Filing for a Spousal Green Card from Abroad, An Experience Report
TL;DR: Immigrating into the US is a long and arduous process, even on “easy mode” when obtaining a permanent residence through a spouse with a strong passport. Below, I detail the primary steps of the immigration process for a foreign-based consular filing process, which differs somewhat from the “standard” immigration process through US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). It involves 1. the pre-conditional filing for an expedited process through a consulate/embassy (form I-130), 2. similar-ish filing of the “green card application form” (form DS-260), 3. a visa interview at the consulate, for which you 4. need a whole lot of additional forms, documents and the like. A full timeline can be found at the end of this blog post!
I just moved to the United States, primarily as motivational support for my amazing wife, who will start her own PhD this year! The process of moving to the US is not an easy one, and I found that a lot of the sources online don’t really document the process in its entirety super well.
Particularly for spousal situations, there are a number of special circumstances that can drastically change the processing time (and the shape of the process itself), which is why I decided to write a more cohesive “guide” (or, I guess, “experience report”) on the Green Card application process.
I also want to preface this article by saying that we are very lucky in that we both have extremely supporting families, as well as the financial means to stem the (relatively pricey) immigration fees, plus a “strong” foreign nationality (the German passport currently ranks second in “passport power”). In addition, the process is very time-consuming. I have a weird sort of affection for “bureaucracy”, so I definitely coped with the endless forms and collecting evidence much better than others probably would. As a relatable reference point, ask yourself how much you enjoy filing your taxes, which feels pretty similar (although shorter).
If you really don’t like filing forms and dealing with bureaucracy by yourself, I would strongly recommend you to instead consult a company specialized on helping you with the US immigration process, instead of doing it by yourself. From what I understand, these generally start at around 1000$ (in addition to the regular filing fees), but may save you many hours of worrying. However, I want to emphasize that each individual step is (generally) well-documented, and nowadays a lot of country-specific information can be found online, which makes the process significantly easier to do by yourself.
That being said, accumulating all the necessary information on each individual step, mentally parsing it, and the stress of ensuring that a 500$ (non-refundable) application is correct, does really “cost” you mental energy as well. Please factor this into your calculation when deciding how to go about this process. At no point was I ever “completely lost” in the process, but you will likely find a few points in this article where I have strong opinions about particular design choices in the process, which may make it especially frustrating to deal with.
I understand that applying for a green card is not as easy for everyone, but still hope that the article is useful to some of you! If you have any corrections, comments, or want to tell me more about your own journey, feel free to message me at email@example.com!
Also, some general nomenclature for this article that I will refer to mostly by their acronyms (or relatively “vague” terminology). Don’t worry, each of these topics will be discussed in greater detail later on:
- Beneficiary: The person obtaining the eventual Green Card. Later on also called applicant.
- Petitioner: The person sponsoring the Green Card (usually a US citizen, potentially (?) also a US permanent resident). May also be called the sponsor (but not necessarily the financial sponsor, see I-864).
- USCIS: The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The main service to handle immigration requests.
- DCF: Direct Consular Filing. A procedure to obtain a visa through a countries consulate instead of the US-based USCIS.
- NVC: National Visa Center: as far as I understand, this entity is primarily relevant for the filing process when based in the US. Not sure if it is relevant for the filing in a DCF process, but a name that frequently pops up, regardless.
- I-130: “Petition for Relative Alien”. The original document to request an eventual Green Card Application Process, for an immediate relative (spouse/child/parent) ,filed by the Petitioner.
- DS-260: The “actual Green Card application form”, filed by the Beneficiary of the I-130.
- I-864: Affidavit of Financial Support. A form certifying that the (financial) sponsor (either the petitioner or another person) guarantees financial support of the petitioner for their stay in the US.
- Medical Exam: As the name indicates, a medical examination of your mental and physical state. Presumably to reduce the risk of being a burden on the US medical system later on?
- The list of filing fees is accurate as of May 2023 and conversions are made with a EUR-USD exchange rate of 1:1.1 (one Euro is worth roughly 1.1 USD). While I aim to update this article somewhat regularly, USCIS has already announced that they will be (drastically?) increasing the filing fees in the near future. Should this motion pass, I suspect the process will be even costlier.
- This article is discussing the prospective immigration from abroad, which implies form I-130. If you are already living in the US, you might want to look up information on form I-485 instead. The process is (from what I understand) very different, so YMMV.
- This is not legal advice. Please always consult with an immigration lawyer (instead of a random online stranger) if you are looking for particular help regarding your individual circumstances!
Part 1: Requesting Direct Consular Filing (DCF)
A definite advantage during the application process was the US nationality of my wife.
