The thought of moving from an E3 visa to Green Card never crossed my mind when I first made San Francisco my home back in 2015. But then I met and married my Californian husband, and suddenly the Green Card through marriage processing time and procedure became a big deal.

This article is a step-by-step overview of the Green Card through marriage process, as we experienced it in San Jose, California (south of San Francisco). It includes information such as forms you need to file, documentation you will be asked to provide, the Green Card through marriage interview, the costs involved, and the processing time you can expect to wait.

US green cards explained

Please note that this article does not replace legal assistance, nor does it purport to be legal advice for anyone looking to obtain a Green Card through marriage. It is purely documenting the process that we went through to obtain my Green Card.

E3 visa to Green Card journey

Mr M and I met during my first two weeks in the USA. I had obtained an E3 visa – a class created for Australian citizens to work in certain specialty professions that they have proof of experience or education in.

My very loose life plan (hilarious because I plan exactly nothing in my life), was to gain more experience in my field for the two year duration of my E3 visa. Then I’d decide if I wanted to renew my E3 visa for another couple of years, or go back home with an interesting-looking resume under my arm.

If you asked me where I wanted to live permanently back then, it would have been Australia or Europe, hands-down.

But on my first day of work, back in August 2015, I walked into the office and met Mr M, who was sitting in a corner looking all Californian and I immediately thought “who’s the dude?” (because my internal monologue is apologetically blokey). We started dating a month or so later and when he proposed to me in 2018, I accepted, then promptly began to freak out.

Expat Engagement: Marrying an American Citizen

Where would we decide to live? Was I comfortable with spending the rest of my life living in the USA?

Green Card through marriage

We were married by a lovely lady at Redwood City County Chapel.

Ultimately, I decided that since Australia and the US are pretty similar in terms of lifestyle and cost of living, I would be fine with living here. So we planned a tiny courthouse wedding to kick off the Green Card proceedings, and months later had a second wedding and party in front of friends and family.

Why hold two weddings?

We had heard that the Green Card through marriage processing time was getting longer, due to some changes to Green Cards in general, made by the Trump government.

I knew that once we were married, and while the Green Card application was being filed and processed, I wouldn’t be able to leave the country with an iron-clad guarantee that I’d be let back through US immigration upon my return. Although there are precautions you can take (more on that below). With aging grandparents in Australia, and momentous family events still occurring (nieces and nephews growing up, and new babies on the way), I wanted to get the Green Card process started and finished as soon as possible.

E3 visa to Green Card journey

We had our second wedding ceremony and party at Testarossa Winery in Los Gatos. Picture: Apollo Fotografie

Since a condition of the E3 visa is being able to prove that you aren’t planning to stay in the USA permanently, travelling outside of the country while you’re engaged to one of its citizens isn’t the smartest thing to do either.

Green Card through marriage processing time

This is being written from the perspective of having been granted a Green Card (today, actually), and the question on a lot of people’s minds is “how long did it take?”

As I said before, processing times depend on whether you’re filing in a place that has a high volume of Green Card through marriage applications (New York, San Francisco, Boston, etc), and how much of a backlog there is when you file.

We filed our Green Card through marriage application in San Jose, California during the first week of October, 2018 and the Green Card arrived in the mail in the first week of February, 2020. So it took one year and three months from start to finish.

There are stories of much quicker Green Card processing times, but they are generally from people who applied years ago. And there are stories of Green Card applications taking two or more years to get through the system. But the average time seems to be 18 months to two years.

Preparing your Green Card through marriage documents

There are some easy ways that you can start preparing for the Green Card application before crunch time rolls around. Getting these items together slowly will help dissipate some of the overwhelming feelings you’ll experience closer to application time.

The point of the application is to prove that you and your significant other are real life partners and not just together for the convenience of a visa. So you’ll need to gather as much proof of your relationship, as possible.

Proof that you are a couple

photo evidence for green card application

I went a little overboard with the photo album, you don’t need a million photos.

Here are some examples of documentation that you can provide to the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) along with your Green Card application. It is not necessary to have every single piece of documentation listed here – that might be impossible in some cases – but it is important to provide as much evidence that you are a real couple, as possible.

