Spouse visa joint sponsorship

A big problem for US citizens who’ve been abroad for a longer period who want to bring their foreign spouse to the States is the sponsorship requirements. You need proof of a certain level of income on your taxes (for a family of 2 it’s around 19,000) and, unless you’ve been making serious bank, all foreign income is excluded on US taxes while living permanently abroad, so your official income is actually zero. This was my situation.

This was also my sister’s situation, who had been in Japan for a few years before she came back and married a foreigner (it’s kind of a thing in our family…) so my mother was the joint sponsor. While she probably could have also done it for my husband, the amount of paperwork involved was a little more complicated than I was willing to undertake from abroad. My sister’s husband was already in the States, so he was changing his visa status, and they ended up hiring a lawyer to handle most of it.

For my husband, two friends were in financial positions to be joint sponsors, and willing to do it, which gave me all sorts of warm fuzzies thinking about how much these people love us and want us to be living closer.  There are legal considerations to being a sponsor, since you’re guaranteeing the immigrant will not be a burden on the welfare system. Should he apply for and receive certain things like Medicaid or food stamps, then the sponsor(s) would have to repay the government. You have to update your address when you move to be sure they can find you to get their money back! These obligations end after the immigrant works 10 years (well, 40 quarters), becomes a citizen, or leaves the country. But a divorce does not end the obligations! Nor does it mean the immigrant loses his green card, though depending on how long you were married, they’ll probably want proof it was a real marriage…

My friends’ paperwork was much simpler than my mother’s: job contract stating salary, recent paystubs, tax returns and W2s (or tax transcripts). Again, Visajourney was an amazing resource to figure out exactly what is best to send. Both friends were married, but thankfully made enough to not need to include their spouse’s income to meet the requirements (this would have added even more to the already endless paperwork!). I ended up using the friend that made slightly more, because I wasn’t sure if bébé was counted in the joint sponsor’s household size. He’s definitely in my household, so if I was going to be the only sponsor, I needed to have the minimum income for a household of 3, which, for reasons discussed above, I do not. Since he doesn’t need sponsorship, normally just my husband is added to the joint sponsor’s household, also making it 3 (sponsor, spouse, and my husband). But just in case they counted bébé and considered it a household of 4, I went with the slightly higher salary to be sure to fulfil the requirements. All these years in France have made me wary of unexpected, unwritten extra requirements that pop up, so I wanted to be sure the sponsor’s file has more than they asked for, just in case.

So hurray, I have wonderful friends, who have filed taxes correctly and have faith in us to not become too poor in the coming years. That’s all the paperwork done right?

Of course not! As a citizen living abroad, I needed proof that I intended to reestablish my domicile in the States. Because it would be a pretty sweet deal to just get the husband a green card so we could visit whenever we wanted but still live abroad and exclude my income (and his!) from my taxes…

What you can use as proof can vary a lot, depending on your situation. If you already have a job offer, that’s a pretty good thing to have. If you have a child, you can send in registration for school. If you already have property or housing set up, that works too. I included email exchanges with a daycare and shipping quotes. At first I thought it was too soon to do things like that six months before we were planning on leaving, but it’s stuff I had to do anyway, so it was good to get it done earlier. And now bébé has a daycare spot already set up for when we arrive!

My dad also wrote a letter saying we’ll be living with him, along with proof of address (very familiar to expats in France: copy of ID and utility bill!). I had kept my savings account open the past 8 years to pay my student loans, though I had closed my checking account. I opened a new one this summer, and send proof of both accounts. I also still had a (fee-free) credit card open (useful for emergency plane tickets), and my driver’s licence.

From reading the forums on Visajourney, this can obviously be really hard for some people who closed everything when they moved abroad. If I hadn’t had my student loans, I probably would have done that. They’re also much stricter about proof for people moving from Canada, and it seems like a lot of people there end up moving back before their spouse to get an apartment and a job. If bébé had been older and in school, we might have done that. One thing that was made very clear was that I need to arrive with or before my husband, not after. So when we started applying for jobs a few months ago, we waited on getting tickets, just in case I got an offer to start earlier I could take it. And while there was a promising lead for the beginning of January, in the end, we decided to leave together. (Also neither of us wanted to deal with bébé’s first international flight alone!)

So there’s a brief and by no way all-inclusive overview of the financial and practical aspects of getting your foreign spouse to the States if you’ve been living abroad for any amount of time. It’s not too terribly complicated, just make sure you have all the right documents! And having friends and family in the States is pretty essential. Though you can also fulfil the financial requirement by having proof of 5x the minimum income requirement in assets. So if you got your hands on one of those winning Powerball tickets yesterday and felt like getting a green card for your foreign spouse, you definitely could! (Though with that much money, I’d just buy an island and make up my own visa rules!)

Timeline of a US spouse visa

While figuring out the details of our move to the States, a big factor in deciding when we would move was obviously when my husband could get his visa. There is a great website (not an official government site), Visajourney.com, that I poured over for ages, looking for a timeline of a US spouse visa similar to our situation: the US citizen is already living abroad with their spouse.