There are a number of different visa categories (way more than I could list here), but the general entry points for any skilled worker are basically the H-1B visa (sponsored by an employer), or the J-1 visa for academics (postdoctoral scholars, could have been potentially relevant in my case).
However, if you are married to a US citizen, you can immediately apply for a Green Card, or, in our case, a “Conditional Residence” permit, as we were married for less than two years before applying. This is formally known as the “CR-1” visa, which has the primary advantage that there is no fear of immediate expiration (beyond a divorce in the first few years after obtaining the CR-1 visa). If you are a couple with a US citizen spouse, but married for more than two years, you would immediately apply for a IR-1 visa (Immediate Relative), which is valid for 10 years.
The initial step for a family-related immigration process would be to complete form “I-130: Petition for Relative Alien” (I found the naming of “alien” oddly entertaining throughout the process). This essentially requires a US citizen (or permanent resident) to petition for you (the beneficiary) to become a permanent resident in the United States.
They key problem here lies in the fact that these petitions have to be centrally processed by the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), which even for spousal petitions can take more than a year in waiting time (AFAIK, the current waiting times are estimated with at least 12 months, up to 25)!
A lesser-known fact, however, which drastically accelerates the processing time, is the alternative of a “Direct Consular Filing” (DCF) process. Instead of submitting the initial petition I-130 with the central USCIS office in the US, it is possible to claim “exceptional circumstances”, which require you to obtain a permanent residence for a spouse/child in accelerated fashion. The basic requirements to qualify for a DCF are essentially:
- The petitioner being a US citizen (AFAIK, it may still be possible for permanent residents to request DCF, but I didn’t look too much into it).
- Have a permanent address abroad (i.e., currently reside in a country that is not the US).
- Have a “valid reason” for moving back to the US (most likely, a change of jobs, as it was the case in our situation).
There are other exceptions, such as military relatives, but again, I’m focusing on our case’s circumstances.
If you satisfy all three conditions, it is possible to go through your local consulate or embassy (in our case, the Frankfurt Consulate), and request a DCF through them.
This actually sounds quite easy, but already here, the US government isn’t making it particularly straightforward for applicants, as the original forms can be quite hidden. In the case of Frankfurt, you have to navigate an actual Google Form to file for DCF.
If you think that these “exceptional circumstances” apply to you, you can file an “I66 request” with the Consulate for expedited processing of your visa through the Consulate instead of USCIS (i.e., the “DCF”). FWIW, the request itself is fairly simple, i.e., stating how the circumstances apply to you by listing your nationality, the current residence abroad, and the reason for an impending move back to the US. Furthermore, you should provide some evidence for the relocation, in our case the acceptance letter at a US university (FWIW, most online resources are fairly adamant about providing a work contract. IMO, this makes more sense to me, but universities in the US somehow don’t issue work contracts to PhD students??). Our request was granted within a few days of submitting it, even with the “weaker” supporting document of an acceptance letter as the sole evidence.
The Real Start: “Petition for Relative Alien” (Form I-130)
Once you get approved for the DCF by the consulate, you have to submit the same documents required for a “regular” I-130 filing process. The only difference is the eventual submission address, which goes directly to the consulate instead of USCIS’ US mailing box.
All submitted documents must be in English (or come with an English translation by a certified translator). I am not sure whether the certification of the translator needs to be from the country in which the consulate is, but I would clarify that before translating anything.
Generally, USCIS’ information page for form I-130 is reasonably good for checking the required documents.
Filing the I-130 includes the following documents:
- Form I-130 itself (essentially filed by the “petitioner”, i.e., the US citizen).
- Form I-130a (additional information about the “beneficiary”, i.e., the person wanting to immigrate).
- Passport pictures in US format (2x2 inches, with odd requirements. I really strongly suggest to get the pictures taken by a photograph who knows what they are doing.Otherwise, the entire application may be rejected on grounds of a wonky picture, which would be silly).
- Proof of citizenship.
- Proof of the US citizenship of petitioner.
- Proof of the petitioner’s foreign residence (this may be only relevant for DCF cases). This can be a residence permit or other form of confirmation of residence.
- Proof of citizenship of beneficiary (in case of DCF). Ideally, picture of passport.
- Proof of relationship.
- In our case, a marriage certificate (depends on the relation between petitioner and beneficiary, of course).
- “Proof of bona fide marital relationship”, for spousal cases. See below for more information.
- Payment of the filing fee (535 USD), which need to be provided as a cheque.
Proving a “Bona Fide Marital Relationship”
This last point, “proof of bona fide marital relationship”, is what really cost us a lot of time and trouble. Essentially, USCIS/the consulate want to see a convincing case to believe you are “actually married”, and not just faking it for the sake of obtaining a visa.