Required Items:

  • Wedding invitations/save the date cards
  • Wedding photographs
  • Photographs: A small album with captions/dates if possible (include photos of each spouse meeting the others’ families/friends)
  • Affidavits from friends, relatives, or others who have knowledge of the marriage
  • Marriage certificate

Other Items to include if you have them:

  • Joint bank statements for accounts shared by the couple (showing at least 3 months history)
  • Credit card statements for accounts shared by the couple (showing at least 3 months history)
  • Rental agreements showing both names on the lease
  • Mortgage or home sale documents showing both names
  • Renters or home insurance showing both names on the policy
  • Auto insurance and/or registration showing both names
  • Phone bills showing both names (showing at least 3 months history)
  • Utility bills showing both names (showing at least 3 months history)
  • Plane tickets/flight confirmations from joint holidays
  • Hotel room bookings in both names
  • Receipts for items purchased together (furniture, cars, etc)
  • Birth certificates of any children resulting from the union
  • Medical tests/records to prove that you are trying to get pregnant
  • Cards/letters written to/from the spouses for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries
  • Divorce Certificate from any previous marriages
  • Death Certificate from any previous marriages

Proof of Identity documents

Unlike the evidentiary documents listed above, the proof of identity documents are all necessary for your application. Photocopy your documents (not photographs) as well.

  • The passport, driver’s license, or birth certificate of the US citizen spouse (known as the petitioner)
  • Certified* copy of the applicant’s birth certificate, with a certified English translation if necessary
  • Two passport photos each of the petitioner and the spouse
  • Documents detailing entry to the United States for the applicant. For me this meant printing out my i-94 (get yours here). But those who came to the US as students need their i-20, and exchange visitors on J-1 visas will need their IAP-66/DS2019
  • The petitioner’s passport with current visa, if applicable (photocopy of information page, visa page, and any pages with stamps that show movement)

*A certified copy of your birth certificate, is just the certificate as issued by your country’s government agency and should include a raised, embossed, or multi-coloured seal with a registrar’s signature and the date it was filed at the registrar’s office.

Work/Residential history documents

USCIS want to get a record of your work history and the places you have lived in the five years prior to your Green Card application date. You will both need to know:

  • Your residential addresses over the past five years
  • The dates that you lived at those addresses
  • The addresses of your work places over the past five years
  • The dates you worked at those organisations
  • Your job title at those organisations

Proof of support documents

Part of the Green Card through marriage process is that the petitioner (the US citizen of the couple) needs to prove that s/he can support their spouse in the event they become unemployed or need medical care not covered by health insurance. Most of the below documents are required from the petitioner only, unless stipulated.

  • Most recent pay stub
  • Last three years of tax returns
  • Last three years of W-2 (tax documents provided by workplace)
  • Tax transcripts for the last three years (request from the IRS using form 4506-T here)
  • Employment verification letter from the petitioner’s place of work
  • Employment verification letter from the beneficiary’s place of work (if applicable)
  • Documents showing assets (property, investments, proof of ownership)

Obtain a medical for Green Card

I found this part of the Green Card application process to be the most invasive and time consuming. USCIS requires that every Green Card applicant undergoes a medical exam by approved doctors (referred to as civil surgeons).

Military doctors count as civil surgeons, but you if you don’t have access to one, there are plenty around. Use this USCIS site to search for approved doctors close to you. If you are not in the US, you need to get your Green Card medical examination from a panel physician, who is designated by the Department of State. Find more information on panel physicians here.

Green Card medical exam experience

This article is getting long already, so I’ve broken the medical examination information into its own separate post. You can either get your medical exam done and file it with your application, or you can file it when you go for your interview.

The pros and cons of both ways of filing are discussed in the Green Card medical exam experience article above.

Should I engage an immigration lawyer?

Green card immigration lawyer

Despite being a much more expensive way of filing your Green Card application, it can be a good idea to engage a lawyer.

Despite the fact that our case was simple and pretty straight forward, we did hire a lawyer. It was an extra cost, and I won’t lie, it was a hefty cost, but it was one that we felt was worth it.

Having been through the fifth circle of hell that is the Department of Motor Vehicles just to obtain my Californian Driver’s License a few years before, I knew that forgetting one document, or accidentally filing out a question with a wrong answer could result in long delays and possibly result in the rejection of our application.

It wasn’t worth the stress to go it alone, from our point of view, and I’m actually really glad that we had the assistance of a lawyer, because some of the questions on the forms were confusing.

Back in late 2018, our lawyer charged $5000, which covered both the costs of filing our Green Card through marriage application with the USCIS (more on that later), and the lawyer’s fees for preparing the application (which took hours), preparing us for the Green Card interview, and attending the interview with us.

