Moving to the U.S.: 5 Things They Don’t Tell You About the Visa Process


“Don’t leave home without it.” (CitizenServices)

As Ruth Margolis previously pointed out in her article on the matter, there are numerous reasons a Brit might choose to migrate from one side of the Pond to the other. But whether it is to marry that special American or to simply seize a job opportunity, there is one thing that all British expatriates will have to encounter: the visa process.

Prior to a potential move, many Brits assume that the visa process is something of a formality, that little more is required than the completion of one or two forms. It doesn’t occur to some that there is, for instance, a considerable cost attached to the application, or that rigorous proof of work and residency eligibility is required. With that in mind, here are 5 things you might not know about the visa process.

1. Cost of application
When applying for a visa, many Brits are surprised to discover that not only are they required to pay a filing fee, but that this fee is upward of $1,000. Indeed, form I-485, which is an application to register permanent residence, carries a fee to the tune of $1,070 (including an $85 biometric fee). Moreover, the application to apply for U.S. citizenship, which permanent residents can do after three or five years of residency (depending on circumstance), is currently $680 (once more, this includes the $85 biometric fee).

2. Extent of the paperwork
If you are the sort of person who derives enjoyment from sorting through paperwork, then the visa application process certainly gives you value for money. Not only do you have to fill out the necessary application forms, but you may also be required to submit various affidavits, phone bills, photos, birthday cards and—in the case of those seeking to gain residency through marriage—anything else that proves the legitimacy of said marriage. On top of this, you may be required to undergo a medical examination, as well as biometric thumb scanning. Information on the requirements of each form can be found here.

3. The long wait for approval
The processing time for your application does depend on the type of application you are submitting. However, from experience, I can tell you that my application for residency (through marriage) was accepted after approximately nine months. Typically, though, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) does strive to process such applications within six months of the receipt date. For more information on processing times, go here.

4. Becoming a resident does not enable you to vote
There is a widely held misconception that carrying a green card (the informal name for your permanent resident ID card) allows you the right to vote in U.S. elections. While there are exceptions at local and state level (be sure to check voting requirements before heading to the ballot), permanent residents are forbidden by law to vote in elections that require voters to be a U.S. citizen. In short, if you have not acquired U.S. citizenship, you are ineligible to vote at senatorial, gubernatorial and presidential elections, as well as most other elections across the land.

5. You must have your green card on you at all times
This is not just a suggestion; it is the law. Once your application for permanent residency is approved, you are required to carry your green card with you at all times, in the event that you need to prove—to an officer of the law—that your alien registration is valid. Failure to do so could result in a $100 fine and/or the possibility of 30 days imprisonment for each offense.

Have you been through the visa process?

See More:
So, You’re on a Spouse Visa: Things to Know
Six (Legal) Ways to Earn Money in the U.S. Without a Work Visa
How to Get a U.S. Green Card: 10 Things to Know

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Laurence Brown

Laurence Brown is a British freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Indiana. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs a blog called Lost In The Pond, which charts the many cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States.
View all posts by Laurence Brown.
  • expatmum

    It’s a lot less stressful now that we have the Internet. My paperwork got lost when I first applied (through the spouse) and it took ages for it to resurface at the American Embassy in London. At least these days you can sort of keep track of things.
    The other thing you can’t do if you’re only a green card holder is sit on a jury. (At least in my state.) I used to get called all the time and then sigh with relief that I was ineligible.

    • Gill

      Most states will send you the paperwork to sit on a jury…but once you fax through your green card you are exempt.

      • gn

        In California, you just need to check the box that says “I am not a US citizen”.

    • Lost In The Pond

      Very true. I had a unique circumstance in which – 2 weeks after I left the UK – I was called for UK jury duty. Within weeks of gaining U.S. residency, I was called for U.S. jury duty. I was excused from both.

  • Gillsies

    I would recomend hiring a lawyer…saves alot of headaches……I never carried my green card on me…had a copy…but the real thing was locked away….in 10 years never had to show it.

    • gn

      Yes. We hired a lawyer for our Green Card interview. Even though he didn’t offer much practical advice, other than “make sure you wear your wedding rings”, it was a huge relief to be reassured that we had nothing to worry about.

    • gladleynet

      I don’t think you particularly need to hire a lawyer unless you have a complex case (involving translating documents, child custody, criminal record etc).

      A lot of the immigration forms relate to personal information and personal circumstances. We decided not to use a lawyer because we figured we knew ourselves better than anyone else!

    • expatmum

      I got a lawyer for my citizenship appllcation because my green card was also expiring and I didn’t know how to handle all the paperwork. Plus, had a nightmare time when I first got married. It was expensive but much less stress. One thing for me – the office conducting the interview did not like having a lawyer in the room taking notes. He asked me twice the amount of civics questions as he should have, and then told me off for leaving it twelve years before becoming a citizen. My lawyer told me he’d never seen anything like it.