Gathering such information is obviously a lot easier today than it used to be, but it still is a relative pain in the butt, depending on how thoroughly you keep documents and how readily you have them available (all in English language, of course).
The online forms we have looked at generally list financial commitments of a couple as a solid reason, which includes, e.g., insurance policies on both spouses, jointly held bank accounts, joint purchase of property, or joint children (again, hilariously dry to think of your own children as a “joint financial commitment”, but true nonetheless).
Since we only recently got married before the application, we still had most of our finances separated, and did not really have explicit payments that would indicate the financial commitments (most of our shared payments, like rent, were in a single name, and we made sure to equalize the financial burden by having the grocery bill paid by the other person, etc.).
Instead, it is also possible to provide further evidence, such as pictures of the couple (we fortunately had a long history of those), particularly with other people in them (for what I assume to be harder to fake?). Additionally, text messages/letters/communications are accepted as a form of evidence (again, we had plenty of those, bless GDPR and Facebook’s data request function). We also had some receipts of shared flights & gifts throughout our relationship, which we promptly included (make sure those are also in English!). And finally, you can submit letters of support by friends or relatives, for which we sampled six in total (written by our parents plus some close friends).
In total, we submitted around 70 pages of evidence, mostly consisting of pictures (30 pages), messages (20 pages), other evidence, such as flight documents (10 pages), and 10 pages of affidavit letters by our friends and relatives.
A comprehensive list of potentially relevant documents that we loosely used as orientation can be found on this website.
Submission of I-130
Finally, the payment for the processing fees must be included as a cheque in your application. This is probably the most difficult to obtain for the average (foreign) applicant, and we had to get a cheque mailed by in-laws in the US… I recommend getting started earlier on this than we did, as the cheque is an absolute necessity, and must be for US dollars, too. Local currency will not be accepted, and I do believe cash is also not an option.
While we were initially scared that our relatively “weak” list of documents would not be sufficient for a reliable verification, we did indeed get the confirmation to go ahead within a week, without request for any visa interview! This seemed to be somewhat faster than previously reported for a Frankfurt filing, and also exceeded our expectations based on the Consulate’s own timeline (I believe the upper limit they set is ~60 days to process). We can only speculate what prompted them to go ahead so quickly, but I again suspect that my German nationality, education level, and general history together (5+ years) are reasonably strong grounds to make me not fake something.
Part 2: Filing the Actual Green Card Application (Form DS-260)
With the confirmation mail from the consulate, we got two separate notifications. One for the petitioner, which did not contain much information, and one more exhaustive message to the beneficiary. In the latter email, we found more information on how to proceed, which included a request to file form DS-260 (“Immigrant Visa Electronic Application”, i.e., the actual Green Card Application form) and collect a number of other documents to eventually submit during a visa interview at the handling consulate.
Confusingly, DS-260 is usually handled by the State Department’s National Visa Center (NVC for short), but in the Direct Consular Filing process, it usually means that there is some odd internal handling within the consulate, which still lets users access the NVC platform, albeit with a slightly different user interface (as the Consulate itself will be handling all responsible aspects of the particular application). Also, the application for DS-260 now entirely rests on the beneficiary of I-130, i.e., the foreigner. To avoid confusing, I will still refer to the person listed in DS-260 as the “beneficiary”, even though they are now technically the “applicant” (and the I-130 “petitioner” is now only required as the sponsoring entity in some specific forms/fields).
Process Overview and Documents Required
In addition to the request of filing DS-260, the Consulate’s mail also lists a number of documents that need to be brought for the eventual visa appointment; these overlap in some portion with the documents needed for the original I-130 petition (but still need to be provided again!), and each document needs to be brought in the original plus one copy. Conveniently, the documents in this round may be provided in English or the language of the Consulate’s host country (in our case, German). This means that you do not necessarily need to get certified translations for these documents, which reduces the additional cost quite a bit.
These documents should already be available from your I-130 application:
- Marriage certificate (+ eventual prior divorce certificates, annulments or death certificates of prior spouses) for spousal filings.
- Proof of citizenship (i.e., scan of the beneficiary’s passport/ID card).
- Passport-style photograph in the same style as for I-130 (one picture necessary, 2"x2" format).
In addition, the following documents are required for the visa interview. Note that official documents need to be provided twice: once as the original, plus one copy (this affects the birth certificate, police / prison / military records, marriage certificate; also include a copy of your passport, just to be sure):
- Birth certificate of beneficiary.
