Ever since we embarked on this immigration journey, many have inquired about the process of becoming a US citizen, and I quickly noticed that most people hold mistaken beliefs about immigration procedures. As my 5-year immigration journey has finally come to an end, I wanted to reflect on all of the steps it took to get me here. I hope this article is informative and paints a more accurate picture of a subject that seems to be the source of so many misconceptions.
Who is eligible?
The question that always makes us laugh was “I thought you just got married and became a citizen?” Marrying a US citizen merely gave me the opportunity to apply with no guarantee that it would succeed. With the exception of military members and victims of war or abuse, there are few ways to earn a green card. Those wishing to come live and work in the United States can either be sponsored by a family member or sometimes by their employer. Without going into too much detail, there are priority categories, and only direct family members (parents, children, spouses, and siblings) may be sponsored. Parents, spouses, and minor children of US citizens have the highest priority while others may have to wait up to two decades for their status to be adjusted. A lesser known opportunity for those wishing to become permanent residents is through the diversity visa lottery only available to citizens of select countries. About 50,000 lucky winners are chosen each year.
Now that we laid out the eligibility requirements, let’s take a look at the steps required to earn citizenship through marriage.
- I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status
- I-751 Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence
- N-400 Application for Naturalization
I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status
Permanent residents have the right to live and work in the United States. Right after we got married, I filed form I-485 to adjust my status from that of an international student on a F-1 visa to that of a permanent resident. This was my first application and by far the most disastrous. I learned a lot from my mistakes and blame my paperwork-filing OCD on this fiasco. After a few notices requesting additional evidence, my application was fully processed, and Garrett and I were scheduled for an interview. The agent interviewing us verified the information on my application was correct, and that is when we learned we had unknowingly made a terrible mistake. Because I had returned to Belgium without requesting a travel authorization while my application was pending, my I-485 was denied, and I faced removal proceedings. At the time of filing, the travel authorization was called an advanced parole. I never suspected I needed one as I had never been arrested or even pulled over. My student visa allowed me to travel without restrictions and entirely legally as long as I maintained my student status. I left the United States and re-entered in full legality but faced deportation as the result of an honest administrative mistake. Thankfully my F-1 student visa was still valid, which was both a saving grace and the reason I never suspected I needed additional documents to travel. Separation of spouses through deportation is possible regardless of the situation. The fear we felt that day forever changed our outlook and the way we approached every new application and appointment.
I filed this application jointly with I-130, I-693, and I-864, which I will explain in more detail later. The total cost to file form I-485 is currently $1,225 for those 14 years and older. Upon denial of my I-485, I immediately reapplied. The total cost was an additional $1,125, but my biggest financial loss was losing my shot at in-state tuition – an additional $10,000.
My second interview took place about 7 months later and was quite a disaster as well. Click here to skip to my medical examination fiasco. Two weeks later, I had all the required evidence and was given the choice to mail it in (approval within 3 months) or drive the 4 hour trip to deliver it for immediate approval. I chose the latter, but because I could not be scheduled for an appointment, I had to wait for the agent to be available. After 4 and a half hours and multiple failed attempts to transfer my fingerprints to my new file, I received a stamped passport and a promise that my green card would be in the mail a week later. But that’s not the end of it because that would be too easy. I was already back in Belgium when we received my green card a week later. My husband who was joining me overseas had packed his bags and put the green card in his wallet. The day before flying out, he dropped his wallet at McDonalds. After 24 hours, many prayers, and no known sighting of the card, we decided to put up a $100 reward. The card soon reappeared, and my in-laws paid an additional $20 reward to thank the finder. Express international shipping and tracking cost an additional $80, which put our total recovery cost at $200. But the card was ours once more. Requesting a new card costs $540 and can take up to 6 months, which would have left me stranded overseas unable to begin my new job.
