Bringing Your Foreign Fiancée to the U S
Navigating the Immigration Bureaucracy
So, in your travels abroad, or your recent foreign posting in the military, or while surfing the Internet, you have found the love of your life in a foreign country and are now ready to get married.
Having married a woman from abroad and having completed most of the requirements for obtaining permanent U.S. resident status and eventually U.S. citizenship for her and her two children, here are some of my experiences in dealing with the bureaucracy. I present this not as legal advice (when in doubt get a lawyer) but rather in hopes of helping others wade their way through this bureaucratic maze.
That being said, let me add that the best thing that ever happened to me was meeting my Russian wife on the Internet and marrying her.
What I want to convey here are some of the obstacles that you will have to navigate in bringing your intended fiancée to the U.S.
If you think it is difficult introducing your fiancée to the family just wait until you introduce her to your Uncle Sam (the old guy with the beard in the red, white and blue suit that hasn't been changed since at least the first edition of World War II recruiting posters).
The first thing to remember is that she must be your fiancée and not your wife when she first sets foot in this country. If you marry abroad, your spouse has to apply for admission to the U.S. under an entirely different set of rules which are more restrictive for her, in that these are rarely issued, and definitely more restrictive for her children than if she comes here under a K-1 Fiancée visa.
Current rules provide for your fiancée to be given a 45 day K-1 visa and her unmarried children under age 21, a 45 day K-2 visa. The two of you must then marry in the U.S. within the 45 days or she and her children will be deported. If you marry her abroad there is a chance that she and/or her children will never be allowed into the U.S. except on temporary tourist visas.
The First Step
The first step in the process is finding someone with whom you fall in love and want to marry. If this is done via the Internet, which is how I met my wife, you first have to make contact and start a relationship. Unless you live near our northern or southern border and find someone a short distance away on the other side of the border, the relationship is going to be by Internet, telephone and snail mail. However, the rules say that, before you can bring a woman into the U.S. on a K-1 visa, you must provide documentation that you have visited her in person outside the U.S. Photos, airline receipts, hotel receipts, etc. can serve as proof - the more the better. Unless you can afford to be flying off to visit foreign women every few weeks, it is best to develop the relationship as far as you can before going for the visit. In addition to email (and Internet access may be expensive for your fiancée depending upon where she lives), overseas telephone rates for calls from the U.S. to most of the world are very reasonable (a one hour call to Russia cost me less than dinner for two at McDonald's) making this a great way to build the relationship. However, the reverse is not true and calls from abroad to the U.S. are not only absolutely more expensive but, compared to incomes in many countries, are prohibitive for the local population. Snail mail and packages are slow but also a good way to build the relationship.
At this point it is a good idea to go to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service website and begin familiarizing yourself with it. The first thing you will see are numerous public relations pieces touting the work of the USCIS - just ignore these and navigate to the pages with information that you need. Work through the site to find and begin bookmarking the the pages pertaining to K-1 and K-2 visas, as well as rules and regulations, down loadable forms etc. On the one hand the amount of useful information on the site has increased considerably since I had to use it, but the amount of useless PR pieces have also increased and the navigation and indexing have not improved. You might find the www.del.icio.us social bookmarking site to be very helpful here as you can bookmark as well as write descriptive notes and apply multiple tags to the various pages for later use. Your fiancée can also join the site and you can share the links and tags with her on this site. Even if you plan to use a lawyer, I suggest that you study this site very carefully as well as search and bookmark other sites on the Internet - don't necessarily believe what these these other sites say, but they can be a good sources for questions to ask your lawyer or immigration officer. If you have a lawyer be sure to constantly ask "Why?" "Why?" "Why?" until you understand exactly what is going on. The same is true when dealing with immigration personnel, keep asking "Why?" until you understand the process. You will also find that employees at the USCIS are not only frequently ignorant of the laws they are supposed to enforce but, when you complain to your Congressman, as I did, you will be told that the law is too complicated to expect them to give accurate information. However, if you do follow advice from an immigration employee or lawyer and it is wrong, that is your tough luck.
