Proving a "Bona Fide" Marriage for U.S. Immigration Purposes

In order to obtain a green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence) based on marriage, you will have to prove that the marriage is bona fide. This means a marriage in which the two people intend, from the start, to establish a life together.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

In order to obtain a green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence) based on marriage, you will have to prove that the marriage is bona fide. This means a marriage in which the two people intend, from the start, to establish a life together as husband and wife.

"Husband and husband" and "wife and wife" works, too. As of the Supreme Court's 2013 decision to strike down the federal "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA), same-sex marriages count for U.S. immigration purposes, so long as they are legally valid in the state or country where they were entered into.

Although marriage can mean different things to different people, a marriage entered into for the sole purpose of getting the immigrant a green card is clearly not bona fide. It's called a "sham" or "fraudulent" marriage.

U.S. Immigration Authorities Are Perpetually on the Lookout for Marriage Fraud

Uncovering sham marriages is a top priority of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which has long believed that a high number of the marriage-based green card applications it receives are fraudulent. USCIS is well aware that some U.S. citizens accept money to marry a foreign-born person. Some even create illegal, organized services that arrange marriages between U.S. citizens and green-card-seeking foreign nationals.

The result is that, when it comes to deciding whether a marriage is bona fide, USCIS will take a hard look, and expect the applicant to provide plenty of solid proof that their marriage is the real thing. Below are ways that you can prepare to supply the needed proof, including steps you can take far in advance.

Take Steps to Join the U.S. Petitioner and Immigrant's Lives

Don't wait until the last minute to look for ways that you can prove to U.S. immigration authorities that you are really married, that you live together (if you already do), and that you trust each other enough to share financial and other personal matters. Also take steps to prepare for a future together. For example, a U.S. citizen in a sham marriage might not remember to add a new spouse as a beneficiary to a company-sponsored life insurance policy—while someone in a real marriage would, or at least should.

Some other important steps might include:

  • make your spouse a beneficiary on your retirement account or other accounts that require or allow a payout to a beneficiary upon the holder's death
  • make sure that both spouses are covered under your health insurance policy (if possible, and if the other spouse doesn't independently have insurance)
  • if you live together, add your spouse to your house deed, mortgage, or apartment lease
  • if you live together, add your spouse's name to your garbage, utility, cable, and other bills
  • take out a joint credit card
  • open a joint bank account
  • file joint tax returns with the IRS
  • join a gym or club together, or
  • buy a car or other major asset together.

You definitely don't have to do all these things, and in fact you might raise suspicion if you do so many that you're clearly more interested in appearance than reality. If you both join a gym and never go, for example, that's not going to help your case.

Keep Records Demonstrating Your Marital Relationship

You will be asked, at various points throughout the immigration application process, to supply documentary proof of your shared life. So, in addition to keeping copies of the contracts or other documents that go with the above-described matters (such as an apartment lease or car title), you should set aside copies of other records and documents showing that you are really married. These might include:

  • letters, texts, or emails you wrote to each other, alluding to your relationship or your wedding plans
  • receipts from trips you made to see each other, such as for airplane tickets or hotel bills
  • copies of phone records showing calls you made to each other
  • photos of your wedding and other family events (but not videos, these take too long for the immigration authorities to view)
  • cards or letters sent to both of you at the same address
  • receipts for gifts (such as an engagement ring, flowers, or chocolate) that you have bought for each other
  • birth certificates of children you've had or adopted together, or a doctor's report stating that you are pregnant, or a fertility specialist's report indicating that you are trying.

Again, you won't need to provide every one of these—just a carefully selected batch of the most convincing documents.

Which will be most convincing? The ones that can't easily be faked. For example, anyone can stage photos of themselves in wedding dress or tux (though it's good to provide a few wedding photos as part of the mix), but few couples would join all or most of their finances, hold lots of family events, or have a baby for the sake of a sham marriage.

Observe and Test Each Other on Aspects of Your Relationship

As the final step in getting a green card, either the immigrant or both halves of the couple will need to attend an in-person interview with a consular or USCIS officer.

There, the immigrant's application will be reviewed, and you will be asked questions to test the validity of your marriage—such as what the color of your kitchen curtains are, who sleeps on which side of the bed, and what you did to celebrate your last birthday.

If either of you seems unable to answer the questions, you might be switched to meeting with the "fraud unit," for what is called a "Stokes interview." Each of you will then be separately asked an identical set of questions, and your answers compared to see how well they match up.

You wouldn't think you would need to prepare for a test about your own life. But anyone can be unobservant or forgetful, even though their marriage is the real thing. You'll feel most comfortable in your interview if you've anticipated and reviewed the most likely questions beforehand, such as:

  • Where and how did you meet?
  • Where did you go on dates?
  • How many people attended your wedding?
  • What did you serve at your wedding (to eat or drink)?
  • Do you have a pet? If so, who feeds it, what food, and when?
  • Do you use contraception (birth control)? If so, what form?
  • How many keys are needed for the doors and gates where you live?
  • Who goes to work every day, and when?
  • Who drives the car or cars?
  • Do the two of you attend regular religious services? Where and when?
  • Where did you go on your last vacation (or birthday) together?

This is just a small sampling of the many possible questions. The immigration officers are free to think up their own.

Some couples make a game out of testing each other on questions like these, and others that they think up, in advance of the marriage interview. Try it out, and don't be too insulted if your spouse forgets what you bought for their last birthday!

Additional Proof Needed for Conditional Residents When It's Time to Make Their Residence Permanent

If your marriage is less than two years old at the time that you are either approved for permanent residence in the United States or enter the U.S. on your approved immigrant visa, you will receive "conditional," not "permanent" residence.

What that means is that you'll have to file another application (USCIS Form I-751) in approximately two years, supplying still more proof that your marriage is bona fide. A mistake that many couples make is to supply old documents, sometimes even the same ones as they submitted originally.

But what the immigration authorities want is proof that you have continued to join and share your lives. That means you should continue to look for ways to do so as described above, and gather recent documents to prove it, showing dates within the two years before your Form I-751 is due.

Getting Legal Help

If you are having difficulty finding proof of your bona fide marriage, or are worried about attending the green card interview, consult an experienced U.S. immigration attorney. The attorney can help you figure out good forms of evidence and prepare the paperwork. If you are adjusting status (applying for your green card in the U.S.), the attorney can also accompany you to your USCIS interview.

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