When a foreign national is engaged to marry a U.S. citizen, he or she may travel to the U.S. on a K-1 fiancé(e) visa to get married and eventually become a permanent resident (green card holder).
The K-1 visa is not just for modern-day “mail-order brides” who met their American fiancé(e) through international matchmaking services or international marriage brokers.
The K-1 is also for couples who met each other through mutual friends and family members, chance encounters, or online dating sites (such as match.com) that do not charge fees for international matchmaking services. K-1 cases can involve couples who were born in the same countries, attended the same college, or grew up in the same neighborhood. The K-1 visa is available to both opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples.
The immigration process starts with the filing of the K-1 visa petition, continues with the K-1 visa application, and ends with the filing of the Form I-485 application for adjustment to lawful permanent residence after the couple marries.
The general process is as follows:
STEP #1 – FILING THE K-1 VISA PETITION
U.S. Citizen Files the Form I-129F Petition
To start the process, the U.S. citizen must file a Form I-129F petition, including filing fee, Form G-325 biographic information for both parties, and supporting documents, with the USCIS office that processes these cases at the time of filing.
If the fiancé(e) has accompanying children younger than 21, the U.S. citizen must include their names on the Form I-129F to allow them to apply for a derivative K-2 visa.
The U.S. citizen must present evidence showing the eligibility requirements are met, such as a birth certificate showing U.S. citizenship, a written statement of intent to marry within 90 days of the fiancé(e)’s arrival in the U.S., and photographs of the couple together and airline tickets showing they met during the two years prior to filing the petition.
(USCIS can waive the two-year meeting requirement if it receives evidence showing this would result in extreme hardship to the U.S. citizen or would violate traditional marriage customs of either party. But this waiver is very difficult to get.)
The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA) imposes additional requirements and limitations. The Form I-129F instructions provide detailed information about IMBRA.
An international marriage broker (IMB) is a business that charges fees for dating, matrimonial or matchmaking services or social referrals for U.S. citizens (or permanent residents) and their foreign national clients. An example is Foreign Affair, the largest online international matchmaking service that features thousands of purportedly single women on its website, LoveMe.com.
Petitioners who met their fiancé(e) through an IMB must state this on the Form I-129F. They must also provide a signed, written consent form that the IMB obtained from the foreign national authorizing the release of personal contact information to them.
A U.S. citizen who previously filed K-1 petitions for two or more beneficiaries (at any time) or who received K-1 approvals within the two years prior to filing the current K-1 must apply for a waiver. The petitioner may submit with the Form I-129F an affidavit explaining the reasons for requesting the waiver.
The Adam Walsh Act Child Protection and Safety Act also prevents a U.S. citizen who has been convicted of a “specified offense against a minor” from filing a Form I-129F petition, unless he proves he would pose no threat to the foreign citizen fiancé(e) or accompanying children.
If applicable, USCIS must provide to the U.S. Consulate the petitioner’s criminal records and information related to certain crimes, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and neglect, dating violence, elder abuse and stalking.
USCIS conducts a background check for national security, criminal records, and other information on both the petitioner and beneficiary, which can lead to significant delays in the Form I-129F processing.
USCIS Processes Petition and, If Approved, Forwards it to NVC
Upon receiving the Form I-129 petition, filing fee, and supporting documents, USCIS will issue a receipt notice to the petitioner.
During the processing, USCIS may issue a request for additional evidence and will normally give the petitioner 87 days to respond. If the petitioner does not respond, USCIS may issue a decision (likely a denial) based on the evidence in the record.
If USCIS denies the petition, the decision can be appealed to the Administrative Appeals within 33 days or the U.S. citizen may file a new petition with additional evidence.
If USCIS approves the petition, it then forwards it with an approval notification to the National Visa Center (NVC). An approved Form I-129F petition is valid for four months from the date USCIS issues the decision. The petition must continue to be valid at the time the K-1 visa is issued.