When you are ready, schedule a trip to meet your fiancée By this time, if you have had open and honest communication, you should know her fairly well and there should be no big surprises at the other end. Do take time to study up on her country and customs but be prepared to be flexible. Books and the Internet tell you the customs in general, but people are different. Also, thanks to modern communication, many cultural differences are disappearing. Finally, understand that she is probably studying up on the U.S. and our customs as she is not only preparing for your visit but is also planning on moving here to live with you. You may find that she is more Americanized than you expected. This is your chance, and may be your only chance, to interact in person with her and decide if the relationship is go or no go. Again, be sure to take pictures and save receipts to share with your Uncle Sam.
Bringing Your Fiancee to the U.S.
When you return is when the paperwork starts in earnest. Go to the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Service) site, download the form to apply for the K-1 visa.
As I recall the form itself is fairly easy to complete although you will need information from your prospective spouse - maiden name if she had been married, date and place of birth, previous marriage, divorce, etc. names and ages of children, if any.
You will also have to provide similar information about yourself as well as copies of birth, marriage, divorce and other records including a photocopy of your passport and every page (including blank pages) in it.
A financial statement and copies of bank and investment records as well a letter verifying employment to support the statement will also be required.
Finally, you will have to sign an affidavit promising to support your wife and any children she brings and promise not to apply for any public aid for them for at least ten years.
Get used to this affidavit as the USCIS collects these affidavits the way some people collect stamps and you will end up submitting these affidavits many times. As to whether they ever bother to read or enforce the affidavit, I have no idea.
Depending upon the volume of applications, it can take up to a few months for your application to be approved (not really approved but, rather, having the USCIS tell you that they do not object to allowing you to proceed to the next step - bureaucrats hate to commit to anything).
At this point you have to shift over to the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in your finance's home country to begin the visa process.
This will require the presentation of copies of records and an application from you to be sent to the State Department as well as your fiancée completing an application and submission of copies of more records as well as obtaining a report from her local police department showing no criminal past.
A medical exam by a U.S. Embassy approved local doctor is also required. She and her children will have to visit the U.S. Embassy or U.S. Counselor Office for an interview.
Expect to spend a couple of hundred dollars on fees here in the U.S. as well be prepared to send money to your fiancée for fees she will incur at her end.
The easiest way to send money is via Western Union but the fees are high.
I was able to add my fiancée to my credit union account and obtain an ATM card for her (by that time we were going to be married and I trusted her) however, this is no longer an option as the U.S. Patriot Act, whose rules took effect a few weeks after i did this, requires people to come to the bank and sign in person before opening or being added to an account at a U.S. financial institution.
Obtaining an extra ATM card on your account and sending it to her is not recommended.
Before I visited my wife I checked the Internet and found two ATM machines in Ryazan, the city in which she lived, both of which claimed to accept both Visa and Master Card ATM/Debit cards.
I took ATM/Debitcards from my bank and credit union accounts (one was Visa and one Master Card) to Russia with me.
When I tried the Master Card, the ATM in Ryazan, the city where finance lived, it not only kept my card but shut the ATM itself down completely.
I was able to get it back but if I had sent it to my fiancée and she had used it alone she could have been charged with credit card theft (her finance in the U.S. sent her his card - likely story!).
Don't send cash as it will most likely end up in some postal worker's or customs officer's pocket.
Finally, be careful with checks - in Russia the bank takes the check, mails it back to the U.S. bank with a letter asking for proof that it is good (which the bank probably won't do unless the check is certified).
Even if the bank does send the check back with the proper assurances you are probably looking at months before your fiancée receives the cash from a Russian bank.
Preparing to Come to the United States
In our case there were no exit requirements imposed by her government.
She had full custody of her children and current Russian passports (in Russia, like many countries, everyone is required to have a passport that is used for both internal identification as well as foreign travel).
