Congress has made amendments to naturalization provisions to better facilitate the immigration process for spouses of U.S. citizens. Yet, what if the couple isn’t yet married but intends to? Achieving naturalization requires at least three years of permanent residency, making the first step of any immigration process entry to the United States with a visa. The process will differ depending on whether the couple is married or engaged, yet both are possible.
If a couple is not yet married, the foreign citizen fiancé(e) will need to obtain a K-1 visa to enter and travel within the United States. The K-1 visa requires the couple to marry within a 90-day window of arriving in the United States.
Once married, the foreign citizen can apply with the USCIS to become a legal permanent resident and obtain a green card. Newly married applicants will receive a conditional green card with a short, two-year expiration date. It will be up to the applicant to meet the conditions of the card and file for a regular green card at least 90 days before the conditional card expires. Once the couple has resided in the U.S. for at least three years and remains married during that time, the foreign spouse can apply for U.S. citizenship.
As far as the USCIS is concerned, a “spouse” includes a legally wedded husband or wife, including same-sex spouses of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. In some situations, a common-law spouse might qualify. There are a couple of options for spouse visas:
- IR-1 (immediate relative visa) – Temporary residency visa issued to couples married for at least two years with a 10-year expiration date.
- CR-1 (conditional residency visa) – Temporary residency visa issued to couples married of less than two years with a two-year expiration date.
- K-3 (nonimmigrant visa for foreign spouses of U.S. citizens)
The best type of visa will depend on the couple’s specific situation and should be decided upon with guidance from USCIS resources.
Once the couple arrives in the United States, the foreign spouse will need to apply for legal permanent residency and obtain a green card. With a green card, the couple can then meet the three-year residency requirement and later apply for naturalization.
Comparison of Fiancé(e) and Spouse Visas
Many couples who desire to move to the United States have questions about the best way to handle it–should they get married before coming to the States or enter under engagement and marry in-country. Most people prioritize two factors: speed and cost.
Speed. While seemingly counterintuitive, many people find that entering the country with a fiancé(e) visa and applying for citizenship is the fastest route to achieving naturalization. This is because the processing of the fiancé(e) visa is shorter, allowing the couple to begin the process of meeting residency requirements sooner.
Cost. The other determining factor for many couples is the total cost of application and processing fees. Traditionally, there have been more fees for the K-1 visa for fiancé(e)s than any available options for spouses. If cost is a factor, the spouse visa route may be the way to go.
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