What is the Penalty for Marrying for a Green Card?

Posted by in Immigrants | Updated on June 15, 2023
At a Glance: Marriage fraud, which involves entering into a fraudulent marriage for immigration purposes, is considered a serious crime under US law. Both the US citizen and the immigrant involved can face prosecution. Immigrants convicted of marriage fraud may be imprisoned for up to five years, fined up to $250,000, and face deportation. US citizens involved in fraudulent marriages may also face fines, jail time, and potential deportation. The USCIS, along with other agencies, actively investigates and monitors marriages for potential fraud by conducting extensive interviews, requesting evidence, and verifying the legitimacy of the relationship.

The United States government does not impose restrictions on who its citizens can marry. If an application is processed in due order, including background and medical checks, the foreign spouse is issued a green card to live and work in the United States permanently. But some couples use marriage to get around the U.S. immigration system and obtain a green card. This is considered a federal crime. In this article, we’ll explain the consequences of marrying someone just for a green card.

Is Marriage Fraud a Serious Crime?

Any marriage that takes place solely so an immigrant can obtain a green card and enter the United States is considered fraudulent. These are also known as sham or fake marriages. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) views this is a federal crime with serious consequences for the immigrant, the U.S. citizen, and other convicts.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, INA Section 204(c), if a marriage takes place to evade United States immigration laws, it’s a sham marriage.

Marriage fraud investigations are carried out by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) along with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Together they have uncovered various types of marriage fraud:

  • A U.S. citizen is either paid or charges money to marry someone from outside the country and get him/her a green card.
  • Marriages arranged through mail-order bridal agencies where both the alien and the citizen are aware that it is a fraud.
  • A foreign national defrauding an American citizen who believes the marriage is legitimate, but it is not. In this case, this will be termed “marriage fraud” and not a “sham marriage.”

HSI has a separate department called Document and Benefit Fraud Task Forces (DBFTF) to monitor international marriages.

Another way marriage is considered fraudulent is when your marriage is not legally valid. For example, you’re already married to someone and aren’t divorced yet. In this scenario, if you enter a second marriage, the new marriage would be considered invalid. But these cases aren’t likely to result in marriage fraud since the DBFTF will find out about your first marriage and reject your application immediately.

What Are the Penalties for Marriage Fraud?

As mentioned earlier, marriage fraud is a federal crime. If discovered, both the U.S. citizen and immigrant will face prosecution.

For the Immigrant

The immigrant faces severe charges when convicted of marriage fraud or a sham marriage. INA 275 (c), states that any individual who enters into the marriage purposely and knowingly intending to evade any provision of immigration laws shall be imprisoned for not more than five years and be fined not more than $250,000 or both.

Therefore, if convicted, the alien spouse will be asked to pay the fine or serve in jail or both. Furthermore, their visa will be revoked immediately. Upon release, they will be deported back to their own country.

Additionally, restrictions will be imposed on their further eligibility for getting a U.S. visa or green card.

If citizenship has been granted by the time the fraud surfaces, then authorities will look at whether it should be revoked.

For the U.S. Citizen or Legal Permanent Resident

There are two types of marriage fraud from a citizen’s point of view. They went into the marriage knowing it wasn’t legitimate, or they were unaware of the intention of the foreign spouse. In the latter case, it is marriage fraud, while in the former, it is sham marriage.

Depending on how involved the citizen was, they will face both fines or jail time or both. If they willingly entered the marriage for cash or incentives, they’re likely to face severe charges.

The most severe charges are issued against those citizens or LPRs who are engaged in conspiracy operations. Systematically arranging fraudulent marriages on a large scale for cash or other benefits is an example.

If the spouse is a Lawful Permanent Resident and not yet a citizen, officials will also consider deporting them.

Both the alien spouse and U.S.-based spouse will face additional charges, such as:

  • Visa fraud
  • Harboring an alien
  • Criminal conspiracy
  • Providing false statements

How Does the USCIS Identify Marriage Fraud?

With the rise in marriage fraud over the years, the USCIS makes it a top priority to examine marriages for potential fraud. It works with multiple affiliated agencies, including ICE and NVC, to curb them.

First, they’ve made the application and verification process lengthy and difficult. They ask for extensive proof to determine the legitimacy of a marriage. Then they ask the couple to attend multiple interviews at the consulate or embassy. But that’s not all. After the marriage is approved, the alien spouse is issued a two-year conditional green card. This explicitly states that if the marriage ends in divorce, there’s a high probability that the green card will be revoked.

These agencies usually monitor your marriage for years after it has taken place. If they find something suspicious, they’ll visit your home, talk to your friends, and possibly even interrogate your employers. But further paperwork or interviews after the two-year conditional period is over is rare if your marriage is indeed legitimate.

The marriage-based green card process starts with the American spouse filing Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. You’ll be asked a lot of questions in this form and supplement it with documents. This is when the USCIS tries its best to identify any potential fraud.

When determining the legitimacy of a marriage, immigration officials will look for the following things:

  • Whether or not both people share the same religion and language
  • If they have lived together and for how long
  • Whether they’ve gone on a vacation or celebrated important events
  • If they have children or are planning to have them
  • Financial records of both the partners
  • Any assets they share
  • Whether they have any marital problems and arguments

Then during subsequent interviews, officials expect couples to prove what they have stated in the application.

Any of the following documents may be submitted as evidence:

  • Bank records
  • Rental agreement
  • Property ownership details
  • Birth certificates
  • Photos of vacations and parties attended together

These are just some of the ways the USCIS can discover fraud. The complete list is still unknown. The agency has extensive reach and can even go into the alien spouse’s hometown for further investigation if required. Therefore, you should try your best not to do anything suspicious, even when the marriage is indeed legitimate.

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When filling out the form, put extra focus on the accuracy of the information you provide. The information should reflect your real life. Remember, the USCIS only wants to ensure the marriage was entered in good faith.

If you have any questions, it’s best to get in touch with an experienced immigration attorney before filing Form I-130.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.