Start-to-finish guide to "consular processing" for spouses of U.S. permanent residents

The Basics

If you are a green card holder (U.S. permanent resident) married to a foreign national who lives outside the United States, this article is for both of you. We’ll go through each step toward getting your marriage green card. This type of green card application process is also sometimes referred to as "Consular Processing."

If your circumstances are different, please choose one of our other Start-to-Finish guides, and take a look at our general guide to the marriage green card process, all explained in plain language.

Estimated time:
27-46 months to obtain green card

Estimated cost:

Step 1: Sponsorship

Step one is filing Form I-130 (technically called the “Petition for Alien Relative”) with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The main purpose of this form is to establish the existence of a valid marriage.

The spouse filing this I-130 form is called the “sponsor” or “petitioner.” This is the spouse who is the current U.S. green card holder. The spouse who's seeking a green card is called the "applicant" or “beneficiary.”

Government forms and fees

This step requires $535 in government fees, two forms, and supporting documents:

  • Family sponsorship form (I-130): $535
  • Supplemental information form (I-130A): $0

Additional government fees, forms, and supporting documents for the later steps in this process will be described below.

Once your I-130 package is complete, you'll mail it to the designated USCIS address. Then you'll get an official receipt notice by mail from USCIS, typically within two weeks. If USCIS needs more information or documents to finish working on your materials, they will send you a “Request for Evidence” (RFE) within 2–3 months.

Once USCIS has everything they need, they typically make a decision on your I-130 within 7-10 months.

Step 2: Waiting Period

Once the I-130 petition is approved, USCIS transfers the case to the National Visa Center (NVC), which is run by the U.S. State Department. The NVC assigns a unique case number that's then used to identify the case from that point onward. The next active step is to file a green card application package with the NVC...

But first, there’s a waiting period.

For spouses of U.S. green card holders (permanent residents), the NVC green card application package cannot be submitted until the State Department determines that a green card is available given various annual caps. The dates published in the State Department’s monthly visa bulletin will determine whether an NVC package can be filed or not. For more information on how this works, take a look at our guide on “How to Read the Visa Bulletin.”

This wait time is currently about 8-10 extra months after the I-130 is approved, but this can vary by a few months depending on the applicant spouse’s home country.

Step 3: Green Card Application

Once the State Department determines that a green card is available, the NVC accepts the green card application package and ultimately decides whether the spouse is ready for an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad (called “consular processing”).

DS-261 and Fees

The next step is to file the DS-261 form, which is a relatively simple form that tells the State Department how to communicate with you. There is no fee to file it, and it can take up to three weeks for the NVC to process it.

At this point, you'll need to pay a total of $445 online, which covers both the State Department’s application processing fee ($325) and the financial support form fee ($120). It can take up to a week for the NVC to process your payment.

Filing the Visa Application

Once your payment has been processed, you can file the DS-260 (immigrant visa application). You’ll need your case number, beneficiary ID number, and invoice number from the original welcome notice that the NVC sent you. Once you’ve submitted the DS-260 online, you'll need to print the confirmation page so you can bring it to your visa interview at the U.S. consulate.

After you submit your DS-260, the NVC will send out a notice (again via mail or email) confirming receipt of your DS-260, usually on the very same day.

You will then need to submit your supporting documents to the NVC as well, which will include Form I-864 (technically called an "Affidavit of Support") and Form DS-5540 (officially called the "Public Charge Questionnaire"). Depending on which consulate is processing the application, you'll either upload, email, or mail all of these supporting documents to the NVC. Check here to determine which submission option applies to you.

If the NVC needs more information or documents to complete your green card application package, they will send you a checklist of missing documents, typically within 1–2 months.

Again, once the NVC has everything they need, they will typically make a decision within 3-5 months.

Step 4: Pre-Interview Requirements

Next, the NVC transfers your file to the U.S. consulate that processes green card applications in the applicant spouse’s home country. There are still a few requirements before the interview can happen, though...

Medical Examination

Before attending the green card interview, the applicant spouse must have a medical examination performed by a State Department-approved doctor. Your U.S. consulate will send you a list of these doctors along with your interview notice. The cost of this exam varies quite a bit by country, but about $200 is common.

Once the exam is complete, the doctor will give you a sealed envelope that contains your exam results and vaccination record, which you must take with you to the interview.

Passport Delivery

Before the interview, the applicant spouse must sign up online with an address to which the passport can be returned after an approved visa stamp is placed in the passport. Instructions to sign up for this passport delivery are available on each consulate’s website.

fingerprinting appointment

The applicant spouse must also (in most countries) sign up for a fingerprinting appointment at a visa application support center. This is usually a location different from the consulate. The purpose of this appointment is for the government to take fingerprints of the spouse, for background and security checks. Relevant instructions are also posted on each consulate’s website.

The fingerprinting appointment is typically not very stressful, and can be thought of as more of a procedural step. The applicant spouse will not be asked questions about the marriage or about green card eligibility at this particular appointment. They will simply get their fingerprints taken.

Step 5: Interview and Approval

The Green Card Interview

The interview is the last big step in the green card application process, and it can be the most stressful and intimidating part. Couples can help reduce this stress by knowing what to expect and assembling an organized file to take to the interview.

A spouse living abroad will attend the interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country, after receiving an appointment notice with the exact time, date, and location. The sponsoring spouse does not attend this interview.

We have prepared these resources with more details:

  • Guide to the marriage green card interview
  • Common interview questions (which can get very personal!)

If the consular officer is sufficiently convinced that the marriage is not fraudulent, they may approve your green card application on the spot. (It’s important to understand all the possibilities, though.)

What Happens Next

The spouse will then receive a visa stamp in their passport, allowing for travel to the United States.

Next, the USCIS Immigrant Fee ($220) can be paid online here. This fee must be paid for USCIS to produce and mail the physical green card. Typically 2–3 weeks after the applicant spouse arrives in the United States, the physical green card is then mailed to the couple’s U.S. address.

This whole process, from start to finish, typically takes 27-46 months and costs $1,400 in government fees—first, 11-15 months for USCIS to process the I-130 filing package ($535 in fees), then wait an extra 8-10 months for green card availability, followed by 3-5 months for the NVC to complete pre-processing ($445 in fees), and then 1-2 months for the consulate to schedule the interview. Just before the interview is the medical exam (around $200 cost), and just after is the physical green card fee ($220).

If you’ve been married for less than two years when the green card is approved, then this green card will show the code “CR1,” for “conditional residence" green card. Such green cards are valid for just two years, at which point you must jointly file another form to “remove the conditions.” This gives USCIS one more opportunity to make sure that the marriage is real, and then you can get a permanent green card.

If you’ve been married for more than two years when the green card is approved, then the green card will show the code “IR1,” for “immediate relative" green card. These green cards are valid for 10 years, and renewal is usually a simple process.