We didn’t feel we could afford a lawyer at the time, but our #1 piece of advice would be: if you can afford one- get one! They know the process and can navigate it easily with you. That being said, do your research in finding a reputable lawyer. We got lucky and were able to find a couple lawyers along the way who met with us on a one-time basis (for a fee of course) to give us an overview, give us tips for navigating the process, and answer some of our questions. I’d also recommend searching for free immigration law clinics in your city. We found one that met in a church every week where current law students would help with forms or answer questions, and it was super helpful. We wished we had found it earlier in the process!
DO YOUR MARRIAGE VISA / GREEN CARD RESEARCH
While the USCIS website is where you’ll go to download all the forms, I found it totally unhelpful otherwise. Before we even married, I read the book NOLO Fiancé and Marriage Visa: A Couple’s Guide to US Immigration cover to cover. It was very helpful in understanding the steps of the process and knowing which forms to complete. Make sure any guidebook you read is the latest version, or you may get outdated information. And make sure you check the USCIS website for the most updated version of forms and form instructions, too.
As early as you can in your relationship, start keeping records and documents of your shared relationship history. This will help in proving that you’re in an actual loving relationship and not working the system in a sham green card marriage. They want to see proof that you’re committed to building a life together, so anything that demonstrates that is helpful.
For example, we included in our application:
- photos of shared travels (with dates and captions)
- photo evidence that we had spent time with each other’s families
- proof of renter’s and car insurance that listed both of us on the policies
- proof of a shared bank account
- leases with both our signatures
- work forms that showed we were each other’s emergency contacts.
We kept everything well-organized in a binder with different sections: copies of forms, important documents, proof of relationship. My husband also kept a record of dates he traveled in and out of the country and on what kind of visas. That was helpful when filling out some forms.
BE YOUR OWN ADVOCATE (and be annoying if you must)
We ran into some issues when we moved after submitting our application and found out our file didn’t switch cities with us. This should not be a deterrent to you for moving while you’re waiting on various steps of your application. The USCIS system allows for address changes, and we changed our addresses with USCIS very soon after moving. Our issue came up because of a mistake on their end.
We only found out about this mistake because we finally got our interview appointment and it was for the wrong city. It took about 6 calls and talking to 6 different people at USCIS to find out if we had to take a flight and show up for that interview as scheduled or not. The last employee that we talked do during all those calls was the only one with enough seniority to move our file to the correct city and solve our problem.
Takeaway lesson: if you don’t feel you’re clear on an answer an employee gives you, keep calling and asking! There are different tiers of employees at USCIS, and some issues can only be resolved at higher levels. So if you have a problem, ask whether you need to talk to someone at a higher level to get it resolved.
Another note here: It takes a LONG time to get through that phone menu and decipher how to talk to an actual person. I’d recommend writing it down once you find that magic number sequence!
STAY ON TOP OF THINGS
Because you’ll inevitably have a long waiting period from mailing in your forms to receiving a green card, make sure you stay on top of things. For example, my husband had to re-do a couple medical exams because the first one expired while we were waiting. If your foreign spouse is authorized to work in the USA, make sure that authorization is renewed with PLENTY of time before it expires. Nothing seems to move quickly in the process, so don’t assume you can do things at the last minute and have it work out.
Every processing site around the country moves at a different pace, so don’t expect your timeline to be the same as ours. The USCIS website can give you a general idea about processing times depending on your region.
We were so relieved when my husband finally got his green card in the mail!! It was quite a celebration.
And don’t forget that 2 years later, you’ll have to send in some more paperwork to show you’re still married in good faith!