However, depending upon the country, there may be applications and fees to pay in before your fiancee is able to leave their country and immigrate to the United States.
After completing the filing of the application for a visa you wait until your fiancée gets a phone call or letter instructing her to come and pick up her visa.
Up to this point, except for your trip to visit your fiancée, your costs have been fairly low. As I pointed out before, phone calls and mail are relatively inexpensive and there is not a much you can do other than talk and write to each other.
Fees for the application process run $200 or less, so, unless you have an attorney doing the work, there are very few expenses. But now things change.
At this point you are in a period where you and your fiancée know she will be coming soon but don't know when.
She may have a lease to cancel and may have to quit her job.
My wife was a school teacher and received notice of her final processing just before school started - her employer gave her the choice of quiting before school started or teaching the full year.
She quit, but that meant that I now had to provide support as, without her teaching job she had no way to support her and her two children while they waited for the visa to come to the United States.
Once she is given the visa you have to purchase plane tickets for her and her children.
Because airlines are required to take any passengers back to their country of origin if they are not accepted in the U.S., the airlines require that you purchase a round trip, rather than one way tickets.
There is also the cost of transportation to the airport as only a few cities in each country have airports that handle foreign flights.
My wife and her children were able to move with the three suitcases they checked on the plane. But, some women may have more and this will require shipping.
Finally, there is the financial impact of the increased family size.
The day my fiancée and her two children arrived I woke up in the morning responsible for a household of three - my two sons and myself
When I went to bed that night I had a family of six. That impacts your budget noticeably!
You will need to take a few days off from work to help your fiancée and her children settled in.
With both sets of children in their teens, I did not have any problems with them adjusting to the family.
Not that they bonded immediately with my children. They didn't. I did not force them and they did not clash. All four were mature and acted as such.
I also made no attempt to have my sons accept my wife as a stepmother and did not step into her children's lives as step-father as far as laying down rules, etc.
Of course, I loved my two new children and provided for the emotional and material needs of all four children equally - I just gave her children space while they got to know me and adjusted to the family.
The situation probably would have been different if our children were younger. However, with two still at home twenty year olds and two teenagers between us,,I basically supervised my children and my wife hers.
While there were no big differences, the rules were not always the same at first.
For instance, in Russia it is customary to remove ones shoes upon entering a home, including your own. My wife laid out slippers for herself and her two children by the door and I placed mine there as well.
The four of us wear slippers in the house while my two sons don't.
In Russia the custom is for the wife to manage inside the home and, as soon as she was settled, I began stepping back and letting her take control inside the house.
In addition to adjusting within the house, there is also the outside world to introduce them to and deal with during the first few days after arrival.
One of the first things we did was spend a day traveling around town taking care of more paperwork.
We went to the local high school and enrolled her son after producing the necessary proof that I lived and paid taxes in the district.
There was also the matter of immunizations, which he had had in Russia but the Russian immunization record (written in Russian) was not accepted by the school. The shots were obtained and he was enrolled.
I also took them to get Social Security cards. My fiancée was given one because she had the K-1 visa, but the children had to wait. As a result, when I went to file my income taxes a few months later, I had to get Tax ID numbers for them before I could claim them on my taxes.
The next year my step-children had Social Security numbers and, when I filed with these, I promptly received a letter from the IRS questioning the change. It took a trip to the local IRS office and the filing of more paperwork to clear that up.
I also had to go and file affidavits with the bank to change the number on their accounts from Tax ID to Social Security (and my daughter had to accompany me because, being over 18, she was an adult and I was not allowed to invade her privacy - the bank's rule, not hers).
Even though she was issued a Social Security card immediately, my wife could not work and on her Social Security card the office had clearly typed Not allowed to work without USCIS permission.
My wife was also able to obtain a learner's permit for driving but that expired with her visa and, before getting a new learners permit, we had to wait for her work permit from the USCIS which did not come until six months later.
