California Immigration Marriage Laws

By Chelsea Levinson - Updated August 13, 2018
Couple getting married in church

California immigration marriage laws are the same as immigration laws across the country. This is because U.S. immigration laws are federal laws, meaning they are applied exactly the same way in every single state. Essentially, the process for a green card marriage in California is identical to the process in Arkansas, Ohio or any other state. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. U.S. citizens have free movement from state to state. A citizen doesn’t need to bring a passport to fly across the country, and certainly doesn’t need a visa to relocate to another state. If each state had its own unique immigration law, this free movement would become cumbersome. It would cause an administrative tangle, and unnecessarily restrict the movements of law-abiding citizens.

Filing a Petition

The federal immigration marriage process is both time-consuming and costly. Because the stakes are high, many people applying for a spousal visa hire a lawyer to help with the process. If you are entering into a green card marriage in California, it’s important to understand every step of the application process before filing your petition. Your application can be delayed if you make a mistake or leave out important documentation. Make sure that you have all proper documentation squared away, and that your application is accurate before you proceed.

To start the process, you must file a Petition for Alien Relative, also known as Form I-130. This petition is filed with the Department of Homeland Security U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The fee is $535 for this petition. There are a number of different points of documentation you will need to complete this form, including:

  • A copy of your legal marriage certificate
  • Any documentation from previous marriages of either spouse to prove those marriages have been lawfully terminated (examples: death certificate, divorce decree, annulment decree, etc.)
  • A passport photo of you, and one of your spouse
  • Legal evidence of all name changes past and present, such as a marriage certificate or court judgment of name change
  • Proof that you are a U.S. citizen or green card holder. If you are a citizen, you can provide a copy of a valid U.S. passport or a copy of your U.S. birth certificate or another certification of citizenship. If you are a permanent resident, you must provide a copy of your green card or a copy of your foreign passport including evidence of your U.S. residence. See form I-130 for exact documentation requirements.
  • Information about your relationship to your spouse, as well as spouse's birth date, country of origin and other vital information

All fields of the form must be filled out completely and accurately, and the document must be signed. If there is any information missing, your application will be rejected. Note that this petition is simply the first step in the immigration process. It does not guarantee that your spouse will be accepted on a visa, or earn permanent residence. There are several more steps to complete in the immigration marriage process after form I-130 is submitted.

Next Steps

If USCIS approves your petition, your application will be sent the National Visa Center. From there, you will be assigned a case number. If you don’t have a lawyer, you need to submit Form DS-261 for Choice of Address and Agent. If you do have a lawyer, this step is not necessary. Next, you will be instructed to provide the necessary fees to the National Visa Center. The NVC will indicate which fees you must pay. Once you pay your fees, you will be asked to submit an immigrant visa application (form DS-260), plus an Affidavit of Support and any other necessary documentation. This documentation includes:

  • Passports for both you and your spouse
  • An Affidavit of Support from the U.S. citizen or permanent resident petitioning on behalf of the immigrant spouse
  • An Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration Application (Form DS-260)
  • Two passport photos
  • Civil documents such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, etc.
  • Medical examination forms, completed and signed. (All immigrant applicants must submit to a medical exam by a qualified panel physician before being approved for a visa. This examination must be done at your expense, and the cost ranges depending on your spouse’s country of origin.)

If all goes well with your documentation and application, you and your spouse will be asked to attend an interview to complete the spousal green card process. You will be given instructions for what to bring to the interview. At the interview, fingerprints will be taken and rigorous questioning will occur. You will be asked about every detail of life with your spouse. Questions might include how you met, how you divide the household chores, when your anniversary is, what hobbies you have in common and many others. This is the last step before a green card is issued, and the government takes these interviews very seriously. Be sure to prepare, dress appropriately and arrive on time.

How Much Does it Cost to Get a Fiance Visa?