A Guide to stimulus payments and visas for expats in the USA

However, our lawyer did mention that prices were increasing because of government changes to the process, that were making it more time consuming for lawyers.

You can definitely get through the E3 visa to Green Card journey without a lawyer’s help, and I’m not discouraging that course of action. Just triple check everything and keep reading through this guide and you should be fine.

Preparing your Green Card through marriage application

Now it’s time to get into all of the forms you need to fill out in order to apply for your Green Card through marriage. There are a few, and each has its own purpose.

I-130 Petition for Alien Relative

The I-130 is filled out by the petitioner (the US citizen who you are married to), and it helps to establish your relationship.

This form asks questions to establish the petitioner’s US citizenship, family information (parents, siblings) and employment details, as well as questions about the beneficiary (person who needs a Green Card).

Form I-130: Download here.
Filing cost: $535
How to pay: Money order, personal check, or cashier’s check. If you file at a USCIS lockbox, you may pay by credit card using Form G-1450.
Supplemental documents to include: Petitioner’s passport information page, driver’s license, marriage certificate, evidence that previous marriages have been terminated, two passport photographs of petitioner. Evidence to show proof of relationship, examples of which are listed above under “Proof that you are a couple”.

I-130A Supplemental Information for Spouse Beneficiary

The I-130A obviously goes hand in hand with the I-130 and its purpose is to collect extra information about the beneficiary. They must be submitted together.

If you’re living overseas when filing your Green Card through marriage application, you will still need to fill out this form, but are not required to sign it.

This form asks the addresses where the beneficiary has lived outside of the US over the past five years, gathers five years of employment history, and information about parents.

Form I-130A: Download here.
Filing cost: Filed with I-130, no extra cost.
Supplemental documents to include: Marriage certificate, evidence that previous marriages have been terminated, two passport photographs of beneficiary.

TIP: If you file using a USCIS Lockbox facility, also submit Form G-1145 e-Notification of Application/Petition Acceptance to allow USCIS to let you know when your application has been accepted

I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status

Green Card through marriage application forms

In order to be considered to become a permanent resident or adjust your status while living in the United States, you must submit form I-485.

This form was updated in 2017, and allows you to select the filing category under which you are applying for a Green Card. Those applying for a Green Card through Marriage should go to 1a Family-based and check the box for Immediate relative of a US citizen, Form I-130. There are 27 immigrant categories to select from.

The beneficiary will need to detail their immigrant history within the US, which for me meant declaring my E3 visa, and when I last arrived into the US, as well as the expiration date of my most recent E3 visa.

This form also asks about the beneficiary’s employment, familial, and marital history. Part 8 asks you to declare any organisations, associations, funds, foundations, part, club, society that you have been a part of. I listed the trade union I was a member of while working in Australia, but didn’t have anything else to add. You should list any political party memberships, charities you were a board member of, and any other official clubs you took part in.

Part 8 also asks a lot of questions that will be repeated at your Green Card interview, so pay attention and stay serious – these questions cover your immigration status and whether you’ve violated your visa terms, your criminal history, whether you’ve engaged in prostitution, illegal gambling or people smuggling, or received military training.

If you answer Yes to any of the questions mentioned above, be sure to include additional information in Part 14. For example, if you received a ticket for speeding, or running a red light, you must declare when and where the infraction occurred and how it was resolved. If you paid a fine and took traffic school, list that.

Form I-485: Download here.
Filing Cost: Aged between 14-75: $1,225, aged 79 or older: $1140.
How to pay: Money order, personal check, or cashier’s check. If you file at a USCIS lockbox, you may pay by credit card using Form G-1450.

I-765 Application for Employment Authorization

In order to begin or continue working in the United States while your Green Card application is being processed, you must submit Form I-765.

This document will ask for the beneficiary’s name, address, Social Security Number (if known), your last arrival into the US and where you arrived.

Getting Social Security Numbers for noncitizens

If you don’t already have a Social Security Number and don’t want to apply yourself, you can do so through this form, by answering Yes to questions 14 and 15.

Form I-765: Download here.
Filing Cost: Fee is automatically waived if you are filing for an immediate family based Green Card.
Supplemental documents to include: A copy of your last Employment Authorization Document. If you don’t have one, submit a copy of the beneficiary’s passport showing, name, date of birth and a picture. Two identical passport-sized photographs.

