Normally, I’m not one for too much reality TV, but since the pandemic hit I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of TLC’s “90 Day Fiancé. If you’re not familiar with it, the show follows couples where one partner is coming to the U.S. on the K-1 visa. The visa lets people come into the U.S. on the condition that they be married to their citizen fiancé within 90 days.
While there are some love stories on the show, many of the couples are — to put it bluntly — a hot mess. So, as I was watching an episode, where a 21-year-old woman was moving to the U.S. to marry a 23-year-old man, I thought aloud “What are these kids thinking?” That’s when my husband gave me a reality check: “That was us.”
I paused, realizing how true that was.
My husband, Mark, is Australian. I met him on a Tuesday night eleven years ago, when I was studying abroad in London. Our story is the stuff of romantic comedies: my friend left me alone in a night club while she went home with her own dalliance. My soon-to-be husband struck up conversation and we had our first kiss on London bridge. Then, two months later, he was following me home to America while I finished my last semester of college. I was 20, and he was 23.
Over the next year, we did ridiculous things to meet visa requirements. Mark was allowed to enter the U.S. for — you guessed it — 90 days on the visa waiver program, which allows people from certain countries to visit the U.S. without a visa. That was almost enough time to get us to our graduation, but we wanted to stay in the U.S. until a family wedding later that summer. So, Mark caught an overnight flight out of Boston to Heathrow, sat in the terminal for a few hours, and flew back to the U.S. to reenter the country for another 90 days. It was a legal, if absurd, solution.
Next, I went to Australia, where I could live and work for a year on a work-study visa. After having Mark unable to work for six months in the U.S., it was a financial relief when we were both employed. At that point, we knew we wanted to be married, so we began looking into the K-1 fiancé visa. I spoke to a cousin’s cousin who had used the K-1 program. She shared how stressful and financially draining it was to plan a wedding in 90 days, during which her partner was not allowed to work. An immigration attorney who I consulted with had the same message: the K-1 visa was nothing but drama and headaches.
So, we were left with a choice: come to the U.S. on the fiancé visa, or get married in Australia and start the immigration process as spouses. If we were married, the attorney told me, the immigration process would be more streamlined, and Mark would be eligible to work in the U.S. as soon as he arrived.
To my practical husband-to-be, the choice was obvious, but I had some major reservations. Like many women, I had a vision for my wedding, and none of it involved a legal marriage in Australia. But I knew the most important thing was that Mark and I were allowed to legally be together in the same country long term. The immigration shuffle was beginning to have a financial and emotional toll.
So, we arranged a signing ceremony (anyone who referred to it as a wedding got the side eye from me). We only told my mom and Mark’s sister — who would serve as our witness at City Hall. The day of the ceremony we decided to invite Mark’s dad and stepmom at the last minute. I saved certain rituals for our “real wedding,” a ceremony that would take place 18 months later in New Hampshire: we didn’t say “I do” or exchange rings, and I didn’t change my name until after our wedding.
Having a “signing ceremony” was perfect for us. We started a spousal immigration application, while planning our wedding without the uncertainty of immigration hanging over us. Nine months after the signing ceremony, Mark entered the U.S. as a conditional permanent resident, and nine months after that we had our wedding at a family camp in New Hampshire with 60 or so friends and family — most of whom were clueless to the fact that we were already legally wed.
Despite the fact that we didn’t go the “90 Day Fiancé” route, the show feels personal for me. I know how people look at you when you mention you’re getting married at 21 and 23. I know the silly assumptions people make about the green card process, and the frustrations that come from having no control over your legal immigration status. Most of all, I know the high of being young and in love — and how those infatuations can lead to a lifetime of happiness.
Kelly Burch is a freelance writer covering finance, family, business and more. When she's not behind the computer she enjoys exploring the lakes and mountains of New Hampshire, where she lives. Connect with Kelly and read more of her work on Facebook or Twitter.