Friday, February 7, 2014

Removing Conditions on Green Card

The first green card that I received after successfully going through the fiancé visa process and applying for permanent residency had conditions attached to it.  Essentially, that just meant that it was valid for only two years rather than ten years (which is the norm for green cards).  That meant that I had to apply for a new green card before the two years had elapsed.

Up until now, everything that I had applied for with regard to the visa and residence had been achieved at first attempt without any additional difficulties or problems, but this time I faced some extra hurdles, which caused me stress, as you will read below.

Sunset over the Atlantic - I would end up flying to the UK knowing that I'd have to re-enter the US with an expired green card!

The Application Process – Form, Evidence, and Fee

Given how long it can take the USCIS to process applications, it would be nice if you could apply for the removal of conditions well in advance, but the rules stipulated that I had to do it no more than 90 days before the conditional green card was due to expire.  It took me nearly a month to gather together all the evidence, however (and I still didn’t send enough the first time – see below).  Plus the fee was substantial: $ 505 and in addition there was another $85 for the biometrics, which made a total of $590.

The document that I needed to fill out at this stage was Form I-751.  The form was fairly succinct and straightforward to fill out, but along with the application, supporting evidence that the marriage is genuine has to be supplied.  

If you’ve been through the fiancé visa process already, then you’ve already done something similar before, but it’s important to note that this time they are specifically looking for evidence covering the relationship for time period since you got married.  (If your marriage is no longer intact, you can still apply in many cases, but obviously the evidence you supply will be different).

Some examples of evidence  that you can give to show genuine marriage is listed below.

Examples of Evidence Required for the Removal of Green Card Conditions

  1. Birth certificates of children born to you and your spouse.
  2. Mortgage contracts or leases showing joint ownership or residency of a property.
  3. Financial records of joint bank accounts, loans etc.
  4. Copies of jointly submitted tax accounts.
  5. Documents that show your spouse as a beneficiary of pensions, insurance policies etc.
  6. Joint utility bills.
  7. Affidavits signed by American people who know you, testifying that you are a genuine romantic couple.
Gathering evidence wasn’t straightforward for my wife and I.  We haven’t had any children together and we don’t have much by the way of joint ownership, partly because we were both in middle age when we married.  My wife already owns the property where we live and there didn’t seem much point adding me (although if and when we moved, we’d probably put both our names on the document).  My wife wants to pass on her life insurance to her daughter, which is perfectly understandable. 

We therefore relied to a greater extent on things like affidavits, joint tax return, utility bills, etc.   

I sent off the application in June, two months before my green card was due to expire.  I had a plane booked to take me to England in late November, so that I could visit friends and family, which I figured should be enough time to get the new green card.

Not long after I sent in my application, I received a letter saying that my green card had been extended for a year, whilst my application for the removal of conditions was processed.  This letter is important, and you need to hold onto it in my experience – scan it and copy it!

Green Card Problems

My conditional green card expired at the end of August.  I didn’t worry about it too much as I had the letter (secured safely at home) saying that my status had been extended for a year.  That said, I knew that legally, you are supposed to carry a valid green card on you at all times, if you are a permanent resident.

In September, I went on a long road journey to participate in a tennis tournament.  It involved traveling from Florida to Tucson, Arizona, passing through the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and New Mexico en route.  I wasn’t concerned about the green card situation as I was traveling within the US and not leaving the country.

What I didn’t know, however, was that there are internal “customs posts” in New Mexico and Louisiana.  These are there mainly to try and catch illegal Mexican immigrants coming into the US via Texas, I believe.  Anyway, I had to pass through them, knowing that I had an out of date green card in my pocket.  Luckily, they waved us through both times without questioning me or checking my documentation.  (If you’re picked up without a green card, you risk long delays and a fine).

Me out in Arizona

After that, I made sure I kept a copy of the letter from the USCIS saying that my residence had been extended for a year in my wallet at all times, as well as my old (expired) green card!

Just over a week before I was about to leave for the UK, I got a letter from the USCIS.  I assumed that it was my replacement green card and felt a huge sense of relief.  But when I opened the envelope, it wasn’t a new card, it was a letter telling me that I’d not sent enough evidence and they needed more.

That effectively meant that I had to travel to the UK with my old expired green card and the USCIS extension letter, and hope that I wouldn’t have any problems getting back into the USA! 