This is actually not as common as you might think, at least in France, if you go by the posts on the site (which, admittedly, is a very small sample size!). Most of the information I saw was for fiancé visas. It makes sense that this is the more frequent type of visa, since if you meet someone from another country, you’ll probably decide to get married in the country you’ll be living in. The timeline for those visas are much quicker, since they skip a step and go straight to the Embassy in Paris for the last part of processing.

If you get married abroad and then the US citizen goes back to the States to wait for their spouse to get the visa, this can take a very long time, if there is no possibility to file directly with the embassy. This has been the situation in France for the past few years, and you have to mail everything to the states first.

This first step, just petitioning the USCIS for a spouse visa including all the proof that it’s a real marriage, can take at least 5 months to get approved (and costs over 400 dollars that is not refunded if you don’t get approved!). Then once it’s approved, it goes to the National Visa Center and you pay more fees and submit all the financial documents required. This part can actually go fairly quickly if you have everything together and aren’t missing any documents. But it’s still at least two or three months. First the NVC has to get your file from the USCIS and put it into the system. Then certain forms are only available once certain fees are paid, and vice versa. Then once everything is submitted, they have to review it, which they say takes a minimum of 30 days (and there have been times they say it’s 60 days). You can speed things up a bit if you call them for certain information rather than waiting for emails or letters. But then you still have to wait for the interview, which can take awhile depending on the embassy.

Overall, it’s a minimum of 8 or 9 months, which is not that long when thinking about a 50-year marriage, but if you’ve ever been in a long distance relationship, even a week can last forever. A lot of people wait even longer, because the first part, getting the USCIS to approve the petition, can take quite some time if you forget documents, or if they ask for additional information. There are ways of requesting an expedite, but for US citizens living abroad, there is kind of an unofficial, automatic expedite. The first part with USCIS actually goes very quickly, about one month instead of five. I haven’t been able to find a reason for this, but my theory is that as long as a US citizen is living abroad, their income can’t be taxed (up to a certain amount), so they speed things up to get you back as fast as possible . . . Whatever the reason, if the NVC and embassy are also quick in their processing times, the overall waiting time is reduced to around 6 months.

In our situation, things went about as fast as they could, and even faster for some things. From the day I sent the first documents to the USCIS to the day my husband had his interview in Paris, it was about five and a half months, which I believe is only a little bit longer than it used to take when you could file directly at the embassy. In large part this was thanks to the super advice I found on Visajourney.com that meant I submitted all of the documents needed without errors, but also it was just luck. The NVC was reviewing things in about 3 weeks instead of 30 days when our case came through. They had been having issues with their computers earlier in the year, which meant payments and reviews were delayed, and that could have easily happened to us instead. But I tend to be an optimistic person, and anyway, if things had taken longer, we had jobs and a creche lined up for bébé, so no big deal if we moved in Spring instead of Winter.

That being said, we had set the rough goal to be in the States for the next Superbowl (my husband’s a big American football fan), so we’d definitely have been a little bummed to wait too much longer. But once all the papers were sent in, I couldn’t really do anything about how long things would end up taking. However, I also knew that once he had the visa, we had to enter the states within 6 months so we didn’t want to start in January and have an interview in June or July. Also, if you submit financial documents before taxes are due April and your interview is after, you’ll just need to resubmit the updated documents anyway. Still, I could have started things a little earlier than I did and have had more control over the timeline, since until you send in all the financial documents to the NVC they won’t review your case, and you can reschedule the embassy visit. In the end, it worked out pretty much the way we needed.

I’ll probably do one or two more posts about certain details of the process (like the financial documents since we had a joint sponsor), but really, the website I mentioned above is amazing, especially for someone like me who likes to over-plan and look at lots of numbers and figures before doing something. Every situation will be different, of course, but knowing about when everything should happen was very reassuring.

Why I keep every paper ever

I got a letter from my complementary health insurance asking for an updated certificate from the national health insurance (the CPAM for me). I thought it might have to do with the pregnancy, since certain things are reimbursed at 100%, it means less for the complementary insurance to pay. (They already don’t pay very much to begin with: because of specific local laws for those living in Alsace-Moselle, the CPAM pays 90% for most things, rather than just 70% like the rest of France.)

However, it turns out the last certificate they had was from my student days, in 2011! Apparently I have not been getting reimbursed for everything I could have for the past three years. I go to the doctor maybe twice a year, so I didn’t really notice the missing 3 euros, but still, a nice surprise. I just have to give them the papers that the CPAM sends me with the details of what they paid.

I have an online account, but there’s only the past 6 months of payments, and the complementary insurance will back pay up to two years. Which is why I’m glad I keep every paper I ever get and file things in various large folders with labels like “Bank stuff” “Health stuff” and “Tax stuff” (all with a semi-chronological organization). I definitely try to keep track of paperwork very well here, just in case my residency card depends on showing a payslip from 2008 or a bank statement from 2010 for some reason. However, my recent renewal was one of the easiest ever actually, and I came home without needing half the papers I brought “just in case.”

In the end, I’ll probably only get about 15 euros, but that’s enough for yet another cute baby outfit! And when you combine paperwork organization and nesting, you get yet another folder full of receipts for baby clothes, just in case he comes out gigantic and half the things I bought don’t even fit . . .