U.S. citizens may bring their foreign national fiancé(e) living abroad to the United States by filing a K-1 visa (Form I-129F) petition.
Even though the K-1 is a nonimmigrant visa, it’s one of the fastest ways for a foreign national to become a permanent resident of the United States.
The K-1 is often associated with modern-day “mail-order brides” (women from less developed countries who post their profiles online — usually on international agencies’ websites — in search of a husband from developed countries, such as the United States).
Common concerns about international relationships are that the woman is a victimized “mail-order bride,” lured away from her home country by a potentially abusive American spouse, or the foreign spouse is a scammer who preys on the American suitor for financial gain or for immigration benefits.
The K-1, however, is not just for “mail-order brides” or for international couples who might have met through an international marriage broker.
The K-1 is also for foreign men and women who met their U.S. citizen fiancé(e)s in other ways, such as online chatting, chance encounters while visiting each other’s countries, and introductions by family members or mutual friends. The K-1 is also for couples who are from the same countries and might have courted each other before one became a U.S. citizen.
Regardless of how the engaged couple met, the K-1 visa application process is the same. Although there are additional restrictions in certain cases, the basic requirements are strict and apply to all.
To qualify for a K-1 visa, the U.S. citizen petitioner and visa applicant must satisfy certain basic requirements. They are as follows:
Basic requirements for the K-1 petitioner (U.S. citizen)
1. You are a U.S. citizen by birth, naturalization, or derived citizenship.
You need to provide proof of your U.S. citizenship, such as a birth certificate, U.S. passport or naturalization certificate. If you are a lawful permanent resident, you cannot file a K-1 petition to bring your fiancé(e) to the United States.
2. You are able to financially support your fiancé(e) so he/she is unlikely to become a public charge, i.e. receive government assistance or welfare.
U.S. Consulates typically require the K-1 visa applicant to submit a Form I-134, Affidavit of Support, from the petitioner. On the Form I-134, petitioners must show they earn and/or own assets (e.g. bank accounts, real-estate property, stocks, bonds) that is at least 100% of the minimum income listed for their household size in the federal poverty guidelines.
U.S. consular officers, however, are aware that you will have to meet a higher, 125% requirement a few months later, after your fiancé(e) marries you and then applies for a green card . Therefore, the U.S. Consulate could insist that you meet the 125% requirement before it issues the K-1 visa. (The threshold is still 100% if the petitioner is on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces.)
Basic requirements for the K-1 beneficiary (foreign national)
1. You are living outside the United States. Filing for a K-1 visa is not necessary or permitted if you are already in the U.S.
2. You do not have a criminal history that will make you inadmissible to the United States. In general, foreign nationals who are convicted of or who admit having committed a crime involving moral turpitude (other than a purely political offense) or a violation related to a controlled substance are inadmissible. There are exceptions and waivers available in some cases.
3. You have not violated U.S. immigration laws that will make you inadmissible to the United States. For example, if you were previously in the United States and overstayed your authorized status, this could affect your K-1 visa application.
4. You do not pose a health risk to the general public that will make you inadmissible to the United States. As part of the K-1 visa application, you will need to complete a medical examination and submit the results to the U.S. Consulate.
You may be denied a K-1 visa if you have a communicable disease of public health significance, lack required vaccinations, have or have had a physical or mental disorder that causes you to engage in behavior that might be harmful to yourself or others, or have a history of drug abuse or addiction.
Even if you have never been diagnosed with an alcohol- or drug-related health issue, a record of alcohol- or drug-related arrests or criminal offenses can result in your being found inadmissible on health grounds.
There are waivers available for all health-related grounds of inadmissibility except drug abuse and addiction.
Basic requirements for both the K-1 petitioner and beneficiary
1. You must have met in person, at least once within 2 years or 24 months of filing the K-1 petition. Evidence may include your written declarations stating the exact date(s) you met; photographs of the two of you together; and copies of airline tickets and stamps in your passport showing you visited each other.
The petitioner can travel to the foreign citizen’s country; the foreign citizen can travel to the United States for a temporary visit (but getting a B-2 visitor’s visa will be challenging); or the couple can meet in a third country.
USCIS may grant a waiver of the in-person meeting requirement if the couple can prove:
a. It would violate strict and long-established customs of the U.S. citizen or fiancé(e)’s foreign culture or social practice; or
b. It would result in extreme hardship to the U.S. citizen (e.g. citizen has a serious medical condition that makes traveling difficult and the foreign citizen is unable to obtain a visitor’s visa to enter the United States).
Getting a waiver is usually difficult, so it’s better to do what you can to meet in person.
2. You must both be legally free to marry. This means you are both single, you submit proof of annulment or divorce from all prior spouses, or you provide proof that your prior spouse has passed away.
