International Adoption Process: FAQs
By Lisa Burden, J.D. | Legally reviewed by Melissa Bender, Esq. | Last reviewed May 16, 2023
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Often referred to as intercountry adoption, international adoption refers to adopting a child from a different country.
As you can probably imagine, the international adoption process is complex and involves many different parties, laws, and procedures. Because adoption is such an important and life-changing event, adoptive parents must understand the process.
International adoption differs from domestic adoption. In domestic adoptions, U.S.-based parents are adopting a U.S.-based child. These days, many domestic adoptions involve adopting a child from foster care.
Below are answers to these most frequently asked questions about the international adoption process:
- How long does an international adoption take?
- How much does an international adoption cost?
- Is financial help available for international adoption?
- What are the ages of children available for international adoption?
- Is it possible to adopt a healthy child from overseas?
- What are the most popular countries for international adoption?
- What laws govern the international adoption process?
- What is a "Hague adoption"?
- What's a "Non-Hague" or orphan adoption?
- What are the particular requirements of the international adoption process for a Hague adoption?
- What steps are involved in a Hague adoption?
- What are the eligibility requirements for adoptive parents seeking an orphan adoption?
- Do I need to have a home study conducted?
- Is my adopted child automatically a citizen?
- What steps are required to secure my adopted child's U.S. citizenship?
- What steps are necessary to obtain citizenship for my child?
- What is re-adoption?
- Are there post-adoption requirements for international adoption?
- Get professional legal help with the international adoption process
How Long Does an International Adoption Take?
International adoption is rarely a quick process. It can take anywhere from one to five years. Most international adoptions take about three years. The timeframe depends on the child you select and the country involved in the adoption. Selecting a "waiting child" is often quicker than waiting for the child's country of origin to make a referral.
A waiting child is a child whose profile, including the termination of parental rights, has been prepared and is ready to be matched with an adoptive family. It also helps select a country with a stable and established adoption process, such as China or Bulgaria.
How Much Does International Adoption Cost?
International adoption is expensive. Bringing a child home from a foreign country can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 per child. The fees vary depending on the country. The cost includes documentation, a home study, agency fees, foreign fees, and travel to the foreign country. Most adoption agencies provide a list of fees at the beginning of the international adoptive process, and many adoption agencies post a list of the costs on their website.
Is Financial Help Available for International Adoption?
Yes. Prospective adoptive parents can obtain help from several different sources. About half of employers, as does the U.S. military, offer adoption stipends to employees. Depending on income, there are state and federal tax credits. State credits vary depending on the state. Grants are available. Several organizations offer financial aid as money that doesn't have to be paid back. Other organizations offer interest-free adoption loans. Some adoptive parents turn to home equity loans and fundraising activities such as a GoFundMe, garage sales, and selling items on craft-oriented websites.
What Are the Ages of the Children Available for International Adoption?
The children range in age from nine months to 16 years. Infant adoptions, which were possible in past years, have become a rarity, although toddlers are often available.
Is it Possible to Adopt a Healthy Child from Overseas?
Probably not. Most children available for international adoption have special needs such as medical, developmental, or behavioral challenges. You can specify in an intercountry adoption which special needs you are willing to consider.
What are the Most Popular Countries for International Adoption?
According to Adoption.org, the top five countries in 2021 for foreign adoption were South Korea, Colombia, India, Haiti, and Bulgaria. In past years, China was a popular option for foreign adoptive parents.
What Laws Govern the International Adoption Process?
International adoption is governed by three different sets of laws:
- U.S. federal adoption laws
- Adoption laws of the country from which you are adopting
- The laws governing where you live (U.S. state, territory, or country)
The more familiar you are with these laws before you begin the process, the fewer tangles you'll encounter. For example, some laws require you to spend several weeks in the child's country of residence before beginning adoption proceedings.
To save time, there are many forms that you can begin filling out even before you decide who will be your adoptive child.
Your adoption agency can help you with many of these forms and any questions you may have, but can't represent you in front of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
What's a "Hague Adoption?"
There are two types of foreign adoption — a Hague adoption and a non-Hague adoption. A Hague adoption follows the process outlined in the Hague Adoption Convention, which is an international treaty used to ensure the best interests of the children, birth parents, and adoptive parents involved in the international adoption process. The Hague Adoption Convention was enacted in April 2008. Most international adoptions take place under Hague accreditation.
A child must meet the following criteria to be classified as a Hague Convention Adoptee:
- Under age 16 at the time you file Form I-800
- Reside in a country that is part of the Hague Convention
- Be eligible for intercountry adoption by their country of residence
- Have obtained all necessary consents for adoption from their country of residence
What's a non-Hague, or Orphan Adoption?