- Police records of the beneficiary. These must be translated, if (and only if) the records show any entries. Notably, police records need to be presented for any country that the beneficiary has lived in for more than 12 months at a time (in the last 10 years, I believe). This is not required for police records from prior stays in the US.
- In addition, if there are entries in any of the police records, a court/prison record must be presented.
- Military records of any service by the beneficiary.
- Medical Examination from a Consulate-certified physician. In Germany, there are a total of four practices that are certified; one in Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, respectively. Notably, this document may be obtained at a point in time after the actual visa interview at the time of writing. This is likely because of the large backlog in examinations (the soonest date available during our application process was two months out from when we checked).
- Affidavit of (financial) Support: Form I-864. This one is probably the most tricky document to obtain, and we will discuss more on this in a bit.
- The confirmation page received after filing DS-260 (includes a bar code).
- The confirmation mail/page after registering for the “premium delivery option”, if applicable. The alternative is to pick up documents at/near the consulate after they have been processed. Importantly, this item is what I forgot during my own preparation; I am not sure if I simply overlooked it, but I felt it was relatively mentioned less than other required documents.
Note that the eventual application fees for DS-260 will be due at the Consulate visa appointment. This is unlike the US-based processing timeline, where the payment has to be made during the web application of DS-260, AFAIK.
The filing fee for DS-260 is currently ~325$. It is stated online that the I-864 processing fees only apply to processing within the US, otherwise the additional 120$ will be waived (which was the case for our DCF process). FWIW, payments can be made with credit card, cash, or cheque at the Consulate for this step. So it is not as stringent as the payment process for form I-130.
Filing form DS-260 itself is relatively straightforward, although tedious: The application system, or “Consular Eletronic Application Center” (CEAC), as it is formally called, has the feel and performance of an early 2000s web application (not kidding, the recommendations for compatible browsers include Internet Explorer 8!). As a consequence, the system may disconnect at any point in time, so make sure to save often (and early) in the process. Note that these disconnects are not the timeout of the website itself (after 20 minutes of “inactivity”, you will be disconnected), which also potentially disrupt your application, as it might well happen that you spend more than 20 minutes on a singular page.
This is unfortunately also counted as “inactivity”, so, yeah…
My personal recommendation is to fill out the basics on each page, i.e., a single residence, save, and continue to the next step. Only then actually go back to the previous page and supply a full list (e.g., all your previous places of residence). This way, you can always save, even if you may not have completed the full history, yet.
The information needed for the form is once again similar to I-130, although almost exclusively pertaining to the history of the DS-260 applicant (i.e., the I-130 beneficiary), and not the original petitioner in I-130.
The biggest difference to information already filed in I-130a is that some of the fields now require a much longer history than before. For example, instead of providing a list of addresses for the past 5 years, as it was the case in form I-130a, now you have to provide every address since turning 16, which may be a lot longer.
Usually, googling the respective fields (and wording) would yield decent clarifications on how to fill DS-260, so I highly recommend doing that if you are unsure.
The list of hardest-to-obtain information for DS-260 in my experience was:
- The entry date and length of stays for the past five visits to the United States. Fortunately, even the US government realizes just how specific this is; here, they state that approximate dates may be sufficient.
- The address history since turning 16 for any “permanent residence” (excluding, e.g., vacation stays, etc.). I suspect that an exact date/location may also be near-impossible to obtain for older applicants, so lenience is to be expected. Just make sure that the length and locations match the submitted documents during the visa interview (specifically for police records).
- Your complete employment history for the past 10 years. This includes a phone number of the company, as well as the name of your supervisor there. I have no idea whether they reach out to them, especially since some of my former bosses have since left the company.
- Figuring out whether my current academic institution (i.e., a university granting me a degree in the near future) should be included in the “history of attended post-secondary education institutions”, particularly since I have not (yet) been awarded a degree there. Yet, the form does not allow a setting that says “until present”. I filled it in anyways and hoped for the best.
The remaining application can be more (or less) complicated, depending on your personal circumstances. Not having children or prior spouses, as well as having a relatively strong passport (i.e., not requiring a visa for US entries), made things a lot easier in my case, I believe.
Regarding the medical exam, it should be noted that this also costs quite a bit of money, mostly depending on the country where you obtain it from. Unfortunately, in Germany the exam is quite expensive, and can easily total around 500€ (390€ for the exam, plus additional costs of up to 150€ for additional lab tests). Confusingly, the medical exam in my case could have been completed after the visa appointment, which I assume is due to the expected waiting time with the certified physicians. In any case, I would always check with your specific consulate to figure out what is (and isn’t) possible. Either way, the visa process will only be completed once the medical exam is submitted by the examining physician, so delays in the processing time are very probable for late medical exams.