      • Alan Richardson

        Oh dear, that gives me pause I’ve been here nearly forty years and haven’t applied …

        • expatmum

          This was 2002, so everyone was very jumpy about applications for citizenship etc. The FBI was going over every application with a fine-tooth comb too.

    • frozen01

      Just be very, VERY careful when hiring a lawyer. There are lots of people in online immigration communities who had simple cases but hired a lawyer for the peace of mind, only to have their cases completely bungled, making it far more difficult than it should’ve been. I’ve seen countless stories of attorneys forgetting documents, clients calling in to check on their applications only to find out that an RFE (request for further evidence) had been sent to the attorney months ago, etc. One person even had their attorney forget to include one of their children! They can have a financial incentive to make your case more difficult, so they can charge more money.

  • Bea

    Sadly, #5 only really seems to apply if you’re a person of color. My da was a resident alien my entire life and he never carried his green card–it was in the safe deposit box. He also was blond and blue-eyed.

  • Yorkshire Rose

    I’m not carrying my green card…not worth the hassle of replacing it if I lose it.

    • Graeme Robinson

      Its a bit of a grey area – rules say you need to be in possession of it. Am I not in possession of it if I know exactly where it is in my home?

      And I agree – I’d rather risk a $100 fine than go through the rigmarole of trying to replace it.

      • Matthew

        No chance I’m carrying mine around. Only time I get asked for it is at the airport (shocker). It’s just too valuable and difficult to replace to take the chance of it getting nicked or lost. I’ll pay the $100, if anyone ever enforced that.

  • gn

    Other benefits of citizenship vs. green card:

    * Green card holders can lose their status for various reasons, such as not spending enough time in the US, or being convicted of a serious crime. They also have to renew their status every 10 years. Once you are a naturalized citizen, your status is protected by the 14th amendment; it can’t be removed for any reason other than fraud in the application process.

    * Some jobs requiring security clearance may be available only to citizens.

    * If you are inheriting property from a US citizen, the tax position is (in many states) better if you are also a US citizen.

    * Citizens are in a better position to arrange for their own relatives to immigrate to the US.

    * All non-citizens (including green card holders) are theoretically supposed to report all changes of address to the INS/DHS/whatever it is now. This requirement was pretty much ignored for many years, but the government revived it after the 2001 terrorist attacks to deport some people they didn’t like the look of.


    * have to pay (or at least file) US taxes, even if you no longer live or work in the US.

    * have to renounce your former citizenship as part of the naturalization ceremony (this renunciation is not recognized by the UK, but may be by some other countries; some people just don’t like doing it anyway).

    • Graeme Robinson

      Other disadvantage of citizenship – being called for jury duty roughly every 18 months.

      • gn

        True. Unless you are proud to fulfill your civic duty :)

        • maggie

          Since becoming a citizen,12 years, I haven’t been called yet but was called when a green card holder and living overseas at the time.

      • CO2VA

        I’ve been a naturalized citizen for over 20 years now and never been called for jury duty once. My American wife has been called one time in her whole life, so I don’t think that is something to worry about.

        • Graeme Robinson

          I’ve been called twice in the last 3 years and I’m not a citizen.

          • Polly Ann Hogsed

            That’s an error then, only citizens can do jury duty

    • Liverbird

      Naturalized citizens can have their US citizenship revoked – so much relies on case law.

      • gn

        No they can’t (for any other reason than fraudulent application). Google Afroyim v Rusk.

    • expatmum

      I was a bit iffy about this and spoke to the British embassy before becoming a citizen. Basically, only Her Majesty’s Government can accept your renunciation so unless there’s a British Government rep at the oath ceremony (where you have to renounce your former citizenship) it doesn’t count. She also told me that US immigration officials used to take the British passport off dual nationals, make then renounce their British citizenship and send it to the Embassy. They in turn would send it straight back to the Brit as again, that airport renunciation wasn’t valid.

      • gn

        It’s probably best for dual citizens to avoid voluntarily showing a US immigration officer a British passport. US citizens are required by law to use a US passport when entering the US, and showing or even mentioning that you also have a UK passport could lead to confusion or worse.

  • gn

    To be fair, I believe that the process is almost as onerous going in the other direction (US to UK). In some respects, such as the amount of money you have to demonstrate you have to live on, it’s recently become much more difficult to get into the UK.

  • GinnyP

    My husband (American) started the process of immigration for me and we decided to go the way of the fiancee visa. As long as I got married within 3 months of stepping foot on American soil, then I was able to get my work permit, green card etc. It took about 6 months to complete. I had just signed my first emigration form in the UK, when Steve Wright announced on the radio that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.

    • maggie

      the wonderful INS lost the paperwork for my fiancee’s visa so we got married back home then came the wait to move over here. In the end my husband contacted his senator, a high ranking one at the and he got things moving including contacting the ambassador in London.