One of the following (if you are not applying for an adjustment of your current employment authorization):

  • A copy or print out of Form I-94
  • Arrival-Departure Record (front and back)
  • Passport

I-131 Application for Travel Document

This form is optional, and is used to file for advanced parole to travel while your Green Card application is being processed.

Our lawyer’s advice was that I should not leave the United States at all during the Green Card application period – from filing these forms, all the way to having your Green Card in your hands. That’s because you may be denied re-entry into the United States upon your return.

However, if you would like to travel during this time, for family emergencies etc. you can apply for a travel document using Form I-131, to cover you. Even with this travel document, I was advised not to travel overseas though.

If you are filing on the off-chance that you will need to return to your home country for an emergency, in Part 4, your trip purpose should be “to visit family”.

Form I-131: Download here.
Filing Cost: Free because you are filing for Advanced Parole.
Supplemental documents to include: A copy of a passport or driver’s license, two identical passport-style photographs, a copy of any document that shows your current status in the US (visa).

I-864EZ Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A of the INA

The I-864EZ form works to establish whether the petitioner meets the minimum income requirements to sponsor their spouse in the USA.

In order to meet that income requirement, the petitioner must be earning at least 125 per cent of the amount set out in the latest US Poverty Guidelines. However, in Alaska and Hawaii, and those in the US Armed Forces, the petitioner only needs to be earning 100 per cent more. The 2020 Poverty Guidelines set the minimum income for a household of two at $21,550. This means the petitioner must show an income of at least $26,938 to qualify.

The purpose of this proof is to ensure that anyone immigrating to the US will not need to rely on welfare while living in the US.

When the petitioner signs and files Form I-864EZ, they are entering into a contract with the US government. That contract obligates the petitioner to support the immigrant for around 10 years, or to pay back any financial or need-based assistance to the government.

Form I-864EZ: Download here.
Filing Cost: Free when you apply from overseas, or $120 when you file from the United States.
How to pay: Money order, personal check, or cashier’s check. If you file at a USCIS lockbox, you may pay by credit card using Form G-1450.
Supplemental documents to include: Internal Revenue Service transcript or copy of your federal income tax return for the past three tax years, a copy of your W-2 and Form 1099 for the same three years. A letter from your employer, showing that you are employed.

Filing your Green Card through marriage application

When you have all of the above documents filled out and supplementary documents ready to go, it’s time to file your application.

How you file depends on where you are filing from. You can also file online, however you will still need to provide your supporting documentation.

Where to file your green card application

Biometrics appointment

Biometrics for your Green Card application

The biometrics appointment is usually quick, and easy.

Once you have filed your application and it has been accepted, you will receive an Application Support Center Appointment Notice asking you to appear at a facility to have your biometrics taken.

This doesn’t mean that your application has been approved, rather it is an indication that your application has begun the process. My Green Card application was filed in early October 2018, and my biometrics appointment took place in mid-December 2018.

The letter will list the time, date, and address where your biometric information will be taken. This appointment is usually quick – it takes around 15-30 minutes.

You’ll enter the Application Support Center through a security scanner and x-ray machine, then have your appointment letter checked. When your appointment is called your photograph with be taken, your signature recorded, and your index fingers will be press-printed. You will also have all 10 finger prints recorded.

Advanced Parole Document

If you filed Form I-131 Application for Travel Document, you should expect a response in the mail. Your Advanced Parole Document will allow you to travel outside of the United States to the country you indicated in your application.

The letter will include the dates that the Advanced Parole Document is valid for, in my case, it was valid for just under a year, and was issued to me in March, 2019 (five months after I filed).

If you plan to use your Advanced Parole Document to leave the United States, please note that it does not guarantee re-entry to the United Status upon your return. A Customs & Border Protection officer will still inspect you and determine whether you will be allowed to re-enter.

Employment Authorization Document

You will also receive a response to Form I-765 Application for Employment Authorization, if you filed to be able to work during the Green Card process.

USCIS will mail you a letter to let you know that your application has been approved, and will send you an Employment Authorization Document (a card) separately. The EAD card can be used as proof that you are able to work during the dates mentioned on the card.

I received my EAD card in March 2019 (five months after filing) and it was valid for a year. It is important to check the information on your card when you receive it. If anything needs to be changed you need to send a letter explaining which information is wrong and why, and evidence to show what it needs to be corrected to.

Green Card through marriage USCIS interview

US Citizenship and Immigration Services

To get into the USCIS office you’ll need your appointment letter, and a security screening that includes taking off shoes and coats.