More Evidence

My wife sent off the additional bundle of evidence in early December, whilst I was still in the UK.  This time, we included copies of documents that showed my wife had changed her name after marriage: her social security and driving license; we also gave copies of health insurance showing that we were both included, plus more documents to show that we both lived at the same address.  

The first time round, we have covered just part of the period since we got hitched, but this time we made sure that we covered the entire period, for instance, including joint tax returns for the two years, rather than just the one.  We also included some personal material, such as photos of our marriage, and photos of us holidaying, spending time with friends and family etc. from the period since we got married.

A Family Photo

New Green Card at Last!

I arrived back in the US in late December.  The customs officer did question me pretty thoroughly and keep me waiting a little, but he did let me through after I explained in detail why I had an out-of-date green card and showed him the USCIS letter.  

I got back to my Florida home.  Then it was just a case of waiting for my new green card to arrive in the post.  I must admit that I was more than a little nervous – had I given them enough evidence this time?  A rejection might mean having to make an appeal and there was no way that my wife and I could afford expensive legal representation.  We had given the USCIS all the evidence that we could think of (with the exception of maybe sending some more affidavits from friends saying we were a genuine couple - we sent two, but you can send up to twelve, according to what I read later).  

However, to my relief, I did finally receive an acceptance letter and my new green card in late January.  This card entitles me to 10 years of legal residence and working.  In August, I have the option of applying for US citizenship, should I choose to.  

I am just happy to have a break from all the application stress and expense for the moment, however, as I’m sure most of you will probably understand!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Getting a US driving license

The first thing that I should point out is that in the US there is no single national driving license, like in the UK.  In the US, driving licenses are issued by individual states.  This means that there are different costs, rules, tests, according to where you live.  (The driving laws also vary too from state to state.)

I live in Florida.  If you go for a license in California or Illinois, there will be many similarities with my experience, but also some differences.

Driving generally in the US

Getting by without a car is generally much more difficult in the US, compared to the UK, as there is generally far less public transport (trains, buses, etc.), unless you are in a certain big cities.

Automatic cars are the norm in the US, vehicles with manual gear-changing are less uncommon.

Petrol/gas is cheap compared to Europe, around half the price, although people still complain about the price.

There is much more a driving culture.  People travel relatively long distances, compared to Britain.  Most people are assumed to be drivers and have a license.

Can I drive in the US on a British license?

Yes, you can for a time.  I left it almost a year before I went for my Florida license.  If you go much longer than that, you run the risk of getting into trouble. 
There are some big disadvantages with driving on a foreign license.  For one thing, the insurance is much higher.  Also, a US driving license is commonly used as a form of ID in all sorts of situations.

How much does a license cost?

Mine cost me $48, plus an additional $20 because I failed it the first time(!)  This is cheaper than in the UK, where the total cost was not far off £100 the last time that I looked.

Taking the test(s)

The Florida test was split into two parts: a written test and a road test.

I did the written test on a computer at the test center.  There were two lots of twenty multiple choice questions, mainly understanding road signs and general road safety.  I passed easily, having downloaded and studied the handbook beforehand and taken numerous free mock tests that I found online.  

Most elements of driving and things like road signs are similar to the UK, but the terminology can sometimes be different, so it is worth doing some study of the handbook, even if you feel confident about driving.  “Give Way” is ”Yield”, for instance, and the “hand brake” is more often known as the “parking brake”, or “emergency brake”.  There are many minor differences to be aware of, some of which you can easily guess, but they might throw you in a test situation.

Despite its name, the Florida road test does not take place on the public highway, rather it is conducted on a mocked up road system in the grounds of the driving test center, which you drive around, following the examiner's instructions.  There are no other road users to interact with.

 The test is generally much easier than the British equivalent and has a higher pass rate.  Despite this, I still managed to fail it – having lived without a car in a British city for many years, my driving skills were very rusty.  I retook it a few weeks later and passed it, although there was a surcharge of 20 dollars, as I mentioned earlier.

Things assessed on the road test included parking, reversing, stop quickly (emergency stop), turn about (three point turn), stop signs.

When do I get my license?

Thanks to modern technology, the computer was able to make a license card for me while I waited.  It took about ten minutes.  I don’t know if this instant service is available everywhere.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adapting to American Culture

First of all, I should remind you I am British, so this post is very much written from a British perspective.  For much of the bureaucratic side of the K1 fiance visa application, the experience often has strong similarities wherever the visa applicant is from, however, in this post I am talking about cultural differences, which by their nature are a relative thing.  I also should point out is that America is a very large and diverse place and I know that this post may well contain some sweeping generalizations and subjective opinions, but I still think that it is worth writing and posting.

