F-1 to AOS: How to apply for Permanent Residency (through marriage) from a Student Visa – FULL GUIDE

I am an international student with an F-1 visa. Earlier this year, I married my U.S. citizen husband. As an American citizen, he was able to sponsor me—his spouse—so that I could become legal permanent resident. This process is called Adjustment of Status (AOS).

Doing online research on how to do this proved to be a little complicated. Most people going through AOS are adjusting from the K-1 (fiancé) visa, which is, in my opinion, an easier, more straight-forward route. There is definitely information about how to complete this process for an F-1 visa holder, but not nearly as much or as easily presented. I have decided to compile all that I learned in this one page, as well as write about my own experience, now that my husband and I are done with our AOS (without any help from a lawyer!) and I am officially a legal permanent resident.

From the moment USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; the department that oversees this process) received my application, to when I had my permanent resident card (green card) in hand, it took exactly 82 days—less than 3 months. I have read that my timeline was unusually fast; for several applicants, it has taken way over a year. One thing that helped my case progress so fast was that we made absolutely sure to include every single required document in our file.

If you forget to include anything, you will be mailed a Request for Evidence (RFE); it is a document that notifies you of whatever you missed, and lets you know the deadline for mailing it back. Receiving this notice is not the end of the world, but it may delay your process significantly. That is why I recommend you obtain every last piece of documentation before mailing your package out.

If you are an F-1 visa holder who is currently inside the U.S. and who has married an American citizen, and you want to become a permanent resident, there are certain forms you will need to fill out and submit to USCIS. These are: Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative), Form I-130A (Supplemental Information for Spouse Beneficiary), Form I-485 (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status), Form I-864 (Affidavit of Support), Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization) (OPTIONAL) and Form I-131 (Application for Travel Document) (OPTIONAL). You will also need to undergo a medical exam. I will proceed to explain what these forms are, as well as the medical exam process.

  • Form I-130 and form I-130A must be filed together, right next to each other. Form I-130 must be filed and signed by the American spouse. As the name suggests, this is the form in which the American petitions their foreign spouse. The fee to file this form is $535.
  • Form I-130A is filed and signed by you, the international student and foreign spouse. In this form you will just provide some information about yourself, your past addresses, your parents, your employment history and your contact info. There is no fee to file this form.
  • Form I-485 is the most important form. You, the foreign spouse, will fill out and sign this 18-page document. If you are between the ages of 14-78, the fee you must pay for this form is $1,225—this includes the form fee and the biometric services fee (you must pay for both). If you are not between these ages, check out this website (under Filing Fee) to know how much you have to pay.
  • Form I-864 is filed and signed by the sponsor—that is, the American spouse. This is the form in which they must prove they are able to sponsor and financially support their foreign spouse in the United States. Depending on the size of your household, the sponsor must meet a certain minimum yearly income. If your spouse does not make enough money, you will need to find a co-sponsor, or your case will be automatically rejected. In order for your spouse to be your sole sponsor, they must be making 125% the HHS Poverty Guideline. To know how much your spouse needs to make on a yearly basis (as of 2019), check out this websiteTIP: on Page 4 of the form, for Part 5, Sponsor’s Household Size, make sure your spouse only counts you in item #1, not #3!
  • Form I-765 is an optional form to send, but I highly recommend it. This form allows you to apply for EAD—employment authorization document. If you have done OPT before, it is the same thing. Upon receiving your EAD card, you will be able to work, even while your AOS is still pending. Ordinarily, the fee to file this form is $495; however, because you are filing it with your AOS, the fee is waived, which means you do not have to pay it. In this form, you may also apply for a Social Security Number if you don’t have one yet. TIP: on Page 3, Part 2 (Information About You), Item 27, your eligibility category is (c) (9).
  • Form I-131 is the application for travel document. This form works pretty much exactly the same as I-765. In fact, if you file for both, you will receive one single combination card that will allow you to work and travel internationally while your AOS is pending. The regular fee for someone between the ages of 14-78 is $660; however, with AOS, it is free to file.