According to U.S. immigration law, an orphan is a child who is not born in the U.S. and either:
- Both of their parents have died, disappeared, abandoned, or deserted the child by separation or loss, or
- They have a sole surviving parent who cannot care for them, according to the local standards of the child's country. That parent has (in writing) irrevocably released the child for emigration from their country and adoption.
What Are the Particular Requirements of the International Adoption Process for a Hague Adoption?
To be eligible for a Hague adoption, you must:
- Be a U.S. citizen,
- Reside in the USA, and
- If married, your spouse must also sign your Form I-800A and agree to adopt any child you adopt, or
- If unmarried, you must be at least 24 years old when you file your Form I-800A, and you must be at least 25 years old when you file your Form I-800.
Be sure that your adoption agency has the authorization to provide services under the Hague adoption. Most international adoption agencies are upfront about having Hague accreditation. Your agency can't provide legal advice or services or represent you before USCIS. Only a lawyer can do this.
What Steps Are Involved in a Hague Adoption?
After you've chosen a Hague-accredited adoption agency or adoption service provider, and perhaps a lawyer, prospective adoptive parents will want to follow these steps for compliance with the intercountry adoption process:
- Have your home study conducted by someone authorized to conduct Hague adoption home studies and submit your home study document
- Apply to USCIS before adopting your child
- Once USCIS approves your application, work with your adoption agency for a proposed adoption placement
- Before adopting your child, file a petition with USCIS to have the child found eligible to immigrate based on the proposed adoption.
- Submit Form I-800A, Application for Determination of Suitability to Adopt a Child from a Convention Country, to establish your eligibility and suitability.
- Once USCIS approves your Form I-800A, submit Form I-800 (Petition to Classify Convention Adoptee as an Immediate Relative) to determine the child's eligibility as a Hague Convention adoptee.
- Once these forms are approved, adopt the child, or obtain custody of the child to adopt the child in the U.S.
- Obtain the child's immigrant visa
- Bring the child to the USA for admission with their visa
For more information about Hague-accredited adoptions, consider reviewing this resource from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). It also covers orphan adoptions.
What Are the Eligibility Requirements for Adoptive Parents Seeking an Orphan Adoption?
For an orphan adoption, you must:
- Be a U.S. citizen
- If married, your spouse must also sign I-600, Petition to Classify Orphan as an Immediate Relative, and your spouse must also adopt the child
- If unmarried, you must be at least 25 years old when you file the Form I-600 petition
- Establish that you'll provide proper care for the child
- Establish that the child is an orphan according to U.S. immigration law
- Establish either that:
- You and your spouse have adopted that child abroad, and you each saw the child in person before the adoption, or
- You'll adopt the child in the U.S. after the child's arrival, so long as you have permission to take the child from their country of residence to the United States.
What Steps Are Involved in an Orphan Adoption?
If you and your child both qualify under the orphan international adoption process, then follow these steps:
- Have the overseas investigation conducted by USCIS or the U.S. Department of State
- Submit your home study document, filled out by someone authorized to complete an adoption home study
- File an orphan petition before the child's 16th birthday or before their 18th birthday if they are the sibling (by birth) of another child immigrant you have adopted:
- File Form I-600A, Application for Advance Processing of Orphan Petition, before you even identify your adoptive child
- Once you identify your child and USCIS approves your Form I-600A, file Form I-600, Petition to Classify an Orphan as an Immediate Relative, along with your home study document and any other evidence that you are a suitable adoptive parent
- After your Orphan Petition is approved, apply for your child's visa
- Bring your child to the United States along with their visa
Do I Need To Have a Home Study Conducted?
Yes. USCIS requires a home study. A home study is conducted by an authorized individual who screens prospective adoptive parents for adoption suitability or by your international adoption agency. This information collected is compiled into a report that must be submitted for both orphan and Hague adoption cases.
USCIS wants to ensure that your home suits the adoptive child based on the applicable laws.
A home study is an investigation of your home, employment, finances, health, and criminal background by a social worker. The adoption home study also includes references from friends and family. The investigation concludes with a written report from the social worker that includes the caseworker's recommendation of the number, ages, and special needs of the children you can best parent. For example, the social worker might approve you to adopt one child under the age of 9. In another instance, a prospective adoptive parent might be approved to adopt two children under 5.
USCIS doesn't send someone to conduct the home study for you. You are responsible for setting this up yourself. Someone licensed or authorized to conduct adoption home studies must visit your home and fill out the home study report per the Department of Homeland Security regulations.