Basically, even if you have visited the USA on numerous occasions, seen numerous US movies and documentaries and read up on your American history, there is nothing quite like living in the US.  Yes, they speak English in the USA and there are big similarities with the UK in some areas, but don’t kid yourself that there aren’t also some significant differences.

There are differences in the way that people interact and relate to each other, for instance, and there are major philosophical differences in the way that Americans generally perceive their lives and the world around them.  The social set up and politics of the country are also radically different.  Some things, such as religion, generally form a far bigger role in American life than they do in the UK, especially if you live in the Midwest or in the southern states.

Inevitably, I think that most British expats will at one time or another find themselves wondering “what have I done” after they’ve moved, (that is certainly the case with the expats that I have contact with), and to a large extent I think it is pretty normal to feel like that.  I am not exaggerating when I say that some elements of American culture can at times be so alien as to be virtually incomprehensible to a British person.  In some ways, probably the best attitude to take when moving to the USA, I would say, is to see yourself as embarking on an adventure in a strange land, rather than just nipping across the Atlantic to a place that is very similar.  (I am not trying to put anyone off moving to the US, just pointing out that it is reasonable to expect to experience some emotional, as well as practical difficulties at times.)

Americans are generally more open and warm and less reserved than British people when it comes to strangers.  They will commonly greet, chat, and help out people they don’t know.  The friendliness can be almost overwhelming at times.  However, it doesn’t mean quite the same thing in American culture, as it does in the UK and some expats say that they find American friendliness more “surfacy”.  It can still be difficult for expats to make close friends. 

Making friends can be especially tough for expats who are middle-aged or older.  Your circle of friends tends to be large when you are in your twenties, many of them purely social acquaintances, but friends nonetheless.  As you get older, you maybe have a family, get used to doing things in certain ways, and the friendship circle tends to shrink to a hard core of old friends.  It can be hard for expats to meet and make new friends and it can take years to forge the strong friendships that expats have left back home.

Another aspect of US culture that is very different is humour.  It has virtually become a cliché to say that Americans don’t ‘get’ irony, the reality is more complicated, but the fact is that if you use a lot of irony and satire in the USA, you are liable to be misunderstood in many instances.   This is especially true in the workplace and when dealing with officialdom, such as the police and customs people.  Even in social situations, irony and satire are generally more rarely used and can get you into trouble.

Although the daily pattern of life is similar in many respects, the work culture is generally more intense in America.  The USA is definitely more of a ‘live to work’, than a ‘work to live’ culture, with longer working hours, less holidays, and fewer workers’ rights.  American life also tends to be more family orientated than it is for their British counterparts.  When not working, those Americans with families spend more of their time attending events organised by their kids’ schools etc. 

Most Americans have never really travelled much outside of the USA.  Their knowledge, interest, and direct experience of Britain, Europe, and indeed the rest of the world can sometimes seem limited and you won’t find much mention of foreign places on the TV news or in the media.  Americans don’t get much holiday time and what little they get, they usually spend within the USA.  The USA is massive, of course, with almost every type of terrain and climate imaginable, plus there are variations in culture within the different parts of the US.  It can still seem a surprisingly insular and inward-looking place generally, however, in comparison to the UK.

There are many other things that differ – one could easily write several books on the topic and still not cover everything.  Generally, outside of the big cities, American values tend to be very traditional – this is especially true in the Midwest and the Deep South.  The politics are very different too, with a different political structure, beliefs and history.  There will be times as a British expat that you will feel almost fully settled in the USA, followed by periods where you feel pretty alienated and detached, if the experience of myself and other expats that I’m in contact with is anything to go by.

If you want to read more about my own personal experiences, musings, opinions of the US from a British viewpoint, then feel free to read my personal and informal blog about moving from the North of England to the US, which is called From Sheep to Alligators.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My green card processing timeline

As I mentioned earlier, once I had obtained my K1 Fiance visa, there wasn’t much of a rest before I arrived in the USA, gotmarried and began the next phase of the immigration procedure which included more form filling, appointment attending and evidence gathering for the USCIS.  As the green card processing went on over a period of months, I thought it might be useful to write a summary of it as a chronological list - so here is my green card processing timeline.

IMPORTANT: Be aware that not everyone’s application follows quite the same pattern as my own.  I have read various accounts and the time delays can vary considerably, as can the order of events (for example, unlike me, many people receive their temporary work and travel permits before they get their green card).