I-130 Petition for Alien Relative
Along with my I-485, Garrett had to file I-130 Petition for Alien Relative. The purpose of this form is to provide proof of the relationship between the applicant and the US citizen or permanent resident sponsor. I had to include copies of Garrett’s birth certificate and passport to prove his US citizenship as well as a certified copy of our marriage license and a few wedding photos. I was a newbie at the time and only included the required evidence. If you are currently in the process of applying for a green card, I would highly recommend searching immigration forums for suggested evidence to add to your application and strengthen your case. The current fee for I-130 is $535. Thankfully, I did not have to file a second I-130 when my first I-485 was denied. I received an approval notice for my I-130 and included a copy of it with my second I-485 application.
I-864 Affidavit of Support
The form I-864 Affidavit of Support serves to ensure that the applying immigrant will not become a charge to the United States government. Contrary to popular belief, immigrants -even those who pay taxes and have a social security number like me- are not eligible to receive government assistance. I-864 must be filed concurrently with form I-485, so needless to say I had to file a second one of these as well. Thankfully the affidavit of support is free to file through USCIS, so there was no additional cost to me. We were newly married and still in college when we filed. Neither one of us had a full-time job, and our salaries did not amount to the required 125% of the Department of Health and Human Services poverty guidelines for a household of 2, equivalent to $21,775 in 2021. As a result, we had to include Garrett’s livestock as assets. Assets have to be worth 3 times the difference between the amount you have available and the amount required by the affidavit of support. If an immigrant is unable to show proof of sufficient funds, he or she must find another sponsor to be financially liable on his or her behalf.
I-693 Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record
The I-693 Medical Examination ensures that the immigrant is not a threat to public health. The exam must be performed by a USCIS-certified civil surgeon selected from this list. The examination consists of a regular physical, multiple tests for infectious diseases (tuberculosis, syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia), and proof of up-to-date vaccination records. There is no fee for filing form I-693 Medical Examination, and it does not have to be filed concurrently with form I-485. However, the medical examination must be completed and sealed at the time of the interview. I mailed mine shortly after submitting my I-485.
During my second I-485 interview, we discovered that my original medical examination -though still valid- was incomplete. Civil surgeons who perform these medical examinations are carefully selected by the USCIS. It was thus in my understanding that the excessive cost of my visit reflected the burden of civil surgeons to stay up-to-date on immigration requirements. To my surprise, the clinic was unaware of recent changes and had failed to administer two newly-required STD tests. As a result, a decision could not be made on my case, and I had to travel 240 miles back to the civil surgeon clinic to submit a urine sample. You read that right… A 3-and-a-half hour drive to pee in a cup. After not hearing from the clinic for a week, I contacted them and was informed that my sample had not been sealed properly and thus could not be tested. I was given the opportunity to be tested at our local hospital while the civil surgeon clinic would cover the costs. When I arrived at our local hospital, I was told the test was over $200 and billing a third party could not be done. I returned the following day during business hours with the intention to let both parties discuss billing matters over the phone. I am definitely not a Karen, but at this point I had had more than enough. I was then informed that billing third parties was in fact a very frequent process and was directed to the lab for analysis. I had drunk so much, I almost asked for a second cup to make sure one of them would be properly sealed. A couple of days later, the results were in, but after over a dozen phone calls and multiple attempts from the hospital to fax the results to the clinic, I decided I would do it myself. Once I had the results, I noticed the lab had only analyzed my sample for one of the two tests. I had to wait an additional day to receive the full results and scan them to the clinic, which then overnight shipped me my sealed I-693 per immigration protocol.
I-131 Application for Travel Document & I-765 Application for Employment Authorization
After nearly being deported for legally leaving the country, I wanted to make sure I had travel and work authorizations. My F-1 student visa was near expiration, and even though my pending I-485 allowed me to remain in the US, it did not grant me the right to work or travel. Both applications were free when filed along a pending I-485 and quite short as they are merely formalities. I never heard back from the USCIS beyond receipts, but 3 months later I attended my I-485 interview. The agent who interviewed me told me I was lucky because these applications were no where near ready to be processed. Once my I-485 was approved, my green card became my work and travel permit, and these applications were canceled.