*** Medical Examination ***

  • Because you are already in the United States, and you are not adjusting from a fiancé or spousal visa, there is another form you will be asked to present: Form I-693, Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record. This form has no filing fee. This form will NOT be filled out or signed by either you or your spouse. Instead, it must be done by a civil surgeon. Civil surgeons are doctors designated by USCIS who are authorized to perform the medical examination for Green Card applicants. Not all doctors in the United States are civil surgeons. Unfortunately, because there are only a select few out there, they tend to charge very steep prices. You can call up different offices until you find a rate you can afford. Just enter your zipcode here.
  • My personal experience: the civil surgeon I contacted asked me to bring an official record of my vaccinations. This is basically the same document that you submited to your university upon applying—if you did not, you would not have been accepted! I went to my school’s student clinic and they printed it out for me. Because it is from their own records, they said it was 100% certified. At the doctor’s office, the civil surgeon had me fill out a few forms, kept my vaccination record, drew blood and collected urine. That was it. A week later I was called to pick up the signed I-693, which the doctor gave to me in a sealed envelope. It is very important that it be sealed or it will not be accepted. I brought this envelope with me to my  interview; I did not file it with my initial application. Some people do opt to file it with their I-485. It is up to you. If you feel safer doing it this way, by all means! Just be aware, this form expires after 1 year. If your field office is particularly understaffed and slow, your interview may happen well beyond this time.

Once you have printed and filled out these forms, it is time to prepare your package for USCIS. It is recommended to separate everything into four folders. I would not use a binder as they are bulkier and will cause your package to weigh more, unnecessarily so since the USCIS staff will just get rid of it anyway. I used paper folders (pretty sure I used these).

In the first folder, you must include:

  • a cover letter
  • form G-1145 (this is 100% optional; this form is free to file, and it allows USCIS to text/e-mail you with updates on your petition. You only need to file 1 for your whole application. Personally, I filed it and only received a text once.)
  • personal check, cashier’s check, money order, or credit card authorization form to pay the $1,225 fee
  • form I-485
  • 2 passport photos of you (the beneficiary) with name written on the back
  • copy of form I-94 (obtain it here)
  • photocopy of marriage certificate
  • photocopy of your birth certificate; attach a translation if in another language
  • photocopy of the biographic page of your passport
  • photocopy of your F-1 visa and I-20
  • form I-693 in sealed envelope (if you decide to file it with your initial application)

In this same folder, also include:

  • form I-864 along with the following documents from the petitioner (your American spouse):
    • four most recent pay stubs
    • 3 most recent tax returns (if your spouse doesn’t have 3, don’t worry, just include the ones they have from the last 3 years; you may explain the reasoning in the affidavit)
    • copy of latest W-2
    • photocopy of birth certificate; attach a translation if in another language
    • photocopy of Certificate of Naturalization (if applicable)
    • photocopy of the biographic page of their passport

In the second folder, include:

  • cover letter
  • personal check, cashier’s check, money order, or credit card authorization form to pay the $535 fee
  • form I-130
  • 2 passport photos of your spouse (the petitioner) with name written on the back
  • form I-130 A
  • 2 passport photos of you (the beneficiary) with name written on the back
  • photocopy of marriage certificate
  • photocopy of your spouse’s biographic page of their passport
  • photocopy of your spouse’s Certificate of Naturalization (if applicable)
  • photocopy of your spouse’s birth certificate; attach a translation if in another language
  • photocopy of your birth certificate; attach a translation if in another language
  • evidence of a bona-fide relationship (e.g. copy of your shared lease/mortgage, bank statements, bills with both of your names, birth certificates of any children you have together, boarding passes for any trips, hotel/cruise reservations, receipts for gifts, photos of the two of you and preferably with other family members too. Signed and sworn affidavits, even from family and friends, don’t hold much weight, so I don’t recommend including them).

In the third folder, include:

  • form I-765
  • 2 passport photos of you (the beneficiary) with name written on the back
  • photocopy of the biographic page of your passport
  • photocopy of your F-1 visa and I-20
  • copy of form I-94
  • photocopy of marriage certificate
  • if you have done OPT, include a photocopy of your EAD card

In the fourth folder, include:

  • form I-131
  • 2 passport photos of you (the beneficiary) with name written on the back
  • photocopy of the biographic page of your passport
  • photocopy of your F-1 visa and I-20
  • copy of form I-94
  • photocopy of marriage certificate

The day you are ready to send your application, sign and date all of the forms. Mail all the folders together in one sole package. If you are using USPS, mail to:

USCIS
PO Box 805887
Chicago, IL 60680-4120

If you are using FedEx, UPS or DHL, mail to:

USCIS
Attn: FBAS
131 South Dearborn – 3rd Floor
Chicago, IL 60603-5517

If your visa/I-94 expires while you are still in AOS limbo, do not panic. You have authorized stay in the U.S. while your application is pending. Carry a copy of your I-797C  (a document you will receive in the mail) around with you if it makes you feel safer.

