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- My husband and I had a straightforward immigration case, but the process still cost more than $2,500.
- The immigration process also had unseen expenses, like days off work or being unable to claim unemployment.
- Becoming an American citizen was worth it, but the process still took a toll financially.
- Read more personal finance coverage.
My husband and I have a love story that sounds straight out of a storybook. We met in a London bar on a random Tuesday night. I’m American and was studying abroad; he’s Australian and was there visiting family.
By the time he offered to buy me a drink, last call had come and gone. Instead, we spent the evening strolling around the moonlit city before sharing our first kiss on London Bridge.
Sweet, right? It was, until we realized that having an adorable international love story also means that you have to go through the horrid US immigration process (and our process was from 2010-2015, before things really got rough).
My husband is a citizen now, but the process took us five years and cost more than $2,500. Here’s how it unfolded.
To lawyer or not to lawyer
One of the first things we needed to decide was whether we would use a lawyer to navigate the immigration process, or if we would do it ourselves. The process is designed to be self-explanatory. We knew we had a fairly straightforward case, and we were working with a lot of privilege (since my husband is a white, English-speaking man from one of America’s closest allies).
Plus, we really couldn’t afford a lawyer. An immigration lawyer can cost up to $300 per hour, and the immigration process is long.
We spoke with another couple who had recently been through the process. They assured us that if we followed the steps provided by the federal government exactly, we could pull it off. We decided to move ahead ourselves.
Getting a green card
Before we could start the process, we had to decide what type of application we were doing: for a fiancé visa, or for a spousal visa.
As you might know from the show “90 Day Fiancé,” the so-called fiancé visa allows your spouse-to-be to come into the country for 90 days. By the end of that, you need to be married. A fiancé-visa holder can apply for a US work permit, but getting married, finding a job, and settling into a new country in 90 days is a lot, to say the least.
That sounded like too much stress and financial hardship. We learned, through a free consultation with an immigration lawyer, that we would be better off getting married in Australia, where we were living at the time, and lodging a spousal application.
So, that’s what we did. In February 2011, we had what I made everyone refer to as our “signing ceremony” (our wedding was 18 month later in the US). As soon as we had the marriage certificate in hand, we started the initial application.
This stage cost us about $1,108. Here’s how it broke down:
- Marriage license and marriage costs: $64.50
- Flights to Sydney, where my husband needed to attend an interview at the US consulate: $210
- Hotel in Sydney, for one night: $198
- Expenses for Sydney overnight: $100
- Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) filing fee: $535
Of course, there were also various incidental expenses, like food during the trip to the consulate, and international postage and tracking (which can be surprisingly expensive).
Getting conditions removed
On Christmas Day 2011, my husband arrived in the US for good. That’s when he officially became a US permanent resident (commonly known as a green-card holder), after he entered the country in Los Angeles. However, that was far from the end of our immigration journey.
The next step was to apply to have the conditions of his visa removed. If you’ve been married for less than two years when you apply to bring your spouse into the US, your spouse is given a conditional green card. That allows them to remain in the United States for two years. If you get divorced during that time, the green card can be revoked.
If you’re still together after two years, you need to file to have the conditional status removed. That involves more paperwork, and a $680 filing fee.
In theory, you can live your whole life as a permanent resident. However, my husband wanted the security of citizenship. After being a permanent resident for five years, you can apply to become a citizen.
It’s a long process – you have to take a citizenship test, go to interviews, and submit (you guessed it) more paperwork and a check for $725.
The unseen expenses of immigration
Spending $2,500 to become a US citizen might not seem too bad. The truth is, American citizenship is worth much more than that to me and my husband.
However, there were other financial implications during the immigration process. The days off work for interviews and time needed to lodge applications resulted in lost wages for me and my spouse. When my husband was laid off, he was unable to claim any unemployment (despite paying into it) because he was still on the two-year temporary green card, which didn’t allow him to collect benefits.
One of the biggest challenges was getting a sponsor for my husband. Since I had been living abroad, I didn’t meet the income requirements. My parents couldn’t either, in part because of their large household size.
Luckily, an extended family member who met the income requirements (125% of the poverty level, based on household size, or about $32,187 for a family of four) was willing to sponsor my husband. Without that, my husband wouldn’t have been able to immigrate, despite the fact that we were married.
Life as an American
My husband has now been a citizen for four years. His immigration status still affects him in surprising ways, even though he’s a citizen. For example, his social security number indicates that he is foreign-born. Recently, our cell phone company wouldn’t cancel our account until he showed his social security card in store, to prove it wasn’t a fraud.
Still, for the most part, we can breathe easy. Spending $2,500 on immigration means that my husband can never be deported over a silly misdemeanor or anything else. It gives our family peace of mind that no matter what happens, we’ll be together. That’s something we can’t put a price on.
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