3. You must have a genuine intent to marry within 90 days of the K-1 visa holder arriving in the United States. Evidence of your intent to marry within 90 days of the foreign citizen’s arrival in the U.S. may include a declaration from both of you, correspondences with wedding planners, and wedding invitations. Because the K-1 visa processing time is uncertain, the couple also need to be flexible about the timing of the marriage.
The marriage must occur in a state where the marital union is legally permitted. For example, same-sex couples may not marry in a state that permits only opposite-sex marriages.
The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005 sets forth additional requirements. If you met through the services of an international marriage broker (IMB), you must state this on the Form I-129F and the fiancé(e) must be given a brochure about domestic violence.
An “international marriage broker” means a corporation, partnership, business, individual, or other legal entity, whether or not organized under U.S. law, that charges fees for providing dating, matrimonial, matchmaking services, or social referrals between U.S. citizens or nationals or permanent residents and foreign national clients by providing personal contact information or otherwise facilitating communication between individuals.
U.S. citizen petitioners must also submit certified criminal records if they have ever been convicted of certain crimes, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and neglect, dating violence, elder abuse and stalking.
The Form I-129F instructions provide detailed information about IMBRA requirements.
The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 prohibits a U.S. citizen who has been convicted of any sexual offense against a minor child, under the age of 18, from filing a K-1 visa petition. A waiver to this restriction is possible, but is rare. To get the waiver, the U.S. citizen must prove that despite the conviction, he or she poses no threat or harm to the fiancé(e).
Limitations of the K-1 Visa
Validity of the K-1 Petition Approval
The Form I-129F petition is valid for four months from the date USCIS approves it (or from the date of last action by the U.S. Consulate). During these four months, the couple should apply for the K-1 visa. But a U.S. consular officer can extend the validity of the petition in four-month periods if it expires before visa processing is completed.
Validity of the K-1 Visa
Fiancé(e)s have six months after the K-1 visa is issued to enter the United States. They may not enter the U.S. on an expired K-1 visa, which cannot be extended.
The K-1 is a single-entry visa, so it may not be used for travel abroad and re-entry into the United States.
Marriage Within 90 Days of Arrival
Following entry into the U.S. on a fiance(é) visa, the foreign national’s K-1 status cannot be extended. He or she must marry the U.S. citizen petitioner within 90 days of arriving in the United States before applying for a green card. Fiancé(e)s who leave the U.S. before the marriage occurs will have to apply for a new K-1 visa.
If 90 days pass without the couple getting married, the K-1 visa will no longer be valid and the fiancé(e) will be considered “out of status”. He or she then becomes subject to removal from the U.S. and is likely to have other immigration problems.
If the couple still intends to marry after the 90 days and do get married, the U.S. citizen petitioner must file a Form I-130 concurrently with the foreign national’s Form I-485 application for adjustment to permanent resident status.
Marriage to the U.S. Citizen Petitioner (and no one else)
If the marriage does not occur or is terminated before the green card is granted, the K-1 visa holder may not adjust to permanent resident status or change to any other non-immigrant status. There are only a few exceptions, such as when the foreign national qualifies for certain types of immigration relief, such as asylum or an I-360, VAWA self-petition.
If the foreign national meets and marries another U.S. citizen, after entering the United States on a K-1 and divorcing the original K-1 petitioner, she must return to her home country and start over the process.
Although the U.S. citizen may file an unlimited number of K-1 petitions, this complicates the process. The U.S. citizen may file a second K-1 visa petition over 2 years after approval of the first K-1 visa petition. If you want to file a K-1 petition in less than two years, you will have to apply for a waiver. If you have filed two or more K-1 petitions at any time in the past, you will need to apply for a waiver.
The foreign national may not file for multiple K-1 visas at the same time. If you have two different U.S. citizens filing a K-1 petition for you at the same time, the U.S. Consulate will return the petitions to USCIS and will not schedule you for a visa interview, even if USCIS approves both petitions.
K-1 Visa Featured in Entertainment Media
The TLC show 90-Day Fiancé and the documentary Love Me feature the lengths Americans and their foreign citizen fiancé(e)s must go to live together in the United States.
90-Day Fiancé: In this TLC show, U.S. citizens have filed K-1 visa petitions for their fiancé(e)s to travel to the U.S. to get married and live with them for the first time. The potential spouses are from various countries, including Russia, the Philippines, Colombia, Ukraine and Brazil.
Love Me: This documentary follows Western men and Ukrainian women as they embark on an unpredictable and riveting journey in search of love. Each character’s experience exposes the myths and realities of the “mail-order bride” industry, while also exploring the much deeper, human story that is too often overlooked. Two international couples end up going through the K-1 visa 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: Daniel Lee