Many J-1 visa holders meet their spouse while studying in the United States and they wonder if its possible to move from a J-1 visa to a marriage green card.

Upon the marriage to their United States citizen fiancé(e), J-1 exchange visitors can obtain permanent residency (a green card) in the U.S. The process differs between the different J-1 visa holders’ exchange programs, though, so it is important to know whether they must satisfy the home residency requirement.  Simply put, exchange visitors, students, staff, and physicians are legally permitted to move from a J-1 visa to a marriage-based green card. The union simply must be one of good faith and proven to be bonafide. 

Otherwise, attempting to re-enter the country after having gotten married to a U.S. citizen (or other legal permanent resident) poses as a suspicion to immigration officers at the ports of entry. J-1 visas are temporary, usually short-term, and require the visa holder to return to their home country for a minimum of two years. Already having a spouse indicates the J-1 exchange visitor likely willfully misrepresented their purpose for coming to the U.S. For this reason, J-1 visa holders could be denied re-entry, and even lose their J-1 visa status.

Initial Steps to Changing From J-1 Visa to A Marriage Green Card

The first step is for J-1 visa holders to understand whether they must satisfy the two-year home-residency requirement. 

Section 212(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) outlines how J-1 visa holders are largely required to return to their home country for two years before returning to the U.S. and obtaining another visa. This stipulation is so the visitor can gain knowledge and experience in their exchange program, and therefore return home to share what they’ve learned. Individuals with such requirements must meet this criterion before applying for permanent residency in the U.S. 

If the exchange visitor is required to return home for two years, they must also do so before applying for a marriage-based green card. If they are not required to do so, then he or she can apply for a waiver to remain in the U.S. while they proceed through the permanent residency process. Detailed information about waiver can be found on the United States Department of State (DOS) webpage

The DOS’s list of Skills by Country webpage outlines which specialized knowledge or skills J-1 exchange visitors have which are essential in the further development of their country. As such, foreign nationals coming to the U.S. as exchange visitors will be required to return home for two years upon the completion of their program. This is important to know when planning for marriage to a U.S. citizen or green card holder.

It is important to note, there are two types of exchange programs. The first is government-funded, while the second is physicians or physicians who are in training. J-1 visa holders engaged in a government-funded program either have part or all of their program funded. This is generally by the U.S. government or the J-1 visa holder’s home country government.

Otherwise, the exchange program is for graduate students either studying medicine, or in medical training programs. 

The second step is to understand the 90-day rule. This is a predetermined amount of time immigration officers use for adjudicating inadmissibility. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the overarching theme of this process is, “To find a person inadmissible for fraud or willful misrepresentation… in an attempt to obtain a visa, other documentation, admission into the United States, or any other immigration benefit.” 

Visa holders applying for permanent residence within 90 days (of entry into the United States) indicate to the U.S. federal government that they were dishonest about his or her purpose for traveling to the U.S. Regardless, immigration officers conduct assessments to determine whether this is the case. 

It is crucial for visa holders to be cognizant of the date their visa expires. If they overstay their visa time allotment, they are in the country illegally, and face the potentiality of being denied subsequential re-entry into the United States. An infraction of overstaying by as little as six months while out-of-status prevents the foreign national from re-entering the U.S. for three years. 

After marriage, the exchange visitor and his or her spouse should file the following forms simultaneously:

  • Petition for Alien Relative (Form I-130) to be completed by the U.S. citizen spouse
  • Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status (Form I-485) to be completed by the applicant (the exchange visitor)

If the spouse is a green card holder, the applicant must wait for the I-130 and receive a visa number. Without it, the exchange visitor will be unable to apply for a marriage-based green card in the U.S. 

J-1 Visa To Marriage Green Card And The J-1 Waiver

Foreign nationals with severe circumstances will be permitted to stay in the U.S., if they are first granted a J-1 visa waiver. To do so, they must apply for an adjustment of their current status and receive lawful permanent residence. Then, J-1 waiver recipients will therefore not be required to leave and/or fulfill the two-year requirement. The following reasons are grounds for asking for and potentially receiving a J-1 waiver:

  • Obtain a no-objection letter from the applicant’s home country government 
  • Evidence of how the J-1 visitor’s U.S. citizen spouse or child(ren) would face exceptional hardship if the J-1 visa holder did not receive permanent residency and therefore be required to leave the U.S. and return to his or her home country
  • Evidence that the J-1 visitor would face persecution if he or she were to return to their home country
  • Proof the J-1 visitor was a recipient of a state Public Health Department or the Conrad State 30 Program request to remain in the U.S. and work at a specified medical facility
  • Any other formal request from a U.S. government agency, especially if the exchange visitor has a vital role while working on a project of interest

From J-1 Visa to A Marriage Green Card

Foreign nationals who have applied for permanent residency in the U.S. but have not yet received a visa number, and his or her J-1 visa is expiring, they will be required to leave the country and proceed through the application process from abroad. That is, unless their current visa cannot be extended. 

Otherwise, if a visa number is available prior to the expiration of the foreign national’s J-1 visa, he or she will be permitted to remain in the U.S. while their marriage-based green card application is being processed. 

Generally speaking, the entire process takes between a year-and-a-half to two years to change from a J-1 visa to marriage-based green card.

J-1 Visa To Marriage Green Card FAQs

Can I marry a U.S. citizen and get a green card while on a J-1 Visa?

Yes. Depending on the exchange program requirements, many J-1 exchange visitors must return to their home country for two years upon the completion of their program. In this case, the visa holder must apply for their marriage-based green card from their home country.

I am not required to go back to my home country for two years, how do I change my status?

After the wedding day, the J-1 exchange visitor can apply for an adjustment of status directly afterwards. In this case, there is no need for the applicant to leave the country, and can apply from within the United States.

How long does it take to move from a J-1 visa to a marriage green card?

It usually takes about a year and a half to two years to move from a J-1 visa to a marriage green card.

Conclusion of Moving From a J-1 Visa to a Marriage-based Green Card

J-1 exchange visitors who are engaged to be married to a U.S. citizen, or a legal permanent resident, can marry their soon-to-be spouse and also obtain permanent residency in the U.S. As with other visa types, J-1 visa holders must prove the validity of their marriage and that it is one of good faith, and not as a way to obtain a green card.

Some visitors are subject to the foreign residence requirement, and some are not. The Certificate of Eligibility (Form DS-2019) indicates whether the visitor is required to return to their home country for two years, as does the J-1 visa given by the U.S. consulate. For those who are, they must keep in mind that they are required to return home for at least two years before being granted another visa, or a green-card.

It is imperative the exchange visitor pays close attention to their visa expiration and their exchange program end date, as the implications of overstaying a J-1 visa are quite severe. All it takes is overstaying a J-1 visa for one year to being denied re-entry to the U.S. for 10 years. Not only is it unlawful, but it also adds at least 10 years to the exchange visitor’s plans to reunite with their spouse in the United States.

Lastly, it typically takes between one-and-a-half to two years from being a J-1 visa holder to having a marriage-based green card, provided evidence can be supplied of an honest and true union.