When do you apply for a spoual green card through consular processing?
When the beneficiary is abroad, you will be filing either a spousal or fiancé visa petition and go through consular processing. You will start the case by submitting a filing with USCIS, and finish off the processing at the US consulate or embassy abroad. In between the filing with USCIS and the embassy, the National Visa Center acts as a clearinghouse for forms and documents, ensuring that the petition is not forwarded to the embassy until all of the requirements for issuing a visa have been received by the government. Ultimately the beneficiary will attend an interview at the embassy, meeting with an immigration officer who will make the final adjudication as to issuance of the spousal or fiancé visa.
Because you will be dealing with three entities instead of one – USCIS, the National Visa Center, and the State Department – consular processing is far more complex and cumbersome than adjustment of status from within the United States. There are more opportunities for the case to get ‘stuck’ through no fault of your own, and more potential pitfalls throughout the process.
US Citizen vs. Green Card Holder Petitioner
The first important question that will affect how you approach your case is whether the petitioner is a US citizen or permanent resident. Only US citizens can apply for a K1 fiancé visa, so if the petitioner is a permanent resident, you must be married if you want to file a petition for a beneficiary abroad. In addition, the spouse or fiancé of a US citizen will not have to wait for a visa to become available, a visa will be available immediately once your initial filing with USCIS is approved and the case moves to the National Visa Center. When a green card holder petitions for a spouse, you will receive a priority date and wait until the priority date becomes current before moving on with the case. This will usually take somewhere between one and a half to two years, although the timing varies, and you must check the visa bulletin to know when you can move forward with consular processing.
The Spousal Visa
The spousal visa is appropriate when the petitioner and beneficiary are already married, and the beneficiary is living abroad. To obtain a spousal visa, you will go through a three-step process. First, the petitioner will file an I-130 with USCIS. Once it is approved, your file will be forwarded to the National Visa Center, which will act as a clearinghouse to collect the required forms and documents. Once the National Visa Center has approved your case, it will be forwarded to the consular post abroad and scheduled for an interview. Finally, the beneficiary will attend the interview and obtain a spousal visa. Once the beneficiary travels to the US on the visa and goes through customs, a permanent resident card will be mailed to your US address.
Filing with USCIS and Priority Dates
Whether the petitioner is a US citizen or green card holder, the process of obtaining a spousal green card starts with filing an I-130, I-130A, and supporting documents with USCIS. Form I-130 is prepared and signed by the petitioner, and initiates a green card petition for a relative. It initiates a green card petition in all family cases. In addition to the I-130, you will also complete form I-130A, which asks for detailed biographical information about the beneficiary spouse. You should also file two G325A forms, one for the petitioner and one for the beneficiary. You will need to submit the following documents to USCIS along with the completed forms:
- A copy of the petitioner’s birth certificate
- A copy of the petitioner’s naturalization certificate if not born in the US
- A copy of the petitioner’s permanent resident card
- A copy of your marriage certificate
- A copy of any divorce decrees
- Two identical passport style photographs of the petitioner and beneficiary
After you file form I-130 with USCIS, you will receive an I-797C Notice of Action receipt indicating that the forms and documents have been received and are in process. There are a few very important pieces of information on the form that you will use as you go forward with your case.
One is the receipt number. The receipt number is a unique 13-character identifier that USCIS provides for each application or petition it receives. The agency uses it to identify and track its cases. The receipt number starts with three letters followed by ten numbers, and can be found in the top left corner of form I-797C. You can use that number to check your case status online at https://egov.uscis.gov/casestatus.
The second important piece of information on form I-797C is the priority date. If the petitioner in your case is a US citizen, you do no need to worry about the priority date. A visa is immediately available to the beneficiary, and you just need to wait for USCIS to process the I-130 and for case to be moved on the National Visa Center for further processing.
If the petitioner is a permanent resident the priority date is incredibly important. You use that priority date to determine when you can move forward with your case. Spouses of permanent residents are in the second preference category (2A). Once you have your priority date, you will look at the monthly visa bulletin issued by the US Department of State. There are two charts for the family preference categories - filing date and final action date. You can start to process your case with the National Visa Center when your priority date is on or after the date listed for the second preference category 2A filing date. This allows you to save some time by going through the processing with the National Visa Center shortly before an actual visa is available per the final action date.
It is vitally important to check the visa bulletin every month. If you look at the visa bulletin today, you can get a ballpark timeframe, as you will know which second preference cases have visas available right now. That timeframe will be different for someone who is just starting their petition and received form I-797C, depending on how many people have applied in your category between the currently available visa date and your priority date. As a rule of thumb, you can expect to wait one and a half to two years for a visa to become available for the spouse of a green card holder. Again, it could end up being shorter or longer than that, depending on how many other people have applied around the same time as you.