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Helpful Tools and Sources of Information
Phone Cards - email is great but, so long as you and your fiancée speak the same language, the telephone is useful second tool for communication. For Americans, overseas phone calls are inexpensive.
If your long distance carrier does not offer any deals for overseas calling, then I recomment that you go online and buy a phone card.
These can be as low as one cent per minute but read the terms carefully as some round up to the nearest minute or more, have a call charge plus the per minute charge, deduct a fee every week or so, etc. But there are some that are good for 6 months or so and only charge for minutes used. Just do a Google search for Phone Cards and you will find hundreds of services.
In most non-western countries wages are low and overseas phone calls very expensive (even by American standards and our incomes are much higher). Therefore, you should not expect your fiancée to call you. Instead you should always call her as calling you could place a real financial burden on her.
If you and your fiancée do not speak the same language there are services that provide translators when you call. These are obviously more expensive but you will have to find a way to communicate in person some time. Google foreign fiancée telephone translation to find such services.
Sending Money Abroad - It is generally not a good idea to send money to a person you have just met on a foreign dating site.
There are many scams where foreign women claim to be looking for a husband in the U.S. or other western countries but are really involved in scams to get money. If the woman asks for money for some emergency (such as a sick relative) shortly after you make contact, she is probably part of a scam.
However, at some point you will have to decide whether or not to trust her. I first sent money when I was preparing to visit my then fiancée. She emailed me and said that she had found a 3 day, 2 night package bus tour to St. Petersburg that included hotel, bus tickets, museum tickets and meals for the equivalent of U.S. $90 each.
It was a great deal from my perspective but was the equivalent of two months pay for her, so I sent her the $180 to buy the tickets. When it came time for her to get ready to come to the U.S. I sent her money for her and her children to travel to Moscow for the interview at the U.S. Embassy, for the required medical exam and some other expenses related to obtaining her visa.
For Russia, the only way I could send money was via Western Union - they are fast, efficient and have offices in practically every city. For other countries PayPal may be a cheaper alternative but check first as, in many counties (Russia being one of them), PayPal can be used to make payments but not to receive money.
Don't send cash as it will more than likely end up in the pocket of some postal worker or customs officer (it is also illegal in some countries to send cash in the mail).
Checks may not be a good option because of difficulty in cashing - one friend of my wife's received a check from her fiancé in Australia. The bank took the check, wrote a letter to the Australian bank asking if it was good and mailed it with the check.
When the Australian bank returned the check verifying that the funds were on deposit, the Russian bank processed it and, when the funds cleared called the women to come and get her money. Three months after first presenting the check, the woman got her money less a substantial service charge for the special handling.
Packages and Snail Mail Letters - during our courtship I used the U.S. Postal Service to send an occasional letter with photographs (I sent a lot of digital photographs as well but while she could view them she had no way to print them) as well as some small gifts.
In addition to the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, FedEx and other services will deliver packages quickly and for reasonable prices.
Many foreign dating sites also offer services that deliver things like flowers, candy, etc. to your fiancée. With the growth of eCommerce and the Internet more and more companies, like Amazon.com, are expanding operations abroad and can be used to purchase and deliver gifts.
As to the wedding, it can be difficult to plan since the visa is not issued until the paper work is processed and that time can vary considerably. Once the paperwork is processed and approved, a visa is issued and is good for entry into the U.S. for a period of about 6 months. The 45 day rule for staying here starts as soon as an immigration officer at the U.S. port of entry stamps her visa and says "Welcome to the U.S."
Realistically, you have to plan on planning and having the wedding once the 45 day period starts. Also, I don't think she can leave and re-enter the U.S. on the K-1 visa.
If your fiancée is from a first world country (an economically developed nation like Canada, Western Europe, Australia, etc.) she can come here and visit you as a tourist prior to receiving the K-1 visa. Any family members who can afford the trip can also come for the wedding.
However, if your fiancée is not from a first world country but from a third world country (which includes most of the world) it will be nearly impossible for her to visit as a tourist legally and, if she comes here illegally and is caught, she will probably never be allowed to return under any circumstances.