January 14th – My wife and I got married.  This fulfilled the requirements of my K1 fiance visa.  To become a permanent resident and obtain the necessary documents for getting work, however, I needed to apply for a green card next.

February 2nd - I received my social security card after applying for it at a social security office 10 days earlier.  Although it is not essential to the process of getting a green card, doing anything official can be difficult in the USA without a social security number, which is used as a form of I.D. proof, as well as for tax purposes.  The card had written across it that I could only work with DHS authorization.

January and February - My wife and I make up a list of everything that we would need as evidence and began gathering it together for my green card application.

February 25th - Attend a medical and get my I-693 form filled out (confirmation of my vaccine records by a US doctor).

March 14th - Put in the application for greencard (I-485), along with applications for a temporary work permit (I-765) and travel permit (I-131), all our evidence, a check for the fee, and a green receipt card for the USCIS to stamp and return to me.

March 18th – Received the green receipt card I sent with package back, stamped by USCIS Chicago.

March 25th - Received notification that my forms and fee money had been received (including receipts for the temporary work [I-765] and travel [I-131] documents as well as the green card) – but also informed that I’d forgotten to include payment for the biometrics appointment and I needed to send them the money before my case would proceed.

April 3rd - Received confirmation that they’d received the money for the biometrics and that they would send me a date for my biometrics appointment in due course.

April 17th - Receive a “Transfer Notice”, informing me that they have transferred my case to the California Service Center to speed up the green card processing.

June 30th - Invited to attend a biometrics appointment on July 20th.

September 18th - Receive notification that my green card application has been accepted and they will send me a green card shortly.

September 20th - Received my green card in the mail.

Now that the green card process was complete and I had my green card, I requested that my social security card be changed to remove the writing on it that stipulated I could only work with DHS authorization.  Received my replacement card on September 26th.

I can take a breather now regarding immigration bureaucracy until my green card runs out in 2 years time and I have to replace it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Opening a US bank account for non-US citizens

This my account of what happened to me, including my interpretations of the material that I found online.  I originally wrote about this topic informally in the personal blog that I write for fun about being a British expat in America called: From Sheep toAlligators, but I thought that it would be useful to write a more formal account of my experience of opening a US bank account as a non-US citizen on this blog too, as it was very much part of the US immigration process for me.


As far as I understand it, certainly in comparison to my home country of the UK, the USA had relatively relaxed rules regarding non-US citizens opening bank accounts up until the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.  After the attacks, new legislation was introduced to make it harder for people such as terrorists to have money sent to them from abroad.  This new financial legislation formed part of the Patriot Act and effects the opening a US bank account for non-US citizens.  Each bank then got their solicitors to draw up new rules which complied with the new legislation.

Advance preparation

I did some research before we went to the bank that I wished to join.  Basically, there are banks that allow non-US citizens to hold accounts and banks that don’t.  From my research on the internet, it said that I could join my wife’s bank as a joint account holder using a passport as proof of I.D. and I didn’t need a Social Security Number, which was good as I didn’t have one at that point in time.  However, other research I did said that whatever the bank’s rules, in practice, you often end up being asked for an SSN.  So my wife rang up her bank’s customer service to check the rules on proof of I.D.  She was then passed from department to department, none of whom could tell her what the rules were.  Eventually she got through to someone at the head office who told her the rules, which were the same as I’d read on the bank’s website.

Practical problems

One of the big problems is that the person who actually serves you in the bank generally doesn’t have much experience of non-US citizens opening an account and doesn’t understand the bank’s policy and they insist that you should have Social Security Number.  They are afraid that they might be breaking the Patriot Act, not necessarily knowing that the Patriot Act is actually vague on this matter and that it is the bank’s solicitors who interpret the law and actually make the specific rules that they are supposed to be following.

The bank worker who dealt with us was young and very anxious and seemed confused.  She disappeared for a long time and held a conference with the deputy manager.  Then I was rejected.  This was despite my wife and I explaining about reading the relevant rules on the bank’s website and what we were told by their Head Office over the phone.  Unfortunately, our experience was very common according to the accounts that I read from expats and legal experts on the internet.  It was still an upsetting experience though.