Here are a few more tips from my own personal experience:

  • I have had bad experiences with USPS in the past, so I decided to mail my application through FedEx. The lady asked if I wanted to do the 2-day delivery for $66. I opted for ground (or regular) which was $11. My package arrived within 3 days. My advice is, just go with regular delivery, as it is pretty fast as is.
  • Do NOT staple your forms. Use paper clips instead. Do not staple anything in your application; if anything needs to go together, stick to using paper clips.
  • If you do need a translated birth certificate, and are fluent in English, do the translation yourself. No need to pay someone else to do it. Just make sure to include the following disclaimer at the end of your translated document: “I, (your full name), certify that I am fluent (conversant) in the English and (original language) languages, and that the above document is an accurate translation of the document attached, titled “(name in original language)”.”
  • If you file every single one of the forms, you will need, in total, 8 passport photos of yourself and 2 of your spouse. When I checked out Walmart or Walgreens, they were charging over $10 for only 2 passport photos. I recommend the following trick: download an app on your phone (I used Passport Photo Maker) where you can take and edit your own passport (2×2) photos. You can combine 6 photos on a 4×6 sheet on the app, and have two of these sheets printed at Walgreens. This way, you can have over 12 photos printed for $1 (this is the price at Walgreens).
  • I recommend using a personal check or credit card, if possible, to pay for the form fees, rather than a cashier’s check or money order. This way, you will be able to see when USCIS physically withdraws the funds from your account, and you will know for sure that your application has been touched.
  • If you want to change your last name to your spouse’s, fill out all the forms in your new married name. Your original marriage certificate is proof enough of this name change, even if you do not have any ID with your new name yet. Bring your original marriage certificate with you to any USCIS appointments (e.g. infopass, biometrics, interview) as proof of your name change.
  • If you have already graduated, I suggest bringing either a copy of your diploma or your graduation booklet, where your name is mentioned, to your interview, as proof that you did use your visa for its intended purpose.
  • If your case is taking longer than what you would expect, do not panic. As I said earlier, it is normal for some cases to take over a year, sometimes close to two years, or even more. Unfortunately this entirely depends on where you live; it is your local USCIS office that is in charge of processing your AOS. If you live in a city with a busy office (e.g. NY, LA, Miami), chances are your case will take much longer to process. This is frustrating, but it’s normal. However, ALL work and international travel authorizations, no matter where you live or are filing from, are processed at the same place: the National Benefits Center, in Missouri.
  • Highly recommend downloading the USCIS Tracker App on your smartphone. After sending your application, you will be mailed Form I-797C (confirmation that your application has been received), in which  you will find your case number. Input your case number in the app, and it will notify you of any changes to your application as soon as they happen. You can also search up to 500 other cases at a time to see how your timeline compares to other applicants’.

 

Disclaimer: I am not an immigration lawyer, nor an immigration expert. I am merely talking from MY OWN PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. If you have a more complicated case (e.g. one of you has previously been arrested or convicted), I highly recommend not doing this process on your own, and contacting a lawyer instead.

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How to get your Student (F-1) Visa for the U.S.

 

In this entry, I will only talk about the F-1 visa. There are other types of student visas such as J-1 and M-1. I will not be mentioning those at all, because I do not feel qualified to give any information related to those visas.

Some people believe that they need to apply and be approved for a student visa before they even begin their college search. But this could not be farther from the truth!

In order to be able to apply for a student (F-1) visa, you must have been accepted at an American university first. Only then can you begin the actual process.

Upon being accepted (and, BTW, congratulations!), the university will physically mail you a few papers, which may include: a letter of acceptance, any scholarships you may have received, perhaps some international student goodies, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, your I-20. You must never, ever, under any circumstance, lose this paper. Your I-20 is what will allow you to obtain your F-1 visa, and to enter the U.S.

