Is a "Marriage of Convenience" Illegal Under Immigration Law?

Under U.S. immigration laws, getting married solely for immigration purposes is considered marriage fraud, so authorities are looking for proof of a legitimate relationship.

In broad terms, a marriage of convenience is any marriage that was entered into for purposes other than the traditional ones: those being for love, to start a joint and united household, and possibly to start a family. For example, people have entered into marriages of convenience in order to pose publicly as a married couple in a situation where traveling together would be frowned on, to hide their true identity or sexuality, or for other forms of gaining various benefits -- among them, immigration benefits.

Yes, These Types Of Marriage Are Against the Law

In the United States as well as other countries, the spouses of people who are lawful residents, citizens, or travelers on visas are eligible to apply for visas or green cards to accompany or join that person. However, under the U.S. immigration laws, entering into a marriage solely for purposes of making use of such provisions is considered marriage fraud. It is grounds for not only denying the immigration benefit sought, but for imposing criminal penalties. 

If you are a nonresident foreign national considering marrying an American citizen to gain immigration benefits, you may have heard that you can receive your green card and permanent resident status in as little as two years. But you should also realize that United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is on the lookout for people trying to exploit this opportunity. It closely examines marriages between U.S. citizens and foreign nationals, and has broad powers to investigate whether the marriage is valid. What's more, the immigration laws contain special provisions to make sure that USCIS has several opportunities to determine whether or not you have entered into a marriage of convenience.

How the Immigration Authorities Test for Marriage of Convenience

You'll need to provide more than a wedding certificate and your word that you're married. The immigration authorities will, at several stages of the application process, require documentation showing the circumstances surrounding your marriage, namely that you're establishing a life together. Such documents can include things like joint bank accounts, joint health insurance, proof that you live together (such as a lease or mortgage with both your names on it), children's birth certificates, wedding photos, and more.

In addition, either the overseas consulate processing your case or USCIS (if you're adjusting status within the United States) will, before granting the green card or immigrant visa, conduct an interview to determine whether or not your marriage is legitimate.  During this interview, immigration officials may ask numerous, pointed questions about things like:

  • your relationship -- how you met, how you spend time together, what happened at your wedding, and more
  • your knowledge about the other person -- names of friends and family, important dates in the person's life, and so on
  • your living arrangements -- such as the color of your furniture, where you keep thing, etc., and
  • other common questions which married couples should know (such as who feeds the cat or shops for groceries, and when). 

If you hesitate, give wrong answers, or make other mistakes, the officials may suspect that your marriage is not legitimate. If that happens, you may have to undergo a second interview in which you and your spouse are separated, but asked identical questions. Then your answers are compared to see how well they match. For a more thorough list of what immigration authorities might look at, see Proving a "Bona Fide" Marriage for Immigration Purposes.

"Conditions" Imposed

But even if you get through this part of the process and obtain a green card, realize that it's only a two-year, conditional green card. You'll have to submit a whole new application near the end of those years, submitting even more documentation of your valid marriage, to obtain a permanent green card. If you think your marriage situation may raise red flags, you'll probably want to hire a lawyer to help present your case.

Penalties & Immigration Consequences

The penalties for entering into a marriage of convenience in order to gain status in the United States are harsh. See Penalties of Immigration Related Marriage Fraud to learn about the specific legal consequences.

See an Immigration Attorney

If you are considering getting married and you fear your marriage will be viewed as a marriage of convenience, or if you want help proving your marriage is legitimate, consult with an experienced immigration attorney who understands the laws and who can act as your advocate through the immigration interview process.

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