If the K-1 visa is not issued before the validity date expires, the U.S. Consulate may revalidate the petition in four-month increments as long as it is convinced the parties are still legally free to marry and intend to marry within 90 days of the foreign national’s arrival in the United States.
NVC Processes the Case and Forwards it to the U.S. Consulate
After processing the case, the NVC will forward it to the U.S. Consulate that has jurisdiction over where the fiancé(e) lives. The NVC will send a letter to the petitioner, indicating the case number and stating that it forwarded the petition to the U.S. Consulate.
STEP #2 – FILING THE K-1 VISA APPLICATION
After receiving the approved petition, the U.S. Consulate will send instructions to the foreign national to apply for a K-1 visa.
Foreign National Applies for K-1 Visa
The applicant must bring the following forms and documents to the visa interview:
Completed Form DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application. The foreign national applying for the K-1 and any eligible children applying for K-2 visas must: (1) complete Form DS-160 online and (2) print the DS-160 confirmation page to bring to the interview.
An unexpired passport that is valid at least six months beyond the intended period of stay in the U.S. (unless there are country-specific exemptions).
Divorce or death certificate(s) of any previous spouse(s) for both the U.S. citizen petitioner and visa applicant.
Police certificates from present country of residence and all countries where the applicant has lived for six months or more since age 16. (Police certificates are also required for accompanying children age 16 or older.)
Medical examination, preferably including vaccination. Prior to the interview, applicants must schedule and complete a medical examination by an authorized panel physician. The U.S. Consulate will provide instructions.
Vaccinations are not required for K visas, but will be required when adjusting to permanent resident status following marriage to the U.S. citizen petitioner. Therefore, applicants are encouraged to complete the vaccinations at the time of the medical examination.
Proof of financial support. During the visa interview, applicants must prove they have sufficient financial support and will not become a public charge in the United States (i.e receive government benefits or welfare).
The U.S. Consulate may request a Form I-134, Affidavit of Support, plus proof that the U.S. citizen petitioner’s income is 100% of the federal poverty guideline.
Consular officers are also aware the U.S. citizen must submit a Form I-864, Affidavit of Support, when the foreign national applies for a green card following the marriage. So they may require the applicant to show the U.S. citizen petitioner’s income is 125% of the federal poverty guideline (unless the petitioner is on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces.)
Additional items include two passport photographs of the applicant, evidence that the relationship with the U.S. citizen petitioner is genuine, and payment of the non-refundable visa application fee.
Foreign National Attends Visa Interview
At the visa interview, the applicant will be asked questions about the relationship, including how the couple met, how often they communicate with each other, and when they plan to marry.
The U.S. Consulate may also require the applicant to present additional documents showing the couple continues to share a bona fide relationship, especially if several months have passed since USCIS approved the Form I-129F petition.
U.S. Consulate Issues Decision
Discrepancies between the information in the K-1 petition and the applicant’s circumstances might cause the consular officer to question whether the relationship is bona fide or might cause the U.S. citizen petitioner to choose not to proceed with the marriage. These include the visa applicant having one or more children not named in the petition, a prior undisclosed marriage (even if it has been annulled or ended by divorce or death), or a current pregnancy.
When there are discrepancies, consular officers may use their discretion in deciding whether to return the K-1 petition to USCIS. They should, however, first contact the U.S. citizen to verify whether he or she was aware of the particular circumstance(s) and whether he or she still intends to proceed with the marriage. If they receive a satisfactory answer from the U.S. citizen, consular officers do not have to return the petition to USCIS.
Consular officers will return the K-1 petition to USCIS for reconsideration if they doubt the relationship is genuine or if the U.S. citizen indicates that he or she no longer intends to go forward with the marriage.
The Consulate also conducts background checks on the K-1 visa applicant, including fingerprints and other checks similar to those conducted by USCIS, as well as checks of its systems and other interagency databases.
The Consulate will not issue the K-1 visa to a foreign national who is inadmissible to the U.S., unless he or she qualifies for a waiver.
