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US permanent residence vs. citizenship for world-traveler fiancée

Americans love to travel so, naturally enough, journeys overseas are one of the most common ways U.S. citizens meet future spouses from abroad. If you and your fiancé or fiancée are both world travelers, however, you should know that U.S. immigration law requires people seeking naturalization to physically live in the United States for an extended period of time. The rules are less strict for permanent residency, however.

Suppose you’re a U.S. citizen and you and your future spouse want to make the U.S. your permanent home. You’re also in the lucky position to be able to travel or live abroad for the majority of each year -- perhaps you own a yacht or work for an import-export company. Your plan for the foreseeable future is to be abroad for more than six months each year.

Once you are married and your new spouse becomes a lawful permanent resident of the U.S., you have two choices. Should your spouse work toward becoming a U.S. citizen or remain a green-card holder indefinitely?

It depends upon your goals, of course. However, it will probably be easier for your spouse to remain a permanent resident until you’re ready to reduce the amount of time you spend traveling.

Generally, as long as you maintain your primary residence in the U.S., you can continue to travel as much as you like without jeopardizing your spouse’s permanent residency, as long as:

  • Your spouse doesn’t remain outside the U.S. or its territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam) for more than a year at any time, or
  • You obtain a two-year reentry permit before you go.

If circumstances beyond your control keep your spouse outside the U.S. for more than a year or beyond the expiration of the reentry permit, however, your spouse can apply for a returning resident visa to avoid having to reapply for a green card.

On the other hand, if your spouse wants to become a U.S. citizen, one of the requirements is to physically live in the U.S. or one of its territories at least half the time for three years. This is called the “physical presence” requirement.

If you’re a world traveler, enjoy yourself -- but be sure to check on any immigration consequences of traveling abroad before you leave the U.S.

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