I-751 Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence
I received a conditional two-year green card because we had been married less than two years when I became a permanent resident. Three months before my conditional residency expired, I was allowed to file to remove the conditions and receive a 10-year card. Conditional residency is a safeguard against fraudulent marriages, so I had to prove that the marriage through which I was granted permanent residence was bona fide or entered in good faith. I sent the following evidence:
- A front-and-back copy of my green card
- 11 pages of I-751 application
- $680 check
- Proof of communal residence (college apartment)
- Proof of communal residence (current)
- PowerPoint showing house renovations performed as a couple
- Floor plan of communal residence
- Deed of communal residence
- Affidavit from owner of communal residence detailing lease agreement
- Wedding cards
- Wedding guest book notes
- 24 pages of annotated picture evidence
- 4 affidavits written by our high school friend, church minister, college advisor, and coworker
- Copy of drivers license featuring same address
- Copy of life insurance policy showing spouse as primary beneficiary
- Copy of retirement account showing spouse as primary beneficiary
- Copy of firefighter pension showing spouse as primary beneficiary
- Statement showing joint ownership of bank account
- Copy of most recent jointly-filed tax returns
- Bank statement showing frequent withdrawals and deposits on joint bank account
- Bills featuring both names and same address (car insurance, internet, phone, water, electricity, oil change, renters insurance…)
I filed form I-751 on the very day I became eligible, and the receipt served as an 18-months extension after expiration of my green card. When my extension letter was nearing expiration, I was told the USCIS would not provide an additional extension via mail. I thus requested an in-person appointment to receive a passport stamp proving I had current, legal status. I was scheduled for a biometrics appointment where I would receive a stamp, but the USCIS accidentally sent me to the wrong office. I traveled 6 hours round trip in the wrong direction only to travel another 8 hours round trip two weeks later to finally receive my stamp. I did not know it at the time, but had I not requested that stamp, I would have been denied a renewal of my drivers license for failure to produce proof of current legal status.
N-400 Application for Naturalization
On the three-year anniversary of my green card, I applied for naturalization – my final application. At the time of filing, my I-751 had been pending for a year, and both applications were transferred to the same field office to be processed simultaneously. The evidence required was as follow:
- 20 pages of N-400 application
- $725 check
- Copy of green card
- Copies of 3 most recent tax returns
- Copy of spouse’s birth certificate and/ or passport
- Copy of marriage license
- Newest bills (water, electricity, car insurance…)
- Newest bank account statement
- Newest joint retirement account statement
- Updated pictures
My first interview had to be canceled and rescheduled due to inclement weather. A polar vortex had indeed decided to settle in the central US causing a havoc of power and water outages and rendering roads impassable. My citizenship interview was rescheduled two months later and only took about 45 minutes. I passed the written and oral English test as well as the US History and Government test, thus demonstrating my eligibility to become a US citizen. I had brought updated evidence for my I-751 (new tax return, new pictures, most recent bills and bank statement…) but that evidence was not requested, and my I-751 was adjudicated along with my N-400 after pending for 25 months.
I took the oath of naturalization 15 days later and became a United States citizen. No guests were allowed during the ceremony because of COVID restrictions, but I received my naturalization certificate. The biggest lessons I learned through this process are to be patient, perseverant, and untrusting. I was given false or incomplete information on more than one occasion and learned only to trust my own research and congressional liaison. Contacting my US senator’s office for advice was the best decision I made. My immigration liaison was able to get reliable information from USCIS in a fraction of the time it would have taken me. When I got conflicting notices, she made sure I had answers in record time and constantly requested updates on my behalf. 10/10 would recommend!
What’s next, you may ask? Becoming a US citizen comes with a few perks, and to fully benefit from my new status, I must order a US passport, register to vote, and adjust my status with social security, so I can travel the world and do my part to make it a better place!
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