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Getting Married in the US

Are you planning on getting married during your time in the United States? Congratulations! Our guide offers pointers on the legal requirements, where and when you can hold your ceremony, and steps to take after the wedding.
The federal government provides for many rights and benefits for married couples.

Legal Rights for Married Couples

Although marriage laws in the US are made by the individual states, the federal government has established many rights and benefits for married couples. These include the right to file joint tax returns, the right to inherit property, and joint parenting rights, including adoption and foster care rights. Married couples also have the right to sponsor their husband or wife for a US immigration visa.

Government and employment benefits for married couples include receiving Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits, as well as wages, workers’ compensation, and retirement plan benefits in the event of one’s spouse’s death. The medical rights afforded to married couples include hospital visitation rights and the right to make medical decisions for one’s spouse if he/she is incapacitated.  

Married couples don’t always pay less taxes, however. Especially if both partners earn around the same amount, filing jointly can even push you into the next tax bracket, requiring you to pay more taxes than when you were single. Even if you file separately, the tax bracket thresholds are lower for married people.

Non-US Citizens

There are no restrictions for non-US citizens getting married in the US, as long as both parties fulfill the legal requirements for marriage in the city or county they wish to marry in. Just the fact that your marriage ceremony was performed in the US, however, does not grant you any special immigration rights. It is also important to make sure in advance that your marriage will be recognized in your home country, else it will lose its US validity as well.

Visas for Fiancé(e)s and Spouses

If you are an American citizen and wish to bring your fiancé(e) to the US to get married, he or she will require a K-1 nonimmigrant visa for a fiancé(e). With this visa, you must get married within 90 days of your fiancé(e)’s arrival in the US. After the wedding, your spouse will need to apply for permanent resident status.

If you are already married, your spouse may apply for a nonimmigrant visa for a spouse (K-3). This visa is designed so that a married couple can be together while a decision is being made on the non-US citizen’s immigrant petition. The US citizen must file this petition on his/her spouse’s behalf.

Bringing Your Spouse to the US

If you are a green card holder, your spouse may not enter the US until his/her green card petition is granted. As this is a limited category with annual quotas, it can take up to five years. The only way your spouse may join you earlier in this instance is if he/she independently qualifies for an L-1 or H-1 visa.

If, however, you are living in the US on a non-immigrant visa, your spouse may join you immediately on a dependent visa. This visa will expire at the same time as your visa expires. For an overview of the different types of visas available for the US, please see our article on US visas.

Steps to Take After the Wedding

In some states, the newlywed couple will automatically have a certificate of marriage mailed to them after it is filed in the county or city records. If not, you will need to request certified copies of your marriage certificate yourself and pay a small fee for each copy. You will need certified copies of your marriage certificate in order to gain recognition of your marriage in your home country, as well as to change your name, if you choose to do so.

If your country is party to the Hague Convention, you will need to have the certified copy of your marriage certificate attached to an apostille (a document which grants your marriage certificate international recognition as a valid legal document) in order for it to be recognized in your home country. You may need to get both documents officially translated as well. Please consult the government website of the state in which your marriage was performed for information on how to obtain an apostille.

Changing Your Name

If you choose to change your last name after you are married, make sure that your choice will be recognized in your home country. The options vary among the US states, but usually include both people taking one partner’s last name or forming a hyphenated version of the two surnames. You can also choose to not change your name at all. Some states require you to choose your married name when you apply for your marriage license, while others allow you to choose it after the wedding.

If you do decide to change your name, the first step is to get it changed on your Social Security card. Next you should change your driver’s license and passport. Check with your home country’s nearest consulate or embassy to see what documents you will need to provide to get your passport changed. Once you have all of these done, it should be fairly straightforward to change your name everywhere else, e.g. at the bank, on credit cards, with insurance companies, etc. Some might require a certified copy of your marriage certificate, so make sure to order several at once.


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