If you are not a citizen of the U.S. and you are about to marry a U.S. green card holder (someone with U.S. lawful permanent residence), you will not gain the right to work legally in the United States anytime soon. The entire application process, and thus the path to gaining any meaningful rights in the U.S., tends to be a lengthy one. That's partly because spouses of lawful permanent residents fall into a category known as "preference relatives," and annual limits are placed on the number of green cards available in this category.
Here, we'll explain more about what this all means, and when you can expect to be able to work or live in the United States based on your marriage to someone with a green card.
People in the preference-relatives category of visa are, under U.S. law, subject to annual limits on the number of green cards given out, as well as per-country limits. Because of high demand for these visas, they frequently face long waiting periods before they become eligible to apply for a green card and work permit, much less live and work in the United States.
Sometimes, there's no wait at all. But often, the wait in this category is four to five years long. If you want to see the original visa petition dates —otherwise known as the "priority dates"—of people who are just now receiving green cards, go the the State Department's Visa Bulletin and look on the family-based chart, under category F2A.
If you're lucky, you'll see only the letter "C," meaning there's no wait, and every spouse of a U.S. permanent resident is welcome to apply and complete the process as soon as possible.
Only when there's either a "C" on the chart or when a preference relative has risen to the top of the waiting list (has a current priority date) and has submitted an application for a green card will that person gain the right to both live and work in the United States. The exact timing and procedures depend on what country you are from and where you are living now and, if you're living in the U.S., whether you have the right "adjust status" here (that is, do the entire application process without leaving the country).
Most spouses of permanent residents find they do not have the right to adjust status, but must instead use consular processing as their application procedure.
If you are living outside the U.S., then you must wait until your priority date becomes current or the Visa Bulletin chart shows a "C" to submit your application for a green card at a U.S. consulate. The U.S. government will advise you when that time comes and tell you what paperwork to complete. Only after that application has been processed and you have attended a consular interview will you be allowed to enter the U.S. as a permanent resident (green card holder).
Upon entry, you will be allowed all the rights of U.S. lawful permanent residents, including the right to work. However, your actual green card will be mailed to you a few weeks after your arrival. In the meantime, a stamp in your passport will serve as evidence of your permanent resident status, and you can show this to employers.
If you're already living in the U.S., your situation is complicated. We'll give a brief summary of the most likely scenarios below, but you should really see an immigration lawyer for a full analysis. As background, the most important thing to understand is that having an approved I-130 on file, and a priority date, gives you no right to live or work here until you can submit an adjustment of status application.
If you have no lawful status in the U.S., find out whether you have any right to adjust status here. The answer is most likely no, unless you are grandfathered in under an old law known as Section 245(i). To be grandfathered in, someone would have had to have filed an approvable I-130 visa petition or a labor certification on your behalf before January 14, 1998; or done so before April 30, 2001, so long as you were also physically present in the U.S. on December 21, 2000.
By accruing unlawful presence in the U.S., you are making yourself inadmissible. The practical result of this is that, when your priority date becomes current and you travel to an overseas U.S. consulate to apply for your green card, you would likely be penalized for your unlawful U.S. stay with a time bar on your return.
The bar is three years if you accrued unlawful presence of between 180 days and one year; or ten years if your unlawful presence lasted more than one year. A waiver is available, but it's difficult to qualify for.
There's also a so-called permanent bar against entry by people who either lived in the U.S. unlawfully for a total of one year or more (in the aggregate, not necessarily continuously) or were deported (removed), left the U.S., and then reentered or attempted to reenter illegally. (Actually, if subject to the permanent bar, you can request special permission to reapply for U.S. admission after ten years.)
You might want to consider leaving the U.S. now, so as to protect your eventual right to a green card. That way, when it's time for your consular interview, you won't face the inadmissibility issue based on your more than 180 days' unlawful presence in the United States.
Again, because this is a long and drawn out process, marrying a U.S. lawful permanent resident is not a quick path to the right to work in the United States.
Your U.S. resident fiancé should look into filing for U.S. citizenship as soon as possible. After they become a citizen, you won't have to worry about waiting periods or priority dates anymore, but can immediately apply for a green card—if, that is, you don't face problems due to an unlawful stay and inadmissibility. But if your latest entry to the U.S. was legal (with a visa) even this might not be a bar to adjusting status, based on your now being the immediate relative of a U.S. citizen.
Yes, these laws are complex and confusing. Your best bet is to see an experienced immigration attorney for the details.