    • frozen01

      We also did a K-1 (fiance) visa. The whole process, from initial application to entry in the US, took 8 months (this includes application approval, medical, and embassy interview).
      At the same time, CR-1 (spouse) visas were taking about a year just to get approval of the application.

      Wait times for green cards and work permits are about another 3-6 months from application right now (we just got married a little over a month ago and will apply for the green card and work permit soon).

      We also had a hiccup because my husband booked a return trip flight (it was cheaper) but he didn’t cancel the second leg. The airline reported the return trip to CBP but didn’t bother to tell them he wasn’t actually on the flight, so they thought he left the country and cancelled his I-94. It was handled by the local office nearly a month ago but we’re still waiting for everything to get untangled so he can get his Social Security card.

  • Mich H

    I’m a US citizen, UK resident. I would have been a UK citizen years ago, but the fee to apply for naturalization is £874, and goes up every year.

  • Plunkitt_of_Tammany_Hall

    Oh, please. Can anyone really be so clueless as to think that because a foreign national lives in the US, that automatically gives the foreigner the right to choose the government of the US through voting? I have a hard time believing anyone is so dim as to be unaware that there is a difference between being a resident foreigner and a full citizen.

    • frozen01

      Agreed. I’ve run into a whole bunch of questions while we were going through the visa application process that made me just shake my head and wonder how anyone could possibly think that (#1 being “oh, I thought you automatically got citizenship if you married a citizen”), but nobody has ever believed getting a green card gave you the right to vote.

  • frozen01

    Most of this is spot on. My husband moved here a little under two months ago on his K-1 fiance visa (we’ve since married), and the process was pretty crazy. It took me nearly a month to gather all the evidence to submit with the initial application (including Skype logs, dated photos of us together, Facebook chat logs, etc), fill out all the forms, and double-check everything until I was satisfied we had everything we needed. It was about 4 months before the application was approved (that was actually faster than we were expecting).
    The one thing that wasn’t expected was how slow it was AFTER the application was approved. What we didn’t know is it would take a month for our packet to move from one department to the next, then another month to clear up some issues with his medical, then another month or so to wait for the embassy interview. There was more waiting involved AFTER the application was approved than before!

    The funniest thing was when I would explain what we were doing to my friends and family, they would say to me “wow, I didn’t know that you had to go through all of this to get citizenship!” All I could do was chuckle and explain “no, this is just to get him a visa so he can come into the country. It doesn’t even get him a green card, much less citizenship.” People seemed to have a really hard time wrapping their heads around that. The biggest misconception I encountered was how many people genuinely believed that you automatically got citizenship by just marrying a citizen.

  • Eric Andrews

    This is why you buy a ticket to Mexico and just sneak across the border

  • niamh17

    Getting our green cards was tons of paperwork and took ages. Luckily my husband’s company dealt with it, in comparison our citizenship process was easy. One form, an interview and only three months from start to finish, still not cheap but as we intent to stay here we were happy to do it. It’s really great to feel settled and secure now.

  • Agonizing Truth

    The best advice anyone thinking of moving to the U.S. can ever get: Please choose somewhere else. Literally anywhere else in the industrialized world is a nicer place to live. Canada. Australia. New Zealand. Belgium. The Netherlands. France. Germany. Norway. Sweden. Finland. Denmark. Spain. Portugal. Italy. Japan. South Korea. Or staying in Great Britain. Any of these are better, smarter, happier choices than moving to the ghetto of the developed world (the U.S.).

    Want to live where there’s a good health care system? Forget about the U.S.
    Want to live where your kids can get a good public school education? They won’t in the U.S.
    Want to live somewhere that doesn’t have the highest crime rate in the developed world? Don’t move to the U.S.
    Want to live somewhere that has a decent, democratic, representative government? Don’t move to the U.S. as its government is literally nothing but a sock puppet of the billionaires and big corporations.
    Want to live where elderly people get well taken care of? Avoid the U.S.
    Want to live somewhere that doesn’t have a government that tries to tell grown men and women what substances they can smoke in the privacy of their own homes? Avoid America like the plague.
    Want to live where people are generally well educated, worldly and accepting of differing viewpoints? Forget about the U.S.
    Want to live in a country that is well respected around the world instead of hated? Don’t move to the U.S.
    Want to live where you can go to college without being saddled with forty years of crushingly expensive student loan payments? Don’t go to college in the U.S.
    Want to live somewhere you can work and have some kind of actual rights (gasp!) as a worker instead of being fired for even TALKING about labor unions? Run as far in the opposite direction of America as possible.

    To call the United States a dung heap is an insult to dung heaps. Anywhere else in the developed world is a better choice as a place to live. And I mean ANYWHERE.

    And this is from someone born and raised in the U.S. who has spent his whole life here but is saving up money as fast as he can to move somewhere decent. This country is trash.