Your I-20 contains your full name, your country of citizenship, all information about your university and your program (start and end date, major(s), etc.) , and your financials, among other things. When you arrive to your new school and attend orientation, you will be given more information about how to keep your I-20 up to date, so that you will not be denied entry into the country.

After receiving your I-20, you must pay your $200 I-901 (SEVIS) fee. SEVIS stands for Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, and it is pretty much a database that helps process international students/exchange visitors’ documents . Your fee helps fund this program. To pay, you will need your SEVIS ID (located on the top left corner of your I-20), and a credit card or money order too. You will only pay for this once; it is not a recurrent fee. After paying (either by credit card online, or by money order) you will receive payment confirmation, which you must keep and bring with you to your F-1 visa interview. If you’re not sure how to make the payment, you can watch this video.

Next, you must complete the online visa application and make an appointment with your local U.S. Embassy/Consulate for your visa interview. This is very similar to that of a tourist (B-2) visa. You will be filling out form DS-160 online and paying the corresponding $160 fee. It is important to do this as early as possible; it can be done up to four months in advance, before your program start date. After the visa application has been filed, and the fee has been paid, you will be able to schedule an interview on the same website. As always, keep proof of payment on file with you.

When I was going through this process a few years ago, my mom and I both did a ton of research, and found other people’s blogs and testimonies. Most of them said that the Embassy official had taken them to a separate room for a very tough interview. However, this was not the case for me at all. My interview happened in the same common area where tourist visa interviews happen, and it was pretty easy. Since I was 17, my mom was allowed to stand right next to me and help me answer questions. Obviously, this may not be the case for everyone, especially for people over 18, so be prepared for a “more intimidating” setting, just in case.

For the interview there are certain papers that you need to take with you, apart from your passport, I-20, SEVIS receipt and DS-160/proof of payment. The officer may not ask to see all, or any of them, but it is always good to have them. These may include your letter of admission, financial information (bank statements, proof of your parents’ income, etc.), high school diploma/certificate, printed test scores (e.g. SAT and TOEFL), and any older passports (if you have them). It would also be wise to make a copy of all of these documents, in case the Embassy/Consulate wants to keep any of them.

During the interview, you will be asked why you want to study in America, who is going to pay for your program and how, and especially, whether you are going to return to your home country after your program is over. Since the F-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa, anything indicating that you are planning to stay in the U.S. after you finish your studies will cause you to be rejected.

That is it, from what I remember. If you have any additional questions or believe anything on this post is not clear, do not hesitate to leave a comment or send me a private message. Best of luck!

 

Disclaimer: I am not an immigration lawyer, nor an immigration expert. I am merely talking from MY OWN PERSONAL EXPERIENCE.

Long Distance Relationships: Worth it?

Al and I started dating six years ago, when I was about to start my junior year in high school, and he had just graduated. When we first met, a few months prior, I asked him what he was going to college for, and where. He replied with “medicine” and “America” respectively.

That’s not an answer I would hear often. We’re originally from South America, and everyone we know attends one of five or six private universities in our hometown. I am positive this was the first time someone answered with “America” and it was actually the truth.

Naturally, when we started dating a few months afterwards, I would often ask about it. “When are you leaving?” “How long will you be gone?” “Will you visit me often?” … “Are we going to continue our relationship?

We were young and extremely in love, but he had had it all planned out for quite a while then. He was leaving in two and a half months, was probably coming back for a couple weeks after his summer term ended, would try to visit during his holiday/summer breaks but did not make any promises as airfare is costly. And, of course, that we were going to stay together.

I am not about to bore anyone with all the details of my relationship (not in this post anyway, hah). This post was meant to answer a question. Are long distance relationships worth it? My answer, as someone who was in one for two years (he did visit me a ton though) is yes, but it depends.

Before Al even left our country, we had already planned for me to move after I graduated high school. I would apply to the university he was going to attend (I had pretty amazing grades so not being accepted was not a concern), move all the way to the United States―alone (my parents would obviously not be going with me)―and then we would pretty much move in together.

Fast forward two and a half years later, and I did it! And I will not lie, this transition was rough.