Inadmissibility grounds include having a communicable disease, a dangerous physical/mental disorder, a drug addiction, or a criminal record (including crime involving moral turpitude, drug trafficking, or prostitution). They also include previous violations of U.S. immigration laws (e.g. 3/10 year bar due to accrual of unlawful presence in the U.S. that lasted more than 180 days) and failure to show he or she will not become a public charge.
If the Consulate approves the case, the foreign national and accompanying children will receive a K-1 visa and K-2 visas, respectively. The visa is valid for six months and is good for one entry into the U.S. The consular officer will give the visa holder a sealed envelope containing a copy of the petition and other paperwork to present at a U.S. port of entry.
STEP #3 – FILING THE APPLICATION FOR ADJUSTMENT TO LAWFUL PERMANENT RESIDENT STATUS
Marriage Within 90 Days
The couple must marry within 90 days after the K-1 visa holder enters the U.S. The K-1 status cannot be extended. If the marriage does not occur within 90 days, the foreign national becomes removable from the United States. If the foreign national leaves the U.S. before marriage, he or she will have to apply for a new K-1 visa.
Foreign National Submits Form I-485 Application to USCIS After Marriage
Once married, the foreign national becomes an immediate relative (i.e. spouse of a U.S. citizen). He or she may then submit the Form I-485 application for permanent residence, with filing fee and supporting documents, to USCIS. The foreign national may also file for advance parole to travel outside the U.S. and re-enter the U.S. before the green card is issued. He or she may also apply for a work permit to lawfully work in the U.S. while the green card application is pending.
After receiving the Form I-485 application, USCIS will issue a receipt notice and then a biometrics appointment notice instructing the foreign national to get his photograph and fingerprints taken at a USCIS Application Support Center. In some cases, USCIS may issue a Request for Evidence to continue processing the application.
Form I-485 Interview with USCIS
It normally takes at least 3 to 6 months for USCIS to schedule a Form I-485 interview. But in some cases, a year or more could pass before the interview occurs.
The green card applicant will receive the interview notice, with instructions on the documents to bring. He or she will also be instructed to bring the U.S. citizen spouse so the USCIS officer may interview them both.
The officer will ask questions to determine whether the applicant’s marriage to the U.S. citizen is bona fide (i.e. entered into with the intent of establishing a life together as spouses, and not solely or primarily for immigration benefits). The officer will also go through the questions on the Form I-485 to verify whether the applicant is admissible to the United States.
USCIS may waive I-485 interviews for K-1 visa entrants. But the documentation must be strong enough to get an approval without an interview.
USCIS Issues Decision
USCIS will approve the Form I-485 application and issue the green card if it determines the applicant’s marriage to the U.S. citizen is bona fide and the applicant is admissible to the United States (or qualifies for a waiver of inadmissibility).
If the marriage is less than two years old at the time USCIS approves the Form I-485, foreign nationals will be granted “conditional” permanent residence. This means they will have to file a Form I-751 petition to remove the conditions on the permanent residence before the green card expires, but no earlier than 90 days before the expiration. If the couple divorces, the green card holder may file for a waiver of the joint filing requirement to get the conditions removed.
If USCIS denies the Form I-485 application, it may issue a Notice to Appear in removal proceedings. The applicant may renew the Form I-485 before an immigration judge in removal proceedings. Otherwise, the applicant may re-file the Form I-485 with USCIS or ask USCIS to reopen and/or reconsider its decision. There is no appeal process.
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The K-1 was created to allow the foreign national fiancé(e) to enter the U.S. more quickly and be spared a long separation from the intended U.S. citizen spouse. But the process still requires a lot of documentation and can involve complications and setbacks. Furthermore, the K-1 holder is subject to removal from the United States if the I-485 process is not completed successfully or is not initiated at all.
An experienced immigration attorney can help you with filing the K-1 visa petition, applying for the K-1 visa application, and filing for permanent residence. Although information is readily available online, a skilled attorney knows how to deal with unique situations, prevent unnecessary delays, and maximize the chances of approval in the K-1 to green card process.
This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.
Photo by: J.K. Califf