You are required to provide a relatively comprehensive list of vaccinations for the medical exam; most of these could be done the day of your exam, but in particular the Covid-19 immunization must be completed beforehand (or otherwise, cause delays until the immunization process is completed).
In case you do not have access to your vaccination history, I would suggest consulting your GP beforehand, to avoid issues regarding the vaccination status.
The exact list of vaccinations depends on the age of the applicant, and can be found here: Careful! The list on the USCIS website (respectively the list on the State Department’s website) include more vaccines than are necessary for the typical adult. Some of these are only relevant for specific age ranges! I personally used this table provided by the CDC to determine which are actually necessary.
Additionally, I had to pre-fill a form of known medical conditions, both physical and mental (basically anything that required treatment by specialists). Fortunately, I only had some minor corrective surgeries, and did not have much to fill in here. I assume that the eventual medical exam may take much longer in such cases.
The eventual exam was relatively straightforward, since I made sure to prepare all the necessary documents ahead of time. This includes bringing a print-out of your confirmation page after submitting DS-260, the consulate case number (which you get after filing the initial request with the consulate). Please always check with the doctor’s office what documents are expected during the appointment.
The in-house lab drew some blood and did the required chest X-ray (to check for Tuberculosis), which was then followed by a ~20 minute conversation with the panel physician. They checked my blood pressure, breathing, vision and we had a brief chat about my listed medical conditions before concluding the exam. The whole thing took just about an hour, which was considerably shorter than the “please plan around 3 hours for the medical exam” written on their website.
Affidavit of Financial Support (I-864)
Regarding the Affidavit of Support (I-864), it is required that you can provide means of financial support that equal 125% of the US Government’s poverty threshold by the petitioner (or another joint sponsor). The official reason is to avoid the beneficiary being a “financial burden” on the US social system.
The current poverty guidelines can be easily found online, and are dependent on the size of the sponsor’s US household (usually, the household includes whoever is currently living in that household + one additional person (the petitioner); make sure to not include the petitioner again when providing a joint sponsor).
For the realistic case where a US citizen is sponsoring their spouse, i.e. a two person household, the 125% mark equals an annual gross income of ~25k$ per year for the 2023 poverty guidelines.
However, just because you do have an income, does not automatically mean that it can be used as a means of financial support. In our case, for example, the US government would not accept academic stipends from a PhD program as a valid “source of income”, even though said stipend was guaranteed for at least four years in advance.
The exact reason is not quite clear (but honestly, the regulation is quite stupid regardless). Some argue that it has to do with the fact that a PhD stipend is usually temporally limited (whereas the I-864 requires consistent financial support for an unspecified amount of time). I suspect that it has more to do with the goal of obstructing immigration for relatives of academics who by themselves are already having a hard time immigrating back into the US, if on a J-visa. This suspicion is supported by the fact that evidence of a pay stub or job contract (which can be otherwise used as evidence) also do not provide any information about the “longevity” of said jobs, and may in fact only be temporal employments.
As an alternative, I-864 fortunately also allows you to specify other assets (such as property value, financial assets, etc.) to substitute missing income. From our understanding, you need to provide three times the difference between the actual gross income and the poverty guidelines in assets (for spouses and children; five times for any other sponsored person). Meaning if you have no “actual income”, you would need to provide ownership of assets for about ~75,000$ total. Note that this is seemingly not per year, but rather a total amount. In any case, online resources generally urge to file assets only in really dire situations, and otherwise attempt to strengthen the application by using income directly, ideally through a joint sponsor.
Joint sponsorship refers to the case in which another person, who does not even have to be directly related, will promise to provide the financial means required for the Affidavit of Financial Support. In the case of a joint sponsor, the actual income needs to be adjusted for the total household size of their own family plus the applicant (the original Green Card sponsor may or may not be included in that household size). Again, we were lucky enough that my in-laws offered to fill the affidavit on their behalf, which eliminated the need for a more thorough vetting of our own assets.
Info: Note that, irrespective of the utilization of a joint sponsor, the I-130 petitioner (i.e., the US spouse) still has to submit form I-864 on their behalf, even if they do not have any (or insufficient) income. There may be multiple submitted forms, depending on the joint sponsorship situation.
Info: I believe it is possible to contribute the applicant’s assets to this calculation, too (Part 7, fields 6-8 on form I-864)! In cases where you have a significant portion of assets, but no current job, this may be a suitable alternative, and requires filing form I-864A (I believe). However, there are some restrictions on the assets to use (“the assets must be convertible to cash within 12 months”, and further requirements on the accessibility from the US). Since we didn’t use any particular assets, I cannot comment on the exact process here.