The time between having your biometrics taken and being notified of your visa interview is usually the longest time and it can feel like forever because there really is no indication of where you are in the “line” until a letter arrives.

But you will eventually receive a letter from USCIS, giving you a date, time, and address for your Green Card interview. It’s a good idea to arrive 30 minutes before your interview, be prepared to be security screened airport-style.

The beneficiary’s photograph and finger prints will be taken again, before the couple is called into an interview room with a USCIS agent.

There are two types of interviews that you may encounter:

  • Couple interview: Where both spouses are in the same room and answer questions together.
  • Single interview: Usually performed when agents are suspicious that the relationship is not “real”. The agent will ask the same questions to each spouse separately and compare answers.

What to bring to your Green Card interview

Here is what you need to bring with you to the interview:

  • The USCIS letter with your interview appointment date and time
  • If you noticed a mistake on the I-130/A, I-485, or other documents, correct them and bring in a copy of the corrections
  • Passport and driver’s license of petitioner (and photocopies)
  • Passport, driver’s license and birth certificate of beneficiary (and photocopies)
  • More proof of your relationship:
    • Past three months of bills
    • Past three months of joint bank statements with account activity
    • Proof of being listed as a beneficiary on health insurance, or 401k accounts
    • A few photos depicting life events
    • Joint tax returns
  • Proof of previous visa status (E3 visa in my case)

What you may be asked during Green Card through marriage interview

There are a few standard questions that you may be asked during your interview that you might want to prepare for. Not all of these questions will be asked in every interview, but these give you an idea of the types of questions you can expect.

  • How did you meet?
  • Where did you meet and where were some of your first dates?
  • How long were you together before you moved in together?
  • When did you get engaged and how did s/he pop the question?
  • What was the wedding like and who attended?
  • When and where did you get married?
  • What kind of food was served?
  • Did you go on a honeymoon, and where did you go?
  • What are your daily routines?
  • Where does your spouse work and what do they do?
  • What time to do they leave for work and when are they usually home by?
  • If you have children, who takes them to school or picks them up?
  • Which school do they go to?
  • What are their favourite foods?
  • Draw a picture of your apartment/house.
  • What pictures do you have on the walls in your bedroom?
  • Which side of the bed do you sleep on?
  • When is your spouse’s birthday?
  • How did you celebrate their last birthday?
  • When was the last time you went out and where did you go together?
  • When did you last have sex?
  • What are your spouses’ parents/siblings names?
  • When did you first meet them?

Only answer the questions you are asked. Don’t waffle or offer extra information – you’re just giving the opportunity for your answers to be different to those of your spouse.

Stay calm, and don’t be surprised if you are asked very intimate and personal questions. They are being asked to verify your relationship, and while they may be uncomfortable, the UCIS officer probably asks the same questions many times a day and are used to them.

What to expect during your Green Card interview

The officer will go through your I-130/A and I-485, asking questions as they go. These questions will just be verifying the information you provided, so make sure you read through them again before your interview.

They will also go through each question in Part 8 of Form I-485 (see above), and ask them of the beneficiary. Even though some of them seem like ridiculous questions (are you or have you ever trained as a terrorist?), don’t crack jokes. Just take them seriously and answer them.

If the officer is satisfied after asking the above questions, going through your forms, and asking for copies of the documents and photos you brought. Then you will receive a letter that is hand delivered at your interview.

The letter will be headed Notice of Interview Results and will state that the interview is complete but your case is not decided yet. This is normal.

One of three boxes will be checked letting you know that either your case is being held for review,Β  that your priority date is not current and the National Benefits Center will contact you when it is current, or that your case is being transferred to an office servicing your new address (if you have moved).

Allow 120 days from your Green Card interview before making a status inquiry on your case.

Green Card Granted

While you are advised that it can take up to 120 days for a decision to be made, it is normal to receive an adjudication or response in a much shorter time period.

Our Green Card interview took place on January 22, 2020, and we received a letter from USCIS stating that we had been successful on February 3, 2020. The Green Card is sent separately to your adjudication letter, and can take up to five weeks to arrive, however mine arrived on February 6, 2020.

And that’s the end of the story. While it takes a lot of work, money, and dedication to put together a Green Card through marriage application and see it through to the end, it is ultimately worth the stress.

Do you have questions? Or have you had a different Green Card experience? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

Applying for a Green Card through marriage | Everything you need to know about the Green Card application process | Immigrate to the US

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