In a green card marriage, a person immigrating to the United States (U.S.) obtains a green card by marrying a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. A green card is a document from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that grants non-citizens permanent residence within the U.S. A wedding is only one step in the process of obtaining a green card through marriage, however. Before applying for a green card, the couple must first be married and prove that the betrothal was in good faith, not merely a marriage of convenience for the purpose of manipulating immigration laws.
A green card marriage often begins with a betrothed couple marrying outside of U.S. borders, in the home country of the spouse seeking U.S. residency. This is because green cards aren't granted preemptively; one has to have an existing relationship that the USCIS deems eligible for green card consideration. After the marriage occurs, the spouse with U.S. residency can fill out an I-130 form, also called a petition for alien relative. After reviewing the form and the legitimacy of the marital relationship, the USCIS may then grant a green card, allowing the alien spouse to immigrate to the U.S. and obtain residency.
In other cases, a green card marriage may begin with a U.S. resident marrying an illegal immigrant within U.S. borders. These situations can be tricky, however, and don't necessarily result in the immigrant receiving immediate permanent residence. In some cases, the alien spouse may have to return to their home country, have the legal U.S. spouse file an I-130 form, and wait for approval before returning. The other option is to stay within the U.S. until a green card is granted, but risk deportation in the interim.
Another method of green card marriage is for the immigrating fiancé to obtain a K-1 visa, allowing him or her to enter the U.S. specifically for the purpose of marrying a citizen or permanent resident. A K-1 visa conveniently allows the marriage to occur legally within U.S. borders, and smoothly aids the transition from alien relative to green card holder. K-1 visas are sometimes used to bring mail-order brides to the U.S.
If a green card marriage is found to be fraudulent—in that the couple married not for love, but to manipulate immigration laws—fines and imprisonment may result. Specifically, a person or couple may be fined up to $250,000 and imprisoned for up to five years for subversively obtaining a green card through marriage.