If such a woman's family wishes to come to the U.S. for the wedding they will have to get tourist visas which can take a while and, in most cases, only male members, married couples and their children will be issued visas. Unmarried adult women will more than likely be denied a visa (Uncle Sam assumes that their real purpose in coming is to find a husband and stay so they are barred).
One possible way around this is to use the fact that marriage is both a civil and a religious affair. In most Western nations a couple has a civil ceremony before a magistrate and then a religious ceremony in a church.
The general exception is the tradition in Great Britain and her former colonies (including the U.S.) where clergymen are allowed to function as both an officer of the state (despite the First Amendment's separation of church and state) and as a representative of the church, thereby combining the civil and religious ceremonies into one.
I think this is still a loophole whereby you could have the civil ceremony in the U.S. followed by a religious ceremony in your wife's country once she obtains temporary residence status and is free to travel abroad. But check this out before attempting it.
A problem arose with our marriage. Not having any family here, we just took our children and went to the local justice of the peace and, again after filling out papers, were married within 5 minutes.
But the question arose as to how I should tell the government about this. In one of my many trips to the local USCIS office before my fiancée came here I was told that she would receive a packet of instructions upon arrival at the airport.
However, all they did was stamp her passport and wave her in. We received nothing in the mail and, with the clock ticking, I became concerned. After a number of phone calls I was finally directed to a new area of the USCIS website where I found the necessary forms and instructions.
By now the 45 day deadline was about three weeks away and as I read through the instructions for completing the forms I discovered that I not only had to submit a separate packet (the completed government forms plus copies of all relevant documents) for my wife and each of her children (except for the name at the top of the application form, the packets were identical and consisted of about twenty pages of paper each - mostly copies of documents), but also had to include a $500 check with each packet.
After completing the forms, attaching all the required copies and making copies for my records, I took the packets to the USCIS office on the south side of town during my lunch hour and they promptly rejected the packets for the two children pointing out that I needed a separate, notarized affidavit promising to support all three of them and keep them off welfare for ten years.
That was three identical original affidavits each applying to all three of them. This required a trip to my credit union on the north side of town. I returned and all three packets were accepted.
As of this writing, and we still haven't completed the full permanent residence process, let alone the citizenship process. However, the USCIS now has a total of ten original affidavits from me promising/swearing not to let my wife and her two children go on welfare.
At this point I was able to start tracking the progress of the application on the Internet although most of the time all I learned was that the applications were pending.
Finally, in late March (my wife had arrived in mid-September and the application for residency had been filed 45 days later) I finally got through on the telephone to the USCIS (there are no published numbers for the local office and all calls are by 800 number to Missouri for this step of the process and different 800 numbers for other parts of the process) to see what was holding things up.
The answer was that they were backlogged. However, upon further questioning I learned that if the processing took more than 90 days, you could file a separate application, and pay an additional $170 fee, for a work permit.
I submitted this and my wife received a work authorization card on a Tuesday in mid-May. We checked the help wanted ads and I took her around placing job applications when I got home from work. She was hired immediately and started work the following Monday.
My stepdaughter and stepson received their green cards shortly after my wife. Both can now work and drive a car and my daughter is close to graduating from college.
We are currently enjoying the two year lull between their receiving their temporary residence and waiting to start the process for permanent residence. Come spring we will have to plunge back into the bureaucratic swamp and begin working our way through the last two stages of the process.
My Wife's Long Trip to Her New Home With Me
Ryazan, Russia where my wife lived before coming to the U.S. to marry me.
St. Petersburg, the city in northern Russia which my wife first visited during my first meeting with her before she came to the U.S. to marry me.
Moscow, the capital of Russia and the city in which she and her children boarded the plane which brought her to the United States.
Tucson, Arizona - 10,000 miles from my wife's former home in Ryazan and where my wife and her children settled when she married me.
© 2006 Chuck Nugent