The fiance visa (K-1) is issued to the fiancé of a U.S. citizen, allowing that person to enter the United States. Once the foreign fiancé enters the United States, he or she can marry the U.S. citizen and then, if desired, apply for a green card under the immediate relative category. The technical name for the process of applying for the green card within the U.S. is Adjustment of Status.
But applying for a green card isn't required. Some fiances use this visa simply to enter the U.S. and get married, after which the couple lives in the non-U.S. citizen's home country, or somewhere else. As the spouse of a U.S. citizen, of course, the former fiance can always apply for a U.S. green card.
WARNING: The description below refers to normal processing times. Unfortunately, the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic has brought every part of the immigration process to a standstill. As of April 2020, there is no way to obtain a K-1 visa, owing to government office closures to in-person visits and presidential bars on immigration. Even after things reopen, expect delays as the backlog clears.
The U.S. citizen must start off the process by filing United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Form I-129F, Petition for Alien Fiancé, available for free download from the USCIS website.
Take a look at these tips on completing the form.
In addition to Form I-129F, the U.S. citizen will need to provide proof of U.S. citizenship and evidence of the courtship and meeting within the last two years. The citizen will also need to pay the petition fee.
Once the petition is submitted, USCIS will review it for completeness. Assuming the citizen didn't forget to include something, he or she will, within a few weeks, receive a USCIS Form I-797 Notice of Action acknowledging receipt of the petition.
After that, USCIS will do a full review, and hopefully approve the petition and send the U.S. citizen petitioner an approval notice.
USCIS then forwards the petition to the National Visa Center (NVC) for background checks. The NVC will send the fiancé some visa application forms to fill out. Once the background checks are completed and the fiancé has filled out and returned the forms to the appropriate destination, the NVC transfers the file to the U.S. embassy or consulate having jurisdiction over the fiancé’s place of residence. The embassy will then send the fiance instructions for gathering additional documents, getting photographs made, having a medical exam done, and more. See this overview the steps involved.
The last step in the process is for the fiancé to attend an interview at the U.S. consulate. This doesn't happen on a walk-in basis; the consulate will send an appointment notice.
At the interview, the K-1 fiancé visa might be approved, although it's likely that the actual visa issuance will be delayed a few days after the interview, pending final security checks.
This entire process from date of filing of the petition till the transfer of the file to the U.S. consulate normally tends to take up to a year; and sometimes more. USCIS approval of the I-129F alone was taking anywhere from five to 20 months in early 2020.
You can check how long the USCIS Service Center for your area is taking to make decisions on I-129Fs on the Check Case Processing Times page of the USCIS website.
Unfortunately, unlike in some visa categories, you cannot pay extra in order to receive faster ("premium") processing of a K-1 petition. Under normal circumstances, the U.S. embassy or consulate takes about two or three months to complete processing of the visa, depending upon the number of other visa applicants it's dealing with.
Once the K-1 visa has been issued by the consulate, the foreign fiancé can enter the United States and marry the U.S. citizen who filed the I-129F petition. The visa will be valid for six months from the date it was issued.
Once the fiancé enters the United States, the marriage must take place within 90 days from the date of entry. But if you plan to apply for a green card, it's worth getting married early on during these 90 days, so that you'll have time to get the official marriage certificate and prepare your other paperwork for Adjustment of Status before the K-1 visa runs out.
To learn about about the adjustment of status process, check out the following pages:
Engagement to a U.S. citizen does not necessarily mean that the foreign fiancé is entitled to a K-1 visa. An experienced U.S. immigration attorney can guide you through the entire process make sure it goes smoothly and quickly (or, as quickly as possible given the bureaucracy you're dealing with).