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What If I Get Married Overseas?

Your Guide to Navigating the U.S. Immigration System After Marriage

Immigration Process for Married Couples

Love doesn’t recognize borders. In past years, census data has shown that at least one in five United States marriages involves at least one foreign-born spouse. Some of these spouses were already permanent residents or citizens before they met the love of their lives. Others had to immigrate to the United States to spend the rest of their lives with the person they love. Essentially, love across continents is a very common scenario.

Most couples who find love abroad use the fiancé visa system, in which the foreign-born spouse-to-be requests a special visa that allows them to enter the United States and gives them 90 days to get married in the United States before filing for an adjustment of status to lawful permanent resident. However, there’s another way available, too. If you get married abroad, and the person you want to bring to the United States is already your spouse, the situation changes. 

What’s the Difference Between Getting Married in the United States and Getting Married Overseas?

If you intend to marry someone from abroad and decide to have your wedding in the United States, you would file for a K-1 Nonimmigrant Visa for Fiancé. Upon approval of this visa, a couple has a timeframe of 90 days to get married in the United States. 

After the marriage paperwork is filed with the court, the visa recipient spouse can file a petition for an adjustment of status and become a documented permanent resident of the United States.

If you decide to get married outside of the United States, you are no longer petitioning for a fiancé. You are petitioning for a spouse, and you will use a CR1 Spouse Visa or an IR1 Spouse Visa, depending on the circumstances.

Is It Better for You To Get Married Overseas or in the United States?

Visa wait time can be a year or longer for both fiance visas and spousal visas. It may seem like a fiance visa works faster because of the “90-day” timeline, but couples sometimes wait as long as 15 months to receive their 90-day visa. Marriage-related visas sometimes take just as long to process and approve.

If money is a factor, consider how much your marriage will cost abroad versus in the United States. The fee for marriage-based visas changes by type of visa, and marriage-based visas are often less expensive. It may be worthwhile to get married overseas if you’re working with a limited budget. 

If you have some wiggle room financially, it doesn’t make a significant difference where you get married. Your spouse will be eligible for immigration benefits either way. There’s no reason to choose the time or location of your marriage based on immigration methods. Choose the time and location of your marriage based on what works best for you, your spouse, and your family. 

Can Proxy Marriage Be Used for Immigration?

A proxy marriage is a marriage in which one party isn’t physically present for the ceremony. Proxy marriages are rarely used but have been used for members of the U.S. armed forces who want to marry their significant others while they’re deployed or stationed abroad. Proxy marriage in the context of immigration works a little differently. 

U.S. immigration will recognize proxy marriage, but other requirements for a spousal visa must be met.

You also need to prove that you’ve consummated your marriage. USCIS obviously does not want photo or video evidence of you and your spouse being physically intimate. Instead, they will accept proof that you’ve been in the same place after your marriage (like a photo of the two of you together taken after your marriage date or hotel bills and other travel records) and an affidavit that states that you have consummated your marriage. If you have evidence that you were in the same room and complete the affidavit, USCIS will take your word for it. 

Can Common Law Marriage Be Used for Immigration?

Common law marriage isn’t recognized in many parts of the world, but there are a few countries with laws that recognize common law marriage and offer protection for common law married couples. If your marriage is recognized as a common law marriage in another country, there may be circumstances where you’re eligible to petition for your common law spouse as a spouse for immigration purposes. 

This situation can be tricky to navigate, and it’s difficult to successfully petition USCIS for a foreign common law marriage. You may need the help of an experienced immigration attorney to determine if your common law marriage qualifies and successfully file your spousal visa petition. 

Can Polygamous Marriage Be Used for Immigration?

The United States doesn’t recognize polygamous marriage. If someone marries more than one person in the United States, it’s considered a felony called bigamy. There are criminal consequences for circumventing the law to have an existing marriage with more than one person. 

Although marriage between more than a maximum of two people is illegal, there is no law stating that a loving relationship cannot exist between more than two people. It’s referred to as polyamory in the United States and can be practiced as long as no one involved has more than one recognized spouse. 

The United States will recognize the first spouse in a polygamous marriage but not additional spouses. Additional spouses in a polygamous marriage aren’t recognized as a family of any kind and won’t qualify for any type of family-related visa or green card.

Will Immigration Recognize Same-Sex Marriages Performed Overseas?

Same-sex marriage is fully federally legal in the United States. If two people were to get married in a country that fully recognizes and performs same-sex marriage, their marriage would be just as valid as opposite-sex marriage to U.S. immigration institutions.

The U.S. follows the same guidance for transgender people. If the gender one partner was assigned at birth is different from the gender the other partner was assigned at birth, the marriage would be considered an opposite-sex marriage in countries that don’t allow same-sex marriage, but the marriage would still be valid and, therefore, universally recognized. 

If same-sex or transgender marriage is not recognized, you will want to pursue a fiance visa.

Does Marrying Your Spouse Overseas Guarantee Them a Green Card?

