An American Green Card Story with an Uncertain Conclusion

I’ve been living away from Australia for around 8 and 1/2 years now. Yep, it is creeping up on a decade! But the reality for Alex and I is that one of us will always be an expat. Since we’ve lived in several countries, a lot of people ask us how we organize our visas to live abroad. We are pretty fortunate as Alex has multiple passports (Jason Born style!). I can usually convince employers to give me a work visa. But here I want to share my American green card story, and how I’m struggling to keep it.

Marriage Does Not Equal Automatic Residency or Citizenship

Many people assume that because Alex and I have been married for so long and because Alex is American I can just go live in the USA at my leisure. Unfortunately, it’s not so straight forward. The US government has a pretty strict set of rules about not just obtaining a residency card, but also keeping it. Additionally, the green card process is costly, and filled with frustration and headaches. Rewinding back about 9 years, Alex and I planned to obtain the fiancé visa (K-1 nonimmigrant visa). That meant that I could enter the USA and then we had 90 days to get hitched… Las Vegas anyone?!

Spousal Visas Take Less time to Process Than Fiance Visas

However, when Alex called US immigration, with 6 months left on his temporary Australian working holiday visa, he was told it would take 8 – 10 months to process the K-1. So Alex said, ok, how can I speed that up? The US immigration officer’s response was, you could get married now and apply for a spousal visa (IR1 or CR1 – visa for a spouse of a U.S citizen), and the application process would then take 4 – 6 months. So we had to apply for the CR1, which is the conditional resident visa. In laymen’s terms, if you’ve been married to an American less than 2 years, this is what you can apply for and it is restrictive on your travel outside the USA.

Green Card Story

30 Days to Plan a Wedding in Australia

Alex called me and we met that evening to apply for our marriage license because in Australia, unlike Vegas, you have to wait 30 days… probably not a bad thing! We planned our beautiful special day in 30 days and put in the paper work for the CR1. So while I was planning our wedding, Alex was putting together the paper work and deciding on wedding cake! We chose not to hire a lawyer to help with the process as we simply didn’t have the extra few thousand to pay for this service. But we did use the help line the US government provides, and while there are high call rates to this line, it was money well spent because the application can be confusing.

Green Card Story - our wedding day

Medical Tests Required for US Residency

The non- American will also need to see an approved doctor to prove they are healthy, which is not covered by Australian medical insurance. You’ll have to pay out of pocket for this visit and bring with you as many of your vaccination records that you can find. Because I was born back before these things were digital, the city council of the town I grew up in could only provide me with an incomplete list (thanks mum for losing my records!!) so I had to pay more to have a few extra booster shots for measles and something else I couldn’t prove I’d had.

Proof of Financial Support for US Residency Required

Proof of financial support is very important to the green card process. Alex had been in school/college pretty much his whole life before this. So he could not “sponsor” me because he’d never made “enough money”. Your forms will be easier if it is your spouse who sponsors you, but that may not be possible. I was super lucky that Alex’s half brother, who had never met me, was cool with being my sponsor.

This person is financially responsible for you until you are eligible to be a citizen. Or at the time, for up to 10 years should you ever be in a position where you might need financial assistance from the US government. So again, John, thank you!  If it can’t be your spouse we advice finding a family member who has their tax records in clear order for at least the previous 3 years!!

US Permanent Residency Interview at US Consulate

With all this in place we had to fly to Sydney for our interview. The USA Consulate in Melbourne does not process USA residency visas. So we booked flights and a private room in a hostel in Kings Cross, a lively neighborhood of Sydney. We had our friends write us letters saying what an awesome couple we are and printed old emails and packed our wedding album. Alex and I discussed what we would say if we were in separate rooms, because we thought it would be like in the movies. WRONG!

We arrived at the US consulate with our paperwork in hand. We felt super nervous at 8am the morning of our interview. We went to hand over the paper work only to be told it was out of order and to sort it out! So Alex and I were that couple in the corner trying to get organized and whispering not so loving things to each other. But we tried to act “normal” as we knew we were being watched. After that we waited and watched other people’s interviews because it is actually like going to the bank.

Proof of Marital Relationship

Yes, you go up to the window. The US immigration interviewer then asks you questions that all can hear. The guy before us had met his fiance online. Alex and I giggled when the interviewer was probing into the amount of real time this couple had spent together. The US immigration officer quipped that he had spent almost as much time with the guy! Amusing himself clearly helped that officer get through his day.

Next we were up, but we were together, not like in the movies! We told our story, and the most “interesting question” we were asked… what annoys you the most about each other? My response- he cracks his fingers all the time, like even when he is sleeping (seriously this is still annoying!). Then he started processing us, and I was like hang on mister, don’t you want to see all the wonderful things I put together, just for you?… his response… no you guys are fine. Gaaah!! So back to our seats to wait. Mr internet got his visa before us and finally we were called and I was handed my passport with my pretty American visa in it!