Info: One of the final caveats that I want to mention is the fact that income listed in I-864 has to be an estimate of the income in the current year, and not from the year of the provided tax return(s)!
Info: RE: the previous info point, you will have to submit IRS tax returns of any financial sponsor as “supporting evidence” of past income. At the very minimum, this has to be the most recent tax return, but additional returns of up to the past three years may be provided. From my research, the additional tax returns may be beneficial for cases where the income was lower in the more recent years. In case sponsors show a sufficient income on the most recent return, it is usuall advised against submitting more than one return.
Important wording/things that took us some time to figure out:
- For DCF processes, the NVC number IS your Consulate Case Number (starting with, e.g., FRN******* for the Frankfurt Consulate). This is relevant for “signing” petition DS-260, which can only be completed with the additional provision of the “NVC number”.
- It is expected that some fields in the CEAC platform are disabled when going through a DCF. Particularly, the “choice of agent” and “paying fees” section cannot be completed, as they are not applicable (see this discussion). Instead, you will be expected to pay the fees during your visa interview, which follows after filing form DS-260, and the “agent” is the consular officer.
Part 3: The Visa Appointment & Medical Exam
The medical checks are notoriously difficult to get, especially after delays due to Covid impaired the immigration processes for many people after 2020. In fact, the situation got so bad that the Consulate now specifically allows exemptions beyond the original visa appointment to obtain a medical exam. In our case, booking an appointment with the nearest certified doctor’s office (in Frankfurt) had appointments available roughly three months out! However, I can highly recommend the office in Frankfurt, if only for the reason that they allow you to sign up to a service that announces earlier appointments once they become available. While they were generally re-assigned within 15 minutes of the mail, it still allowed us to get a scheduled appointment a month prior to the original appointment.
Depending on your panel physician, parts of the exam will have to be completed prior to the medical exam appointment, such as the chest x-rays (e.g., this is the case for an appointment in Munich), or required vaccinations. While some vaccines can be done same-day, others, such as the Covid-19 vaccine, will have to be administered in multiple doses and are thus required in advance (or at the very least, the medical exam can only be completed if everything is there). For me, one of the crucial questions was related to the immunity of varicella, which is a required vaccination. Since I was infected with Chickenpox as a kid, I should have the immunity, but I did not have any mention of it in my vaccination card. However, this is no problem, as the doctor’s office simply let me put down a confirmation that I am immune due to a previous infection. The statement is obviously made under legal oath, but it was at least not required to obtain any further tests (which I did, anyways, just to be sure).
Info: Another note is that the medical exam results are usually only valid for 6 months and require verification of an ongoing immigration process for the appointment (e.g., the DS-260 confirmation page or a Case Number) when entering the clinic.
Appointment at the Consulate
The eventual visa appointment at the Frankfurt consulate is quite stressful. I would encourage you to be there earlier rather than later, as the queue to get inside the consulate can easily exceed a ~20 minute waiting time. However, it seems the officers were prepared for delays, and you were ultimately called with a number given upon registration inside the consulate. So don’t worry too much about it if you are late. FWIW, all waiting times are for a “random Tuesday” in July, although I think available appointments were only available on weekdays, anyways.
As for your US spouse (the petitioner), they can technically enter the consulate with you to partake in the visa appointment. However, the things that you are allowed to bring inside with you are very limited (no phone, no additional documents, no backpack or anything). As such, we decided that it would be best for my wife to wait outside with our phones/bags, and only enter if necessary for clarification. I am actually not sure if they have some lockers there, but you can definitely not bring anything else in there. Security is really tight.
I also didn’t really feel the need of having her with me at the interview, as I was completely fine answering questions on my own, and handling the application documents, as I primarily prepared them myself, anyways.
Inside the consulate, it is all about figuring out which lines are the appropriate one, but consulate staff are extremely helpful (and surprisingly friendly, all things considered). Usually, “permanent residence” immigration cases are handled separately from “tourist visas”, so the waiting times were relatively speaking much shorter. I think I waited another 15 minutes to register my case with a first consulate officer, followed by a brief visit to the bursary to pay the necessary immigration fees (325$, which are usually paid through NVC when submitting US-based applications or direct USCIS filings). After that, I had to wait roughly another 20 minutes until my assigned waiting number got called and I talked to a final consulate staff member. During the first conversation, I had to submit all required documents, including my passport. After figuring out that I had indeed forgotten one thing (a confirmation slip for the home delivery option), I was handed another sheet that told me how to submit the “missing evidence” later on (simply by e-mail, with a particular code). Aside from this, I was fortunate that I had all required documents at hand, which also included supporting evidence for the I-864 affidavits (i.e., tax returns) and original documents. Paying the outstanding fee was much more convenient than the filing of form I-130, as I could bring a credit card to pay at a terminal, but cash would have been fine, too (AFAIK, foreign currencies would have also been accepted).