The final cost of the green card process depends on many factors. If you choose to hire a qualified lawyer, the process will be costlier, but also smoother. Even if you don’t hire a lawyer, the government fees alone can add up to $1,200 or more. Here are a few costs to consider:

  • Filing a Petition (Form I-130): This fee is paid by every applicant at the outset of the process. It costs $535 and is paid to the USCIS.
  • Filing an Application with NVC Form DS-260: This application is the second step in the process, and costs $325, paid to the NVC.
  • Affidavit of Support: Your Affidavit of Support form costs $120, and is also paid to the NVC.
  • Medical Exam: Every applicant must submit to a medical exam to earn a visa. This can cost anywhere from $60 to $300 depending on your country of origin and any vaccinations needed.
  • Immigration fee: If your spouse is approved for a green card, you will have to pay a processing fee of $220 to the USCIS Electronic Immigration System.
  • Travel: You may have to pay for travel to a U.S. embassy or consulate. Your spouse will also need to travel from his country of origin to the U.S.
  • Documentation: During the immigration application process, you will be asked to provide quite a lot of documentation, including passports, birth certificates and marriage certificates, just to name a few. If you don’t have a copy of any of these pieces of documentation, you may need to pay to have a copy reproduced by the appropriate government agency. For example, if you need to renew your passport during the process, that will cost you $110. Meanwhile, a copy of a birth certificate typically costs between $10 to $20.
  • Attorney: If you choose to hire a lawyer, legal fees can be one of the costliest aspects of the immigration process. An attorney will set you back anywhere from $450 to upwards of $3,000, depending on your specific situation.

Can an Immigrant Spouse Enter the U.S. During Application Processing?

While your green card application is processing, your foreign-born spouse has two options: he can stay in his home country and wait for the process to finish, or he can apply for a temporary visa to legally enter and work in the U.S. After you have filed petition form I-130, your spouse can apply for a nonimmigrant K-3 visa. This means your spouse can live and work in the U.S. while his visa is pending. The application process can take a long time, so the K-3 visa will prevent you from being separated for an extended period of time. A K-3 visa is not a permanent solution, but it gives your spouse a chance to adjust to life in the U.S. while you await your application results.

Reasons for Ineligibility

There are several reasons why your spouse might be ineligible for a green card. If she committed certain crimes, such as drug trafficking, she might not be eligible. If she overstayed a previous visa, that could also cause ineligibility. Further, if you submit any fraudulent documents or knowingly misrepresent facts on your visa application, that could be grounds for ineligibility. It’s extremely important to ensure that all aspects of your application are accurate and truthful. Slip-ups could jeopardize your ability to get your spouse a green card permanently.

If your spouse is deemed ineligible for a visa, you may be able to earn a waiver of that ineligibility. This basically means that the consulate determines that you can move forward with your application despite an otherwise disqualifying factor. This waiver is determined on a case-by-case basis.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Green Card in California?

Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast guidelines for how long the green card process might take. There are a finite number of green cards issued in the U.S. each year. If more people apply than there are green card vacancies, a backlog is created. Because so many people apply, there is usually backlog for green cards, meaning the process can take years.

Understand that your case can be delayed if any information on your application is determined to be inaccurate or missing. If you accidentally forget to sign a form, that can delay your case significantly. Further, your spouse’s country of origin could affect your wait time.

Ultimately, there are so many factors at play that it’s impossible to say exactly how long you will wait for your spouse’s green card. The best thing you can do to speed up the process is to ensure that you pay attention to every detail and submit fully completed and accurate forms at all times.

How Long is a Green Card Valid For?

If you have been married for less than two years when the green card is issued, your spouse will receive a conditional permanent resident card. This card is valid for two years from the date of issue. This green card is conditional because the U.S. government wants to make sure you aren’t entering a sham marriage to evade U.S. immigration laws. You must be married for more than two years to earn a permanent resident card for your spouse. To become a permanent lawful resident, you must complete a Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence (Form I-751). This form must be filed during the 90 days prior to the expiration of your conditional permanent resident card. The petition essentially removes the “conditional” aspect of the green card, and makes your spouse a permanent resident.

A permanent green card will be issued if you and your spouse have been married for more than two years. Or, a permanent green card will be issued after successfully filing a Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence. Once your spouse receives a permanent resident green card, it is valid for 10 years, and should be renewed in the six months prior to expiration.

About the Author

Chelsea Levinson earned her J.D. from Cardozo. As a former policy researcher, she has a passion for communicating legal issues to the public. She has created legal and policy content for Vox, Levo, Run For Something and more.

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