A foreign national cannot gain U.S. citizenship simply by marrying a U.S. citizen. There is generally more than one step to the formal process. However, it is certainly a faster route to citizenship, if it is achieved legally.

First, you must enter the country through legal means, with the appropriate visa. Upon marriage to a U.S. citizen, your spouse may apply for you to obtain permanent resident status.

This is also known as “getting your green card.” A permanent resident may stay in the U.S to live and work indefinitely. After the requisite period of time, the permanent resident spouse may apply for U.S. citizenship through the process of naturalization.

Marriage is not the only requirement an applicants need to fulfill in order to gain status as a permanent resident or as a citizen. This is examined in more detail below.

What is a "Green Card"?

The green card itself is a card you carry to identify yourself as a permanent resident. Getting a full permanent resident status also has more than one step! This is because there are two different kinds of green cards. These are :

  • Conditional green cards. The conditions must be lifted before the spouse can apply for citizenship; and
  • Unconditional green cards.

First, the citizen spouse applies for the immigrant spouse to receive a conditional green card. They must hold the conditional green card for two years. They may then apply for a conditional green card. Once the conditions are lifted, the immigrant spouse has the status they need to eventually apply for citizenship, but, they must wait one more year.

They cannot apply for U.S. citizenship for the immigrant spouse until it has been 3 years from the date the conditional green card was approved. In order to apply for the unconditional card, the spouses must file Form I-751 (Petition to Remove the Conditions of Residents) with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

What other Conditions must the Immigrant Spouse Fulfill?

In addition to marriage to a U.S. citizen and the holding of a green card for three years, the spouse must meet other requirements in order to apply for naturalization as a U.S. citizen. There requirements include:

  • They are 18 years of age or older;
  • The three year period they held the green card must immediately precede the date of filing for citizenship;
  • They must continuously reside in the U.S for the three years prior to application for citizenship (in “marital union” with the citizen spouse);
  • For at least 18 months of those three years, the immigrant spouse must have been physically present in the U.S.;
  • They must speak, read and write English, and have a knowledge of U.S. civics; and
  • They must be of good moral character.

How would Divorce Affect an Immigrant Spouse’s Permanent Residence Status?

If the immigrant spouse and citizen spouse divorce, it can interrupt the three-year period necessary for the immigrant spouse to apply for citizenship. There are three different situations in which this circumstance may occur:

  • When the immigrant does not have a green card;
  • When the immigrant has a conditional green card; and
  • When the immigrant has an unconditional green card.

These are discussed further below:

  1. The Immigrant Does Not Have a Green Card
  2. If the immigrant spouse has never applied for a green card, they will no longer be able to do so through the now-former spouse, should they divorce.
  1. The Immigrant Has a Conditional Green Card
  2. If the immigrant spouse has a green card, but it is conditional, divorce will make their situation more difficult. This spouse still needs to get the conditions lifted from their green card. They must still apply for the unconditional card, but also for a waiver of the requirement that they file for it jointly with their now ex-spouse.

The waiver may be granted if:

  • The pair divorced, but did have a good-faith marriage.
  • There was a good-faith marriage, but the citizen spouse abused the immigrant spouse.
  • The immigrant spouse would be under and extreme hardship by being returned to their home country.
  1. The Immigrant Has an Unconditional Green Card
  2. If the immigrant spouse already has their unconditional green card, they may still apply to become a U.S. citizen. However, now that they are divorced, it may take longer. Due to the divorce, the immigrant spouse must wait until they have been a permanent resident for five years, rather than three, before applying to become naturalized as a U.S. citizen.

Should I Consult a Lawyer for Help with Citizenship and Marriage Issues?

It is to your benefit to work with an experienced immigration attorney throughout the process of your changing status, from permanent resident resident to U.S. citizen. It becomes more important to do so if there are any complications with your case. If you become divorced, and have concern about your status, an attorney can help guide you through the process and everything possible to ensure it.