When I got called to the counter for the eventual “interview”, our conversation consisted of relatively few questions about the relationship with my spouse, the financial situation of her and my father-in-law (the official joint sponsor). However, given the nature of our application, it seemed that this was already more than sufficient for the visa officer, and I was promptly told that (given the timely submission of missing documents and availability of all other documents) I could expect a positive outcome very soon.
I understand that, once again, this is likely on the shorter side for a residence interview, and I am sure that depending on personal circumstances, this may be a lot more involved than it was for myself.
After the interview was over, I was told that I could leave the consulate again. Once back at home, we submitted the missing delivery notice through the web form, and were waiting for the eventual response. Again, I have to compliment the Frankfurt Consulate on their response times, as we got a “package delivery notification” about a successful pickup of documents not 3 days later. Based on the prepared passport, we were able to tell that the whole process seemed to have been a success (yay!), and it was now only up to the eventual border officers to admit me into the country once I enter for the first time. The delivered package also contained some further information on the immigration process, as well as the (in our case, big!) packet of documents that only the eventual immigration officer at the US border is supposed to open. From what we later heard, this seems to be particular to the Frankfurt Consulate, and may not be the case for other countries; there seems also the option to digitally transmit the majority of these documents, in which case the packet might be a lot smaller.
One remaining step was to pay an outstanding fee of another 220$, which is basically paying for the eventual print-out and delivery of the physical green gard (i.e., document I-551), which can only be received inside the US upon immigration. In the meantime, the passport visa page serves as a temporary I-551, and can be used as a means of identification etc. It also includes an assigned “Alien Registration Number”, which has frequently popped up in forms, and seems to be a helpful indicator for unique identification (in the absence of a Social Security Number).
Speaking of, the Social Security Number (SSN) will also only be assigned after your first successful entry, and (from what I understand) needs at least another 2-3 weeks for assignment. However, at least a further registration for the SSN is not necessary, as long as you indicated the respective boxes in form DS-260 about automatically forwarding information to the Social Security Administration, which is responsible for assigning the SSN. Other instructions included in the visa package were pretty self-explanatory, and mainly discussed the eventual duration of the temporary I-551, procedures during a first entry.
Info: During the visa interview, I was asked when my planned immigration was. I answered truthfully, and am not sure if the indicated date has something to do with the processing speed at the consulate. As our planned immigration date was roughly a month after the visa interview, I am extremely glad that the consulate was processing everything so quickly, irrespective of the reasons.
Info: The forms are pretty clear that the immigration (or at least processing) of your physical I-551 is not possible until the outstanding fee is paid to USCIS. While it is again possible to pay by credit card, we did that as soon as possible, to avoid any hassle during the immigration process itself.
Part 4: Immigrating
Immigrating was probably the most anticlimactic part of the entire process. There are a few times when it should definitely be mentioned that you are immigrating, instead of visiting, especially during the airport check-in. There, desk agents will use the visa page in your passport instead of checking your ESTA (or tourist visa). Once arriving in the US, you can simply proceed to the regular customs operations for tourists (at least, this was the way at Newark International Airport, where we arrived). The immigrations officer will then take your provided documents (if any were sent to you beforehand), and take you to a separate area for immigrants. My wife was allowed to join me during this, by the way. There, the process was fairly quick: the agent took the document folder, briefly (like, literally less than a minute) looked at the provided paperwork, stamped my passport, and wished us all the best before sending us on our way. Unlike me, you should definitely immediately check for the stamp provided on or next to your immigrant visa page, because this effectively “validates” the temporary I-551. If you read closely on the page, it states that “upon endorsement, serves as a temporary I-551 evidencing permanent residence for 1 year”, which means that only with the stamp this document carries any weight within the US.
And with that, it is done! The last step was to get all of our luggage, but the immigration was finally complete :) The eventual next steps still include the wait for the physical green card, which is supposed to take several weeks after arrival, as well as obtaining the SSN.
