The fiance visa (K-1) is issued to the fiancé of a U.S. citizen, allowing that person to enter the United States. Once the foreign fiancé enters the United States, he or she can marry the U.S. citizen and then, if desired, apply for a green card under the immediate relative category. The technical name for the process of applying for the green card within the U.S. is Adjustment of Status.
But applying for a green card isn't required. Some fiances use this visa simply to enter the U.S. and get married, after which the couple lives in the non-U.S. citizen's home country, or somewhere else. As the spouse of a U.S. citizen, of course, the former fiance can always apply for a U.S. green card.
Overview of the Process
The U.S. citizen must start off the process by filing United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Form I-129F, Petition for Alien Fiancé. This, and other forms, are available from the USCIS website at www.uscis.gov. (Click the "Forms" tab, and then scroll down by number.)
In addition to Form I-129F, the U.S. citizen will need to fill out and submit Form G-325A Biographic Information, and provide proof of U.S. citizenship and evidence of your courtship and meeting within the last two years. The citizen will also need to pay the visa petition fee.
Once the petition is submitted, USCIS will review it for completeness. Assuming the citizen didn't forget to include something, he or she will, within a few weeks, receive a Form I-797 Notice of Action acknowledging receipt of the petition. After that, USCIS will do a full review, and hopefully approve the petition and send the U.S. citizen petitioner an approval notice.
USCIS then forwards the petition to the National Visa Center for conducting background checks and sending the fiance some visa application forms to be filled out. Once the background checks are completed and the fiance has filled out and returned these forms to the appropriate destination, the file is transferred to the U.S. embassy or consulate having jurisdiction over the fiancé’s place of residence. The embassy will then send the fiance instructions for gathering additional documents, getting photographs made, having a medical exam done, and more. For an overview of the visa requirements, see the "Nonimmigrant Visa for a Fiance(e) (K-1)" page of the State Department's website.
The last step in the process is for the fiance to attend an interview at the U.S. consulate. This doesn't happen on a walk-in basis -- the consulate will send an appointment notice.
At the interview, the fiance visa may be approved -- though it's likely that the actual visa issuance will be delayed a few days after the interview, pending final security checks.
This entire process from date of filing of the petition till the transfer of the file to the U.S. consulate tends to take at least six months. The approval of the I-129F alone was taking five months in mid-2011. You can check the latest processing times at the Service Center serving your jurisdiction on the "USCIS Processing Time Information" page of the USCIS website. (Choose the Service Center that you'll be sending the I-129F to from the drop-down menu, then click "Service Center Processing Dates.")
Unfortunately, unlike in some visa categories, you cannot pay extra in order to receive faster ("premium") processing of a K-1 visa petition. The U.S. embassy or consulate is likely to take 2 to 3 months to process the visa, depending upon the number of other visa applicants it's dealing with.
Time Frame for Entry and Marriage
Once the K-1 visa is issued, the foreign fiancé can enter the United States and marry the U.S. citizen who filed the I-129F petition. The visa will be valid for six months from the date it was issued. Once the fiancé enters the United States, the marriage must take place within 90 days from the date of entry. But if you plan to apply for a green card, it's worth getting married early on in these 90 days, so that you'll have time to get the official marriage certificate and prepare your other paperwork for Adjustment of Status before the K-1 visa runs out.
Getting Legal Help
Engagement to a U.S. citizen does not necessarily mean that the foreign fiancé is entitled to a K1 visa. An experienced U.S. immigration attorney can guide you through the entire process make sure it goes smoothly and quickly (or, as quickly as possible given the bureacracy you're dealing with).