Immigration Considerations When Getting Married Overseas

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If you are a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident who intends to get married to a foreign-born person overseas, there are a number of issues you should plan around, such as:

  • researching that country's laws regarding whether you will be allowed to marry there and, if so, what constitutes a valid marriage
  • if your foreign-born spouse intends to apply for a U.S. green card, how to get the appropriate documentation of your valid marriage, and
  • whether the U.S. citizen petitioner will return to the U.S. in time to act as a financial sponsor for the immigrant (which requires showing U.S. residence).

We'll discuss all of these issues below.

Researching the Laws of the Country Where You Will Marry

You don't want to set a wedding date before knowing, for example, whether the country where you plan to marry in requires that you stay there for a minimum period of time first; nor pack your bags before you have found out whether you need to obtain a particular type of visa or bring your birth certificate or other documents. Also find out whether there are religious restrictions on your marriage, whether you will need to have a blood test, and so on. If you're planning on entering into a same-sex marriage, this is allowed in some, but not all countries, and will work for U.S. immigration purposes.

To find out the exact requirement of the country of your intended marriage, your best resource is that country's embassy or consulate in the United States. See the "Web Sites of Foreign Embassies in the U.S." page of the U.S. State Department's website for their contact information.

You might consider looking into hiring a company that specializes in organizing weddings abroad. A reputable one will be able to tell you how to satisfy the country’s matrimonial and immigration requirements.

Obtaining Official Documentation of Your Marriage

Contrary to popular misconception, marriage between a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and a foreign-born person does not automatically confer upon that person U.S. citizenship or other immigration status. You will have to file a good deal of paperwork first, and get through a lengthy application process.

The first part of that application process is for the U.S.-based spouse to file what's called a visa petition, on Form I-130 (issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS). When the time comes for the U.S. citizen or resident to submit this form, he or she will need to include a copy of an official version of your wedding certificate.

The U.S. government keeps a close watch on what types of certificates are considered valid proof of a wedding in the various countries around the world. If, for example, you try to present a document from a ship's captain or a church, and those are not recognized for official purposes in the country where you were married, your visa petition will be denied. Go to the State Department website and, on its "Reciprocity by Country" page, choose the country where you plan to marry. Then scroll down to where it discusses "Documents." You will find information on what the valid sources for marriage certificates are, in U.S. eyes.

For more information on the application process to petition for a foreign-born person based on marriage, see "Family-Based Visas and Green Cards."

Making Sure the U.S. Petitioner Will Qualify as a U.S. Resident for Financial Sponsorship Purposes

In order for the U.S. petitioner to succeed in sponsoring the immigrant, he or she will need to show sufficient financial resources to support that person at or above 125% of the income levels set by the U.S. Poverty Guidelines (issued annually). The petitioner will, as part of proving this, need to fill out an Affidavit of Support on USCIS Form I-864.

One of the requirements for filling out this form is that the sponsor reside in the United States or a U.S. territory or possession. If part of the reason that you are getting married outside of the U.S. is that the petitioner already lives there, you need to look closely at this requirement. At a minimum, the sponsor will have to return to the U.S. by the time Form I-864 is submitted (which may happen in the middle of the process, by mail; or may happen at the final visa interview at an overseas U.S. consulate). 

Also, the sponsor will have to prove that he or she is actually living in the United States. The U.S. immigration authorities will want to see evidence of where the sponsor lives (perhaps in the form of an apartment lease or mortgage), where he or she is working, and so on. If the sponsor doesn't yet have a job in the U.S., but is living there, that's not fatal. To prove sufficient financial resources, it may still be possible for the sponsor to find a friend to jointly submit a separate Form I-864, or a household member to submit a Form I-864a. But asking someone to do this is major -- it means that they take complete financial responsibility for the immigrant if the primary sponsor fails to do so. See "Financial Requirements to Get a U.S. Green Card" for more information.

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