How to Get Citizenship After Marriage to a U.S. Citizen

Summary of rules on obtaining a U.S. green card based on marriage.

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If you marry a U.S, citizen, you won’t be eligible for U.S. citizenship right away. But you may become eligible for a U.S. green card, which can lead to U.S. citizenship.

However, there are certain requirements that must be met before you can apply for a green card and ultimately for U.S. citizenship after marriage to a U.S. citizen.

The Process of Applying for a Green Card Based on Marriage

As the spouse of a U.S. citizen (whether same-sex or opposite sex), you are what’s called an immediate relative in immigration law lingo. That’s good news, because there are no annual numerical limits on the green cards issued under this category, and therefore no waiting lists before you can apply.

The U.S. citizen spouse must start the process for you, by submitting a visa petition on Form I-130 to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The form must be accompanied by evidence of the marriage, namely a marriage certificate, as well as proof that the marriage is bona fide, not merely a sham to get you a green card.

How the rest of the application process will be handled is more complicated. If you, the immigrant, are living in the U.S. after a legal entry (i.e. on a visa or under the Visa Waiver Program), and you didn’t arrive for the purpose of getting married (which would be visa fraud), then you should be able to adjust status. Adjustment of status (AOS) is the process of applying for a green card without leaving the U.S. – you submit all your paperwork to, and attend your interview at, offices of USCIS. In fact, you don’t have to wait for approval of the I-130 before submitting your AOS application – it can be mailed in as one package.

If you are living overseas, then you must wait for the I-130 to be approved and for further communication from the National Visa Center (NVC) and your local U.S. consulate. The consulate will call you in for an interview at which your immigrant visa will hopefully be approved. You’ll use that visa to enter the U.S. and become a permanent resident.

If you are living in the U.S. after an illegal entry, however, see an immigration lawyer. You cannot adjust status unless you are among a rare few who fall under some old laws (Section 245(i)). But if you leave the U.S. for processing through a U.S. consulate, you risk being found inadmissible due to your unlawful stay, and being unable to return to the U.S. for either three or ten years. (Three years if your unlawful stay was at least 120 days; ten years if your unlawful stay was at least 365 days.) There is a waiver you can apply for before you leave, however (the "provisional waiver"), which an attorney can help you determine your eligibility and apply for.

Will Being Inadmissible Prevent You From Getting a Green Card?

It’s important to understand that, even though you’ve married a U.S. citizen, you have to meet certain criteria on your own before you can be granted a green card. This includes that you not be found “inadmissible.” Intending immigrants can be found inadmissible for any of the reasons described in Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.)

Some of the grounds of inadmissibility that most often cause people trouble are those barring entry to people who have committed certain types of crimes, developed certain physical or mental illnesses, broken the immigration laws, or appear likely to become a public charge (receive public assistance due to financial need).

When You Can Apply for Naturalization

As the spouse of a U.S. citizen, you’re lucky. You don’t have to wait until you’ve had a green card for five years to apply for citizenship through the process known as naturalization. Assuming you stay married to and living with your U.S. citizen spouse the whole time, you can apply for citizenship three years after obtaining a green card. You’ll also need to meet other requirements, such as having good moral character, having spent the majority of those three years living in the United States, being able to speak, read, and write English, and passing a U.S. civics test.

The application for naturalization must be made by submitting Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, to USCIS. 

You’ll need to attend an interview at a USCIS office where your application will be reviewed and you’ll be tested on your knowledge of English and civics.

Getting Legal Help

Marriage to a U.S. citizen does not guarantee a green card or U.S. citizenship. Applications for U.S. green cards through marriage are scrutinized carefully, because the government takes fraudulent marriage very seriously. An experienced immigration attorney can guide you through the complex maze of U.S. immigration laws and procedural requirements.

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