Is My Adopted Child Automatically a Citizen?
No, children are not automatically citizens without a previously obtained visa. But there are steps to take to provide your child with a visa upon entering their new home and receiving U.S. citizenship.
If the child lives abroad now, you must get them an immigrant visa to enter the United States. These visas are issued by the United States Department of State at the embassy or consulate in the foreign country where the child now lives.
What Steps Are Required To Secure My Adopted Child's U.S. Citizenship?
The type of visa your child needs depends on a few factors:
Visa types for Hague Adoptions
- IH-3 visa: Issued for children with full and final adoptions from a Hague Convention country
- IH-4 visa: Issued when a child is coming to the United States from a Hague Convention country to be adopted
Visa types for orphan (non-Hague) adoptions
- IR-3 visa: Issued when a full and final adoption is completed abroad
- Requires that the parent(s) physically see the child before or during the adoption proceedings
- IR-4 visa: Issued to a child that
- Is coming to the United States to be adopted
- Was adopted abroad by only one parent (if married)
- Was not seen by the parent(s) before or during the adoption
Visa types for other adopted children
- IR-2 visa: Issued to a child
- Adopted by a citizen if the child immigrates to the U.S. while unmarried and before their 21st birthday
- After the child's 21st birthday, if they are protected under the Child Status Protection Act as though they are still under 21
What Steps Are Necessary To Obtain Citizenship for My Child?
The steps required to obtain citizenship, an important part of the international adoption process, will depend on their visa type.
Children with IR-3 and IH-3 visas automatically acquire citizenship if:
- They enter the United States before their 18th birthday, and
- They reside in the United States with their parents (U.S. government or military personnel assigned overseas may qualify as living in the United States)
For IR-3 and IH-3 cases, your child's Certificate of Citizenship will automatically be sent to your U.S. address without requiring additional forms or fees.
Children with IR-4 and IH-4 visas:
- Don't acquire automatic citizenship upon entry to the U.S., but instead become permanent residents,
- Will automatically receive a permanent resident card (green card), and
- Will automatically acquire citizenship on the date of their adoption in the United States if the adoption occurs before the child's 18th birthday.
Children with IR-2 visas who are:
- Under 18 automatically acquire U.S. citizenship upon entry to the United States if they reside in the United States with their parents (U.S. government or military personnel living overseas may qualify as living in the U.S.), and
- Over 18 become permanent residents and receive a green card
Children with IR-2 visas who didn't automatically acquire U.S. citizenship can apply for naturalization when eligible.
What Is Re-Adoption?
Some international adoptions require re-adoption. Re-adoption is the process of adopting your child in the United States. This "second adoption" happens after the child has been adopted from another country. There is no federal requirement for re-adoption. Re-adoption occurs under state law, and the procedure varies from state to state.
Re-adoption occurs for a variety of reasons:
- Some countries only award legal guardianship when a child has been adopted. Finalizing the adoption in the United States means that you will receive a final adoption order declaring that you are the adoptive child's parent.
- Some countries prefer that both parents meet the child while the adoptive child is in their birth country. If only one of the parents traveled to meet the child, then some countries will provide an IH-4 or IR-4 visa. These visas state that the child travels to the United States to be adopted.
- Some states require that international adoptions be reviewed by their courts.
Generally, if the child received an IH-3 or IR-3 visa, the adoption was completed in the child's birth country. But, the adoptive parents were granted legal custody if the child received an IH-4 or IR-4 visa.
Even if your child's adoption was completed in their birth country, you should still consider finalizing the adoption in the United States because it provides you with a birth certificate from your home state and legal protection if there are changes to foreign adoptive laws that apply retroactively.
Are There Post-Adoption Requirements in International Adoption?
Yes. Even after a child has been placed with an adoptive family, the intercountry adoption process has a few more steps that must be followed. There are post-placement requirements. Most foreign countries require that adoptive parents file periodic reports explaining the child's progress and welfare. Some countries require that post-placement reports be filed for five years after placement, while others require the reports to be filed until the child turns 18. Parents must comply with the reporting requirement. Some countries have threatened to suspend adoptions because parents ignored the requirement.
Get Professional Legal Help With the International Adoption Process
Potential family and immigration law issues mean international adoptions can be complicated. A social worker is always helpful. But a lawyer's help can also ensure that you successfully prepare to meet both systems' challenges. Before you shell out your hard-earned cash and fly halfway around the world, ensure you're doing it right by speaking with a family law attorney.
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Contact a qualified attorney specializing in adoptions.