Marriage doesn’t guarantee anyone a green card or even temporary entry into the United States on a visa. Marriage only elevates the priority of your case to USCIS. Everyone, married to a United States citizen or not, is evaluated based on the same steps and criteria to determine their eligibility for entry. 

USCIS adds an extra level of scrutiny to marriage-related visa petitions. They work hard to verify that a marriage between an American citizen or lawful permanent resident and someone from abroad is a legitimate marriage and not a fraudulent marriage only pursued for a green card. The vetting process is designed to prevent people from abusing the immigration system but also to prevent American citizens and lawful permanent residents from becoming victims of marriage fraud. 

How Do You Get a Green Card for Your Spouse?

The spouse of a United States citizen or lawful permanent resident will not receive a green card while outside of the United States. Your spouse will need to receive the appropriate immigrant visa to enter the United States. Once they enter the United States with their immigrant visa, they will receive their green card by mail. Their immigrant visa will be endorsed as temporary proof of permanent residence at the time of entry. 

There are two options for spousal visas when you get married abroad: the CR1 spouse visa and the IR1 spouse visa. Whether your status is CR1 or IR1 depends on the duration of your marriage at the time you enter the United States with your immigrant visa. If you’ve lived abroad with your spouse for a while, you may qualify for IR1 status at entry. If you and your spouse are newly married, you’ll likely be granted CR1 status.

What Is a CR1 Spouse Visa?

A CR1 spouse visa is a conditional permanent resident status. If you and your spouse have been married for less than two years when you enter the U.S. with your immigrant visa, you’ll receive a conditional green card. A CR1 status is called a conditional visa because your spouse will receive a green card valid for two years. Your spouse will need to petition to remove these conditions before the expiration of their two-year green card.

If you and your spouse become divorced before the two-year waiting period is over, your spouse still remains a conditional resident. They will still have to petition to remove the conditions on their residence but will be required to establish eligibility for a waiver of the joint filing requirement.

What Is an IR1 Spouse Visa?

An IR1 is sometimes referred to as an immediate relative visa. Couples who have been married for two years or longer at the time of entry with an immigrant visa will be considered to have IR1 status. Your spouse will receive a green card valid for ten years. They will not need to remove conditions on their residence. Divorce won’t affect their immigration status in the United States.

How Do You File for a Spouse Visa?

Step One: File Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative

The first step in the process is for the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse to file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, with USCIS. Spouses of American citizens receive the highest priority for alien relative petition processing, but the processing system easily becomes overwhelmed. It’s not unusual to wait six months to one year for the petition to be reviewed and approved.

If there are errors in your application, it will be rejected and returned. You won’t be able to amend the petition and continue your case – you’ll have to go back to the beginning of the line. It’s highly important that the petition you file is as accurate as possible. An experienced immigration attorney may be able to help you reduce the risk of a rejected application. 

Step Two: Green Card Application

If your Petition for Alien Relative is approved, it will be sent to the National Visa Center (NVC) for consular processing. Upon processing the application, the NVC will contact the foreign-born spouse regarding the next steps in the process. They will provide the foreign-born spouse with a list of required documents and access to an online immigrant visa application, which needs to be filled out and submitted before an interview can be scheduled.

The foreign-born spouse will need to see an approved doctor for an immigrant visa-related medical exam prior to the interview appointment at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate and have the doctor’s documents ready for review. 

Step Three: In-Person Interview

The NVC will schedule an in-person visa interview and send the foreign-born spouse details regarding where and when the meeting will take place. The foreign-born spouse will attend a consular interview and present all of their required documents. 

You’ll usually receive a decision within a week of the interview if all the information presented is complete and accurate. In some cases, you may receive a decision within the same day. 

Step Four: Visa Stamp

If your case is approved, the foreign-born spouse will receive a visa stamp on their passport that will allow them to travel to the United States. The foreign-born spouse will receive a sealed document with USCIS documents that they aren’t allowed to open. It should remain sealed until a border officer at their port of entry opens it and reviews the documents. 

The foreign-born spouse will receive either a two-year or ten-year green card after entry. In the interim, the border officer will endorse the foreign-born spouse’s immigrant visa. This endorsement can be used as proof of residence while waiting for the actual green card to arrive by mail. They will be able to live and work in the U.S. 

Do You Need Assistance With a Spousal Green Card?

There are a lot of decisions to make regarding marriage-related green cards. If you need assistance throughout the process, the experienced law team at Cohen, Tucker + Ades may be able to help. 

Contact us for a consultation on your marriage-based immigration case. After reviewing the details, we’ll be able to advise you of the best options for your situation.


Census Bureau Reports 21 Percent of Married-Couple Households Have at Least One Foreign-Born Spouse | United States Census Bureau

Marriage Laws Around the World | Pew Research Center

Marriage Equality Around the World | Human Rights Campaign

Immigrant Visa for a Spouse of a U.S. Citizen (IR1 or CR1) | U.S. Department of State | Bureau of Consular Affairs


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