U.S. citizenship through marriage: How does it work?

Obtaining U.S. citizenship through marriage can take several years, but the steps are clearly laid out by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

Woman and man holding hands across table

Naturalization is the process by which a non-citizen becomes the citizen of a country. One way to get citizenship in the United States is to marry a U.S. citizen. However, it's not as easy as filling out a couple of forms.

It's not a fast process, and the outcome isn't guaranteed, and there are lots of requirements to fulfill along the way. With a lot of attention to detail and a little patience, you can attain citizenship in the U.S.

What follows are the basic steps to obtaining U.S. citizenship through marriage, which generally include first becoming a permanent resident (green card holder) and then applying for citizenship.

Establish permanent residency

Establishing permanent residency is the first step to acquiring U.S. citizenship by marriage. The Permanent Resident Card, also known as Form I-551 or a “green card,” provides proof that you are a permanent resident of the United States and is granted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Immigration through marriage to a U.S. citizen

To enter the U.S. legally if you are married to a U.S citizen, your spouse should complete Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, and all required documentation and filing fee to obtain the proper visa permission to immigrate to the U.S.

Green Card through marriage

After your arrival, you should file Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, and pay the filing fee to adjust your status to that of a permanent resident in the United States. If you are already in the U.S. legally, you should file both forms at the same time.

The USCIS will call in you and your spouse for an interview, and then, if things go well and if you have been married for less than two years at the time resident status is granted, you will receive permanent resident status on a conditional basis.

This can be removed by submitting a joint petition, Form I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence, within the 90-day period before the expiration date of conditional residence.

Applying for citizenship

Now, the big question arises: “When can I apply for U.S. citizenship?"

The general answer is that you must be a permanent resident (green card holder) for at least three years and have been living in marital union with your U.S. citizen-spouse during that time. You need to file citizenship Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, along with requested documentation and appropriate fee in order to apply for citizenship.

There are some further eligibility requirements under Section 319(a) of the Immigration and National Act (INA), however, and, they include the following: 

  • Be 18 or older
  • Have lived within the state or USCIS district with jurisdiction over your place of residence for at least three months prior to filing of application
  • Reside continuously within the U.S. from the date of your naturalization application until the time of naturalization
  • Be physically present in the U.S. for at least 18 months out of the 3 years immediately preceding the filing of your application
  • Be able to read, write, and speak English and have knowledge and an understanding of U.S. history and government
  • Be a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the U.S. Constitution, and “well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States during  all relevant periods under the law.”

How long it will take your application to make it through the naturalization process depends largely on where you’re located. The USCIS Local Field Office closest to you will contact you for an interview and final review of your application. You can check processing times at the USCIS website. If you are approved, you will take the oath of allegiance—in some locations even the same day.

Final considerations on getting U.S. citizenship through marriage

Remember that the final authority regarding all immigration and citizenship issues lies with the USCIS, so be sure to consult the USCIS website for further information, especially the USCIS Policy Manual Citizenship and Naturalization Guidance.

Moreover, if you have any issues that make your immigration and citizenship situation anything less than run-of-the-mill, you should seek out the advice of an immigration attorney.

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Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

About the Author

Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

Freelance writer and editor Michelle Kaminsky, Esq. has been working with LegalZoom since 2004. She earned a Juris Docto… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.