Eventual success

I could have gone to another bank and believe me I was sorely tempted to take my business elsewhere, but I wanted a joint account with my wife so it seemed like too much trouble.  In the end I took a deep breath and applied for a Social Security Number (which I would have had to obtain sooner or later anyway).  It took a few weeks to get one.  Then my wife and I went back to her bank again.  We chose a different branch this time, however, as we were still upset about being rejected previously.  This time our bank worker seemed much more confident and friendly.  We gave him all the relevant info, including my new Social Security Number.  He did disappear for a time, but we were reasonably confident that everything would work out and sure enough, we were given the green light.

Friday, November 11, 2011

K1 Proof of relationship

A number of people have asked me what I used for proof of relationship for the K1 visa application, so I thought that I would post up what I used.  In our case is was similar to the I-129 petition relationship proof that we used, when my wife put in the  I-129 application (although we probably gave the USCIS more than they needed at that stage).

Basically from I learnt, the standard proof of ongoing relationship that they would accept were things like photos of my wife and I together and together with family, postmarked letters and emails that we had exchanged, telephone bills that showed we had spoken over the phone, and flight tickets that showed we had visited one another.  You are allowed to censor out some of the more personal information from letters etc. I believe.

Anyway, the specific evidence that my wife and I used as K1 proof of relationship was:

Photos of us during a visit.  There was a photo of the two of us together, a photo with the two of us with my fiancee’s daughter, and a photo of my fiancé with me and my family.

The plane tickets that were used for the flights across the Atlantic, and also the ferry tickets that we used on a day trip to France together.

Some of the cards that we had sent to each other by mail – birthday and postcards.

Some printouts of emails that we’d sent each other.  Nothing too personal, of course.

Some printouts of MSN messenger and Skype conversations that we’d had together.

A phone bill to show that we had telephoned each other.  (Although that didn’t happen more than a few times as we generally used Skype to communicate, basically because Skype was cheaper and also we could use webcams, which is more personal).


I mailed my proof of ongoing relationship to the London Embassy, which was the correct procedure at the time, but I think someone told me that visa applicants now have to take their proof in by hand when they attend their K1 Fiance Visa interview.  The rules and guidelines can change at any time, so always double-check with the USCIS website to make sure that you are doing the right thing beforehand.

Monday, October 17, 2011

My K1 Fiance Visa Timeline

As I have had quite a bit of interest shown in my post on the fiance visa processing and wait time, I thought that it might be useful to post a simple breakdown of my significant dates in the process and put together a K1 Fiance Visa timeline.  It is not surprising that people get concerned about wait times and start wondering how long each stage of the process is supposed to take - applicants don’t get a great deal of information from the USCIS, in my experience, and it can sometimes feel like you have been forgotten, or your application has got lost in the system.

Once again, I think it wise to remind people that this is my own person experience of the K1 Fiance Visa process.  As far as I am aware, my experience is fairly typical, but other people’s experience might be different.  Processing times can vary according to factors such as how many other people happen to be applying at the same time as you, or if the USCIS are being more particular because they are responding to security concerns, or whatever.

The K1 Fiance Visa Timeline begins with the I-129 petition, which is submitted by the US citizen and ends with non-US citizen being issued with a K1 Fiance Visa.  The bureaucracy doesn’t end there, however, as you still have to move to the USA, get married, then begin the I-485 Green Card application process in order to work and live in the USA indefinitely – this process is easier than the visa, but still a pain.  (I will post a Green Card Timeline on here too, when I’ve got time).

Anyway, here is my K1 Fiance Visa Timeline:

March 2nd.  I-129 Petition submitted by my fiancée (the US citizen) along with the I-129 Petition relationship proof.

March 13th.  My fiancée receives a letter of receipt saying that the I-129 petition has been received.

July 2nd.  My fiancée receives notification that I-129 petition has been approved and will be sent to the National Visa Center (NVC).

July 10th.  My fiancée receives a letter stating that the NVC has received the approved I-129 petition and will be sending the information to the London Embassy within a week.

July 19th.  I receive a letter from US embassy informing me to submit the K1 Fiance Visa forms.

August 11th.  I sent off my K1 Fiance Visa application forms to the London Embassy along with my proof, including things like my UK Police Certificate, passport-style photos etc.

September 14th.   I receive a letter sent to me inviting me to arrange a K1 fiance visa medical exam and giving me my K1Fiance Visa interview date.

September 30th.  Attend K1 Fiance Visa medical exam in London

October 13th.  Attend K1 Fiance Visa interview in London.

October 21st.  K1 Fiance Visa delivered to my workplace, where I signed for it.