The entire process for applying to the Green Card is quite costly. The summation of the associated costs for my specific case can be broken down roughly as follows
535 $ - Filing fee form I-130 (to be paid as a cheque!) 40 $ - certified translation of documents (only 2 pages were actually translated) 325 $ - Filing fee form DS-260 (paid at the consulate during the visa interview) 430 $ - (390€) Medical Exam (costs may vary depending on the specific doctor’s office) 16 $ - (~16€) Additional lab tests for medical exam (cost may vary depending on required tests) 10 $ - Stamps for special delivery letters (cheque US to Germany & Sending the I-130 package) 28 $ - US passport-style pictures for both petitioner and beneficiary 120 $ - Travel costs to/from Frankfurt (medical exam + visa appointment) 30 $ - “Premium Delivery” of visa package (the alternative is pick-up in Frankfurt) 220 $ - USCIS processing fee (to be paid before first arrival)
= 1754 $ Total
Info: The “financial support form processing fee” (120$), which is required for US-based processing, is not applicable for the consular filing process.
Info: The lab tests for myself were quite cheap, presumably because of a short medical history. The Frankfurt doctor’s office estimated an upper limit of closer to 150$ on top of the regular fee, so be prepared to pay a bit more if you have a more complicated history.
Info: On top, for the CR-1 visa, we will be required to further file for the removal of conditions on residence (I-751), which costs another 595$. This is due after the initial duration of two years, and comes with its separate application process. This process is (AFAIK) only required for recently married couples, and you would be directly granted an IR-1 10-year Green Card otherwise.
Relatively, our own process can be summed up as a “speedrun” of the US immigration system, relative to stories that you read on the web. From our initial filing until the eventual issuance of the temporary immigration visa, it took just under 3.5 months, with a (somewhat voluntary) wait for the visa interview due to international travel. If we had pushed it, we could have likely gotten this visa in less than three months.
However, we already gave the issue a ton of previous thoughts, had amazing support throughout the process, access to past and present documents with relative ease, and still dealt with additional problems not covered in this post: among others, these “problems” include finding temporary immigrant insurance, dealing with finding a future residence, interviewing for jobs (for myself as the immigrant), conditional on a successful immigration, etc.
For these reasons, I only really encourage a faster processing if you have enough time to spend on the immigration process itself.
I really hope that the details in this post may help one or the other person, even though several conditions have to be met in the first place. As stated in the beginning, I am looking forward to hear about your feedback, immigration stories (US or elsewhere), and whether you would like to read more about this topic!
- April 14, 2023: Submission of I66: Request for Expedited Visa Processing to Frankfurt Consulate General.
- April 18, 2023: Request granted for expedited processing by the Consulate.
- April/May 2023: Collecting supporting evidence for form I-130.
- May 12, 2023: Sending letter including form I-130 and supporting documents to the Frankfurt Consulate General.
- May 17, 2023: Acceptance notification by the Consulate, further instructions provided.
- May 19, 2023: Submission of form DS-260, notifying Consulate of the submission.
- May 23, 2023: Acceptance notification by the Consulate, instructed to schedule appointment.
- May 23, 2023: Scheduling visa appointment. The soonest dates for the appointment are within a week. We chose a later date, because I still had to travel abroad in the meantime and the medical exams were available much later anyways.
- May/June 2023: Collection of supporting documents for visa appointment
- June 2023: Collection of medical history from previous GP/specialists. None of the obtained documents were particularly helpful in the end. The primary reference for filling out the requested document by the medical exam office were my parents (and their knowledge of previous infections/conditions).
- June 22, 2023: Medical exam in Frankfurt, moved to an earlier appointment after alternatives became available (originally had it scheduled one week after the visa appointment in July).
- July 18, 2023: Visa appointment at the Frankfurt Consulate including (a very short) interview.
- July 18, 2023: Submission of missing document (page of delivery confirmation notice).
- July 20, 2023: Notification by GTS that documents are ready and will be delivered.
- July 22, 2023: Received the visa package, including a prepared page in the passport.
- August 21, 2023: Flight to the US and stamp on the immigrant page.
I will update the timeline with the eventual arrival dates of my separate I-551 green card, as well as the processing time of the Social Security Number being assigned.
The Most Helpful Sources
- Frankfurt Consulate’s Visa Navigator: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScEvNF5RK-2bvqW7SicenUtdxrPxl-4XfdyfR6FWoC3uNRk4g/viewform
- A great thread on Reddit with timeline for a spousal DCF process: https://www.reddit.com/r/USCIS/comments/ra9ctf/direct_consular_filing_frankfurt_timeline/
- Forum board clarifying the “need” of providing documents through CEAC for DCF: https://www.visajourney.com/forums/topic/774723-no-option-to-upload-documents-after-completing-ds-260/
PS: As always, a quick explainer on the hero image at the very top. This one was taken not too long ago during our summit attempt of “Ahornspitze” in Zillertal, Austria. Unfortunately, we had to eventually turn around and abort due to bad conditions – snow mid-August!