American citizens living in Israel sometimes find it necessary to relocate to the U.S. for a period of time. In preparation for this relocation, an American citizen living here with an Israeli spouse will need to secure an appropriate visa for him/her. Given the lack of other visa possibilities, it is often most appropriate for the Israeli spouse to obtain an immigrant visa which allows him/her to work or study in the U.S. immediately upon arrival.
The following "Q&A" provides tips for navigating your way through the immigrant visa process, including a special in‑country petitioning procedure that is available to some American citizens.
Q: We're relocating to the U.S. for at least a year. I'm an American citizen – don't I have the right to bring my spouse with me to the U.S. whenever I want?
A: Surprisingly, no. As a foreign national, your spouse needs permission to enter the U.S, just like any other non-American. Your spouse is not vested with an automatic right to reside in the U.S. by virtue of marriage to you, and must still qualify for the right kind of visa.
Q: What kind of visa does my spouse need?
A: Due to a lack of other options, it often makes the most sense for your spouse to apply for an immigrant visa based on his/her marriage to you, a U.S. citizen. This is especially true if the reasons for the relocation are your own work or family considerations.
If, however, your spouse's Israeli employer needs him/her to work in the U.S. for a year or two, there could be other options (see below).
Q: Where can I file an immigrant visa application on behalf of my Israeli husband or wife?
A: The State Department has consolidated all immigrant visa services for Israel at the Consulate General in Jerusalem; as a result, U.S. citizens residing anywhere in Israel must now file their immigrant visa cases in Jerusalem.
Q: Is this procedure available to all American citizens in Israel?
A: Unfortunately, no. The special in-country petitioning procedure is available only to those American citizens for whom Israel is their current primary residence. You are asked to prove this by showing that you have maintained continuous residency in Israel for at least six months immediately prior to filing the visa application. Even then, U.S. citizens who have been in Israel in a temporary status (students, for example) may not qualify for local petitioning.
Q: What are my options if I don’t qualify for the special procedure at the Consulate?
A: You'll need to file a petition with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the U.S. The stateside petition procedure involves processing times which are substantially longer than at the Consulate.
Alternatively, your spouse's Israeli employer might sponsor him/her for an employment visa for relocating to the U.S. for a year or two. The most common types of work visas available to Israeli professionals are the H-1B visa (based on a university degree or equivalent), the L-1 visa (intra-company transfer), and the E-1 visa (based on U.S.-Israeli trade). In general, it’s probably best to consult with an attorney about any such options.
Q: Assuming I do qualify, how can I begin the immigrant visa process?
A: First you must submit Form I-130 ("Petition for Alien Relative") at the Consulate (reception hours are 08:30 –10:30 on Wednesdays and Fridays only). The American citizen must personally submit the application. A non-refundable application fee of $355 or the NIS equivalent must be paid at this time.
Q: How long does the procedure take?
A: Four months on average.
Q: Why does the Consulate need so long just to process our paperwork?
A: There's a lot going on behind the scenes. For example, there is a security check, mandated by the Adam Walsh Act, by which the U.S. government has to verify that you – the American citizen – have never been convicted of certain offenses.
Q: We're in a rush and don't have four months to wait to complete the paperwork. As a U.S. citizen, can't I simply bring my spouse into the country on a tourist visa, and then straighten out his/her status after we arrive?
A: Definitely not recommended! Entering the country on a tourist visa with a preconceived intent to adjust one's status thereafter is a serious violation of U.S. immigration law. A very real consequence might be that your spouse could be denied the opportunity to adjust his/her immigration status in the U.S. and would be compelled to return to Israel.
Q: Can the process be expedited?
A: As a rule, the Consulate will not expedite processing of an immigrant visa application, no matter how urgent your need to arrive in the U.S. The best way to ensure prompt and efficient processing is to file an application which is properly completed and supported by all the required documentation. Even a minor technical defect in the application can lead to significant delays. Being properly prepared for the final visa interview is also highly recommended.
Q: What are the documents I'll need to bring when I submit my application?
A: Some of the documents you'll be asked to provide are:
- Your U.S. passport, U.S. birth certificate or naturalization certificate;
- Your marriage certificate;
- Your spouse's birth certificate;
- For both you and your spouse: divorce certificate if previously married, or death certificate if previous spouse is deceased;
- A recent color photo of you;
- A recent color photo of your husband/wife;
- Proof of your primary residence in Israel.
Q: Are there things we need to do after I file the petition at the Consulate?
A: Yes: your spouse will need to undergo a medical examination with one of the physicians accredited by the Consulate. He/she will also need to order a police clearance from the Israeli Police. (Police clearances are also required from any other country – except the U.S. – in which your spouse resided for more than one year after the age of 16.)
Q: What are the main stumbling blocks in the procedure?
A: The most common reason for delays is an immigrant visa application that is incomplete or that generally fails to dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s.
From the applicant's point of view, a major point of frustration is the requirement for submission, at the time of the final interview, of an affidavit of support. This affidavit is essentially a contract between you and the U.S. government in which you promise, given the need, to financially support your Israeli spouse. (The idea is that the government doesn't want to issue immigrant visas to persons who are likely to require welfare or other similar benefits.) As part of the affidavit, you will be required to show that you have (or can obtain) the means to provide this financial support; you must also submit a copy of your most recent IRS tax return.
Q: But what if I haven’t been filing U.S. tax returns since I've been in Israel?
A: If you are formally required to file U.S. tax returns, you'll need to do so now, retroactively, in order to maintain eligibility to sponsor your spouse for an immigrant visa.
Q: My spouse has been arrested in the past; could this impact his immigrant visa application?
A: Yes, it could. If, for example, your spouse was ever convicted of a criminal or civil offense (or even a military offense during IDF service), the Consul could find him/her inadmissible to the U.S. and deny the immigrant visa application. The same could hold true if he or she violated lawful status during a previous stay in the U.S. If this occurs, a waiver of inadmissibility is sometimes available. This is the kind of situation where it's really best to consult with an attorney about your options, as well as your chances of successfully completing the visa procedure.
Important: This Q&A is not in any manner or form to be considered as legal advice, or as a “How To” instructional manual; rather, this document is intended solely as a source of general guidance and before starting the process please contact the Consular General in Jerusalem.
Liam Schwartz is one of the world’s top U.S. immigration lawyers. He is presently based in Ramat Gan (with his Israeli spouse).
Updated to July 30, 2009
US Consulate General in Jerusalem:
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 290, Jerusalem 91002
U.S. Consulate General, Jerusalem
18 Agron Road, Jerusalem 94190
Tel.: +972.2.622.7230; Fax: +972.2.625.9270