The National Visa Center
Once the I-130 is approved, USCIS will forward the case to the National Visa Center. This is where the process starts to get more complicated and confusing. The National Visa Center acts as the middle man between USCIS and the consular posts abroad. Its purpose to collect the documentation that the consular post will need in order to process and approve your case, so that the consular posts around the world are not burdened with incomplete files.
The National Visa Center is notoriously difficult to deal with. They process over a million cases per year, and get approximately twenty thousand pieces of mail every day. Needless to say, they get backlogged, and take a long time to process cases and respond to inquiries.
Unlike USCIS, the National Visa Center prefers contact by email. When you correspond with the National Visa Center, you must make sure to include the name of the person submitting the inquiry, the NVC case number or USCIS receipt number, the name of the petitioner, and the name and date of birth of the principal beneficiary. I would suggest including that information in every single email, even if you are replying to an email from the National Visa Center, as if you do not include it you could wait a week to get a response back explaining that they cannot give you any information.
The first step this stage of your case is to choose an agent. The agent will be responsible for receiving communications from the National Visa Center. You can have anyone act as your agent, including yourself. You need to formally select the agent before the NVC can move forward with your case. To choose your agent, complete form DS-261 in the Consular Electronic Application Center (“CEAC”), which can be accessed at https://ceac.state.gov/IV/Login.aspx..
After you have selected an agent, you need to pay the fees. You will receive a fee invoice that will include your case number and invoice number. You will receive a fee invoice for each beneficiary, as well as one invoice for an affidavit of support fee. You must pay those fees before you can move on to filling out the required forms and submitting documentation to the National Visa Center. The fees are payable by check by logging into the Immigrant Visa Invoice Payment Center at https://ceac.state.gov/IV/Login.aspx and entering your account and routing number.
After you have paid the fees, the next step is to complete and submit form DS-260. The DS-260 will ask very detailed questions about the background of the beneficiary. You will need to disclose everywhere the beneficiary has lived, gone to school, and worked. You will need your NVC case number, beneficiary ID number, and invoice ID number to access the DS-260 form through the CEAC portal.
After submitting the DS-260, you will collect and submit all of the supporting documents necessary to process your case. This part of the process varies case by case, as the NVC has set up different systems depending on which consular post your case is destined for. It could be through the CEAC portal, by email, or by physical mail. You will need to look up how to submit your application by checking with the US Department of State at https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/immigrate/immigrant-process/documents/Submit_documents.html. The NVC is trying to modernize and move over to the CEAC system, and as time goes along, more and more consulates will allow or require online submission of documents.
Once you have submitted your DS-260 and all the required supporting documents, the NVC will notify you when it has forwarded your case along to the consular post. If the NVC believes that you have not submitted the correct documents, you will receive a request for evidence from them detailing what they need.
The Consular Post
After processing with the NVC, your case will be forwarded to the consular post abroad, where it will be scheduled for an interview with an immigration officer. As soon as your interview is scheduled, there are some clerical matters that you should attend to immediately.
First, many consular posts require that you register your interview and sign up for a courier service where the post will deliver your visa. The method and requirements vary from post to post, and you will need to look up the instructions for your post by selecting the correct embassy at the following address: https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/immigrate/immigrant-process/interview/prepare.html.
Second, you must schedule a medical examination and complete it before the interview. You should schedule this as quickly as possible, as you must receive any necessary vaccinations before your interview. In the case of testing positive on a tuberculosis test, this process could take a few days to a week from your first appoint with the medical examiner.
Once you have finished registering your case with the post and have completed your medical exam, you will prepare for your interview. You will need to bring originals of all identity documents that you submitted to the National Visa Center, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, and divorce decrees. You should also plan to bring a copy of everything you submitted to the National Visa Center, so that you can follow along with the immigration officer.
The interview process varies greatly. Some consular posts have a reputation for short, easy visa interviews. Other consular posts with high instances of fraud will have a more detailed and investigative interview. The officer is tasked with ferreting out immigration fraud. They are concerned primarily with whether you meet the basic eligibility requirements of obtaining a spousal visa, and that you are in a real marriage. They will usually ask questions about your relationship, and you should be prepared to talk about your spouse, how you met, the timeline of your relationship, and why you decided to get married.
After the interview, the officer will often tell you whether your visa will be approved, although you will not receive your visa that same day. Depending on the post, it will either be mailed according the courier service instructions you submitted or will be available for pick up at the consular post within a few days to two weeks.