Celebrating an American Green Card

So off we went to celebrate. And there is no better place then to sit by the Opera house, with a view of the Sydney harbor. Given the circumstances, that was the most celebratory bottle of wine in our lives. After months of planning and stress had finally come to a conclusion. We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon on the harbor.

Ok, that story ended up longer than I first anticipated, but where am I now. Well I’ll just back up and say when Alex and I left the US for Europe I was just 6 months shy of being eligible for my US passport, yes we were that dumb! But we were young (well youngish) and thought we’d be abroad forever. So now 5 and 1/2 years later I am probably on the verge of losing my green card (which is not green, it’s beige) if we don’t move back to the US soon to live for awhile.

There are ways to avoid this, but they require spending three months in the US. You can obtain a re-entry permit for extended stays out of the US (I-131). Documents can be found though the US citizenship resource center. But the problem with this is that you need to be in the US long enough (around 3 months) to get this processed, and you cannot do this from outside the US.

Advise Residency Require Warnings

Green Card Story - warning stamp

Over the last few years, I have received 3 warning stamps in my passport upon returning to the USA for family visits or work. The last time I was yelled at by American immigration, which sucks. So until I have a job contract I guess I will not be visiting the US again. I would like to keep my US visa. The main reason for this is because Alex and I don’t share a common passport.

If something horrible happened I would be sent one way and he the other. The other is the cost. In the years since we first applied for a USA green card, the price of obtaining a visa has significantly increased. Alex and I have a lot to think about in the nearish future about staying in Europe. Stay tuned for updates on that! And if you have any visa stories we would LOVE to hear them!

USA Green Card Conclusion

Be sure to read documents carefully. Have all your paperwork in order. It’s worth talking to people at US immigration. While we were able to avoid hiring a US immigration lawyer, it costs time. It may be worth hiring an immigration adviser, depending on your circumstances. Also, upon arrival, establishing credit in the USA is very important. Read our tips for that!


  • Alex&Bell

    Alex and Bell originally met while solo traveling after finishing university in 2002, in Brugge, Belgium. Alex grew up in the USA and Bell hails from Australia. During our nearly 20 year marriage we've lived around the world, including spending six years living in the Netherlands and Ireland. We have traveled to nearly 70 countries and enjoy giving readers authentic and quality travel tips. Alex is an award winning travel journalist and travel planner, who also freelances for other outlets. Bell is an award winning PhD scientist who currently works for a non-profit lung cancer advocacy research organization called Lungevity. Happy travels and if you have any questions leave a comment or drop an email!

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14 thoughts on “An American Green Card Story with an Uncertain Conclusion

  1. And what if you would just let it expire (is that the word for it)? I mean, you still remain married with a US citizen. Would they not give you some sort of new residence permit at the time you decide you really want to move back to the USA?

    1. Sure if it expires you can re-apply, but we’re not sure of what the costs associated with that would be. Based on the costs for a re-entry permit, our guess is it wouldn’t be cheap!! Plus you would have to pay for another visit to the American consulate and things like that, it wouldn’t be easy.

      1. Ah too bad, I could have guessed that it wouldn’t be a trouble-free option. At this point in my life, I just kind of wait and wait until I really have to do something. So in your case I would probably let it expire and then figure it out later. But like I said: probably not best sollution. It’s hard!

        1. Yes, Alex and I have pushed this out about as far as we can, so decision time is creeping up quickly now! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

  2. The only thing that comes to my mind when I read such stories, is that I feel very lucky for being a European, and for being married to a citizen of another country which is still part of the EU though. All this c**p can be avoided….
    Just the other day a Swiss manager told me that during a recent business trip to the US he was yelled at by American immigration, because they found out that a person responding to him physicallty works most of his time on US territory, and that somehow nullifies the visa weiver stuff for his manager.

    1. Yes being married to someone who has the same passport rights is something most people don’t think too much about! Most of the time, we’ve not had too much trouble with visas. And some of the IS immigration people have been really nice to us, actually I would say they have been lovely, but you can always get someone on a bad day and really they can decide so much on whether you are in or out.

  3. I’m a US citizen marrying my fiance on May 7th 🙂 He is an EU citizen. I was curious if you could help me figure something out? We will have a legal document of our marriage license from Denmark, but we won’t have an apostille right away–we have to wait up to 2 weeks for it to arrive in the mail. I plan on going back to America where I live during this wait time since I am only allowed in his country for 90 days and I don’t want to over stay and be kicked out of the country for good. With that said…do you know if you have your marriage license what happens next if the American citizen wants to stay with EU citizen in their country? Not forever, but to be able to visit again soon? Does the marriage license have no effect on this decision? I would still have to apply for a visa or something?
    The specific country he lives in is Romania. I’ve been back and forth, haha I might as well be able to apply to be a citizen here soon since I almost meet those requirements without marriage. But please let me know what you know or think.

    He would like to stay and live here in Romania, although I want him to live part time with me in America. He’s never been here and I want him to see it, see how he likes it and everything. I’ve researched so much, and now that I’ve finally got the marriage under control and finding a way to make it legal and happen, without worrying about him going to america or me getting married in romania (since they are confused by my paper work because I was adopted from China), I don’t know the next steps.