Of course I adored him, but going from having seen each other never for more than a couple months or weeks at a time, to living together, was huge and emotional. I have very fond memories from my first weeks here in America, but things were not always easy. Big changes are always hard on our psyche, and for me, leaving behind the role of the spoiled daughter, to embrace becoming the domestic partner in just a matter of days, was definitely something…something very hard. Al and I had not fought once before, but with living together come living disagreements, and I was so young still. We were pretty much alone in this country, yet we were still technically getting to know each other, and learning what it was like being with the other, “full time”.

Eventually things normalized, we got into a routine, and being with him started to really feel like home. The distance was not the actual test; this “adaptation period” was, and we had passed it. I had never felt so happy in my entire life. Almost four years have passed now and we haven’t ever looked back. I have grown so much as a person, and learned so much more than I could have staying at home with my parents.

I believe a long distance relationship will work out under two conditions: 1. That you DO see a future where you are physically together, long term, and are intent and proactive on getting there―not just “wish for it”. Had we not firmly decided early in our relationship that I would move to be with him as soon as I was able to, I doubt there would have been a point behind all those Skype dates and airport welcomes. Two and a half years sounded like a pretty reasonable time. An indefinite amount of years? Not so much. 2. That you are committed to making sure your relationship survives that initial “adjusting” phase, once you stop being long-distance. It is important to be understanding and patient during this period, both with your partner and yourself. Things will eventually get sorted out as long as you put all your heart into it, but some time is needed, as well as a lot of “getting used to”.

Studying in America: The Basics

When my parents first spread the news that I had been accepted to, and was going to study at, an American university, everyone had the same question: how did you do it?

“Did you take any tests?” “Do you need to have a green card?” “How much is it going to cost you?” “Is a certain level of English required?” And the most frequently heard phrase-question: “I want to do it too…what do I have to do?

And I always gave the same answer: choose the university you would like to attend, and go ahead and apply!

Not many people know that the process of applying to an American university is really this simple. Most are under the impression that they must do it through a program or organization, and although you can most definitely take this route, it is totally possible to do it by yourself, from your own home!

I thought I would provide some tips to students who are looking to come to the States to start/complete their Bachelors degree.

The first step is obviously choosing which universities you wish to apply to. You may already be 100% certain on which school you will attend, and if so, that’s great! But if you honestly have no idea and “just want to study in the US” then there are a few things to consider.

Keep in mind that the US has 50 states, and each one has its own thing to offer. You can have a very decent life in any of them. Unlike many other countries, where most services and resources can only be found in the capital/biggest cities, this is not the case at all in America. Each and every state can provide you with great opportunities. You must choose which state/region you are going to live and study in based on something else.

The weather/location is a major factor to consider. Are you OK with snow and chilly winters? If not, then scratch the northern states (such as New York or Massachusetts) off your list. Do you like warm weather and easily accessible beaches? Florida, Texas and California are all pretty great options (I may be a little biased). Do you want to be able to travel to your home country often? If so, consider cities with big airports. If you live in Asia, you might prefer the West Coast, as your flight home would be much shorter; on the other hand, if you live in Europe, you might prefer the East Coast for this same reason. Heck, what are your political views? Are you more of a liberal person? Avoid the South if so.

Once you have chosen a state/region, consider the universities in the area. Do you want to attend a private or a public university? Private universities are often 10x more expensive. Public universities are funded by the state and therefore usually have much lower tuition rates. This does not, by any means, translate to poorer education/quality. Also, is the school Ivy League? What is the admission rate? Do not apply somewhere just because you have always dreamed of studying there; it is important to be realistic, and estimate your chances of being accepted. Also take into account the cost of living for the area, and compare tuition rates between the different schools.

Try to jot down 3-5 universities. The next step is to visit each school’s website. There is almost always an admission tab right on the front page. Click it and explore a little bit. Go to the International Student section. If this is your first time attending university, click on the “Undergraduate” or “Freshman” tab. If it is not, click on “Transfer”. Read about the admission requirements. Right there is where you are going to find the answers to all of those questions: any tests that may be required, what English proficiency is needed, whether the school accepts international students, information on scholarship eligibility, etc. Once you know what you need to do, go ahead and apply!

You will most likely have to pay an application fee, usually no more than $50 or so. This is regardless of whether or not you get accepted.

Good luck, and let the app filing start!