you have no children, the current minimum income required for a sponsoring spouse is $20,575 annually. The requirement increases with the number of people in your household.
Q: What can we expect to spend on a marriage green card?
Government fees currently run between $1,200 and $1,760, depending on whether you apply from within the United States or abroad. Besides the mandatory government fees, you’ll also pay for a medical exam (typically around $200, but this varies significantly by location). And if you plan to hire an immigration attorney to help you, then start saving up for legal fees that typically amount to thousands of dollars.
Q: How do we fill out the paperwork?
You have three broad options:
- Do it yourself: Many people find it difficult to complete the paperwork and go through the entire application process on their own. And because the stakes are so high, errors can be very costly. But it’s possible to do it yourself. It may just take you significantly longer than if a professional were to handle everything. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides all of the forms you’ll need to self-file.
- Hire an attorney: The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) can help you find a knowledgeable attorney who’s experienced in the marriage green card process. You can expect to pay between $2,000 and $5,000 (possibly more), depending on the level of service you seek.
- Use an online service: Boundless has created technology to help you complete your application online and connects you with a top-rated independent lawyer who will review all of your materials — for one-fifth the usual cost of an attorney you’d hire yourself. Learn more about them here.
Q: Is it okay to work in the United States while waiting for the green card?
That depends on a number of factors. A spouse seeking a green card from abroad won’t be able to seek U.S.-based employment until they move to the United States.
A spouse who applies from the United States, on the other hand, will be able to seek U.S. employment upon securing a work permit (officially called the “Employment Authorization Document”) while waiting for green card approval. Once the green card application is approved, however, the work permit will no longer be necessary.
Q: Is it okay to travel abroad while waiting for the green card?
To take trips abroad, the spouse seeking a green card from within the United States will need a travel permit (otherwise known as an “Advance Parole Document”). Travel restrictions will continue to be imposed until that spouse becomes a U.S. citizen.
Q: When will U.S. citizenship become an option after getting a green card?
After having a green card for three years, a spouse married to a U.S. citizen will be able to apply for U.S. citizenship through a process called “naturalization.” If married to a green card holder, however, the spouse who now also holds a green card will need to wait five years to become eligible.
Best of luck!
Doug Rand is the president and cofounder of Boundless and a policy expert who helped implement the International Entrepreneur Rule and several other immigration policies for the Obama administration. Anjana Prasad is a senior advisor for immigration law at Boundless.