    Do we still have to do the back and forth situation? Or what would the process be after our marriage, for him to try to get a visa to America? You mentioned something in your journal about a sponsor? Can you tell me more? My fiancé is an artist like myself. I do photography and designing, and he does music–works with his band and helps other musicians write songs. He doesn’t have a regular job where you can see money and taxes etc. He does have his own apartment, and car. I know those were some requirements when trying to apply for a visa…it’s just the bank statements and proof of job that is hard. So–with the sponsor, does that mean he wouldn’t have to worry about proving what his job is? The sponsor could be my mother…But I guess i’m just not clear on the role? Would my mother have to fill out a form herself saying she would be responsible for him if he came into America? Or does my fiance fill that out?

    Basically my goal is after the marriage, I’d like him to be able to visit America for a month or two. And then we would go back to Romania until my regular tourist visa of 90 days expires. I’m not sure how or what kind of visa is best to apply for.

    Any thoughts or opinions will help!

    1. Hi, thanks you your question. But we’re afraid to say there are no easy answers here.

      First, with respect to staying in Europe and the 90 day rule – everyone seems to be pretty confused about what the law is, check out the comments in this post of ours for a very detailed response to the 90 day rule How you choose to play it is up to you.

      Now as for an EU visa, each EU country does this differently. For example, in the Netherlands, I needed health insurance, apostille seals on my birth certificate and our wedding certificate, but in Ireland, it’s a lot more lax, I didn’t need any of that, it was more about jobs, house, and money. Our advise would be to go and speak to the Romanian immigration office, they will tell you the rules for there. If you can get a resident card, this will be the easiest thing for you guys to do and the cheapest.

      As for the US, if your fiancé/ husband doesn’t plan on living there permanently with you, forget it. I’m sorry to be harsh, but for the first 2 years of your marriage he will be on what is known as conditional green card, these are more difficult to move around on, and it is the only visa he is eligible for, until you have your 2 year wedding anniversary! If, however, he does want to live there with you, you will need a sponsor. Because Alex had been in college it was not possible to for him to sponsor to me, so his brother had to fill in paper work about his last 3 taxes and dependents. It’s relatively straight forward, and then your sponsor is financially responsible for your husband, in that he can’t apply for welfare, but if he needs it, the sponsor is legally bound.

      Each situation is unique, but we generally think it is easiest for you to get a Romanian resident card and for him to visit you as a tourist in the US. We hope this helps you, let us know if you have any more specific questions and we’d love to hear how this works out for you both! Best of luck.

      1. So what does this mean that the first two years of marriage are crucial? Maybe one day he would like to live in the usa, but in the beginning i think it is difficult. are you saying that the first two years is the best time frame to try? or he will be stuck with only applying for tourist visas the rest of his life while we are married if he doesnt stay for two years?

        1. Hi Jasmine, no I’m not saying the 1st 2 years a crucial, the American’s just have two green card options, permanent and conditional, the conditional one is their way, I guess, of checking that this isn’t a visa marriage. So if he doesn’t want to live in the US, I wouldn’t go this way, in the eyes of immigration the green card is for those who want to live in the US, not those wanting to avoid tourist visas. Once you are a green card holder you have to pay taxes to the American government, now there are treaties, but still, if you were to spend the thousands it requires to get the visa and didn’t live in the US, there is an excellent chance it will get taken away.

          If you guys wait until he is ready to live there with you and that happens to be 2 years after your married then you apply for the permanent card, as a married couple you can apply at any point that you like, I was just saying that the conditional card is more restrictive than the permanent card.

          If I were you I’d go chat to the US consulate, they are usually pretty friendly and will tell you in no uncertain terms what to do for your situation, the cost and give you the right forms if you decide to go down that path.

          Good luck 🙂

  4. Regarding your green card validity, it is very risky to be travelling in and out of America constantly while on a green card. The USCIS wants green card holders to reside permanently in the US and only take short trips abroad. According to the USCIS website, any duration of absence from the country could be used against you to revoke your permanent residency. Even if you attempt to fly back to the US every few months and stay for a a week or two, it would be red-flagged and you might possibly lose your green card. Staying away from the US only exacerbates the problem! If you really have to travel, you need to apply for re-entry permit for each trip that is more than the usual “2 week vacation” that Americans usually take. Like another poster says, you can always just re-apply if you lose it; to that I’d say sure, but wheres the thousands of dollars going to come from? Not to mention the time and hassle to prepare applications.

    1. Hi Joe, thanks for your comment. Yes, if you never want to get in trouble you should play it all by the book, stay in the US and only leave for short periods until you become a citizen, but life often doesn’t quite go that way! So immigration can be a grey area and to be honest in our experience the immigration officer has a good amount of power to determine how you experience things. We’re lucky, we are now back living in the US, and we plan to stay until we get me citizenship, as long as life behaves! Because you are right, it costs a lot of money to just reapply and it is a huge hassle.

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