International Adoption

As many parents who have adopted overseas know, sometimes your heart’s desire turns up in a place you never expected.

Amy Davis* of the California Bay Area said she never expected to adopt from Guatemala. But her adoption agency encouraged her to look into international adoption, and once she made her choice, she never looked back. “I fell madly in love,” she said of the baby girl to whom she was assigned. “I know I could not possibly love her any more if she was my own biological child.”

And Janis Cooke Newman admits that it was a kind of superstition that drew her to an adoption meeting in San Francisco. She was 38, and she and her husband had been trying for 18 months to have a baby — without any luck. By beginning the adoption process, she hoped she would somehow overcome that unlucky streak. “It was one of those mysterious things. You hear about people who adopt and then they get pregnant,” she says.

Just before she and her husband left the meeting, however, something happened. Her husband agreed to watch a videotape the organizer had brought showing babies at a Russian orphanage. The organizer urged Newman to join him. There was an 11-month-old with blond hair and large gray eyes, she said, who looked just like her. “My husband and I both had such a strong connection to this child on the tape. It just felt like he was the one we were supposed to have.”

Newman walked around with a photo of the Russian child in her pocket for weeks. Although she didn’t get pregnant, she and her husband did adopt the boy they later named Alex, joining the thousands of Americans who have used an international adoption agency. In 2013, more than 7,000 children were adopted from foreign countries, according to the U.S. State Department. For many, it is the culmination of a lifelong hope to become parents. For others, who have already had children, it is a chance to bring a new face into the family. In some cases, single people and those in their 40s and early 50s who can no longer have their own biological children can still adopt from abroad.

The COVID-19 pandemic led most countries to put adoptions temporarily on hold, but many are processing applications and the adoptions are again in motion.

What countries allow foreign adoption?

These countries include Bulgaria, China (special needs adoptions), Hungary, Vietnam and Columbia. Other countries, including Guatemala and Nepal, have closed or scaled back intercountry adoptions. Check the U.S. State Department page on intercountry adoptions for updates on countries that interest you. Private adoption agencies can also help you look into adoption in a particular country.

If you’re researching the possibility of an international adoption, you need to consider whether you want an infant or an older child, what it may be like to raise a child in an interracial family, whether you want a girl or boy, and how long you’re willing to wait. Bulgaria and Columbia are among the countries that allow single Americans to adopt.

Am I eligible to adopt?

Any U.S. citizen who meets an agency’s criteria is eligible to adopt from around the world. You don’t have to be wealthy or own your own home, nor, in many cases, do you have to be married. In some countries, any U.S. citizen who can provide for a child and who has friends and colleagues who can testify to his or her good character is eligible to adopt.

What do adoption agencies generally do?

Although some people do complete international adoptions with the help of a lawyer or independent facilitator in the home country, there have been scattered reports of fraud or corruption. The job of a reputable adoption agency is to help you choose which country is optimal in your case and make sure your path to adoption is as smooth as possible.

Your contact should be in close touch with the people who handle adoptions in the country you’ve chosen. This person, often called a facilitator, should have a long history of maneuvering through bureaucracies and working with officials from both sides to process paperwork. He or she should also be on top of legal or political changes that could affect your application in a certain country.

Adoption agencies can also help you find a social worker to complete the required home study, and they should keep you updated on the progress of your paperwork. The agency can also refer you to other parents who have adopted from the country you’re considering, so you can learn from their experiences.

What kind of questions should I ask the adoption agency?

If you’re considering using a private adoption agency, here are some of the first questions you should ask, according to Jean Nelson-Erichsen and Heino R. Erichsen, the authors of How to Adopt Internationally:

  • Is your agency accredited by a US institution? Which one?
  • Is your agency licensed by the state or with the foreign governments you work with? Which one(s)?
  • How many years have you placed children?
  • Who helps me prepare the documents I need?
  • What types of education and support do you provide before and after placing a child?
  • What are your costs for adoption?
  • Can you refer me to other parents who have adopted through your agency?

If you’re single, you should ask if the agency has a preference for placing children with married couples. If you’re 45 or older, ask whether the agency has an age limit. If you’re gay or lesbian, you may want to discuss any relevant issues with your agency or home study counselor.

Agencies must disclose what they know about the child’s medical condition, but it’s good to ask questions early on. You can also have your child evaluated in his or her home country by a doctor there.

What’s the usual waiting period?

Most adoptions take about a year, depending on how quickly a home study can be conducted and how much time you need to file documents with the agency, your social worker, and the Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS). If you’re waiting for a child of a specific gender, it may take longer.

What kind of documents will I be required to provide?

Your adoption agency will provide you with a list of what you need to gather. This documentation may be a little daunting at first. But if you have a good record-keeping system, as well as ready access to your personal documents and to a copier, you’re ready to take on this paperwork.

Fortunately, the CIS, the agency that issues foreign adoption visas, has all the documents and instructions you need to fill out on its Web site. If you don’t have a specific child in mind yet, the CIS requires Form I-600, Petition to Classify Orphan as an Immediate Relative. (To speed up the process, first file Form I-600A, an Application for Advance Processing of Orphan Petition.) To file the form, you’ll need some basic documents to prove you’re a United States citizen or permanent resident, including a birth certificate and, if you were born abroad, proof of naturalization or permanent residency. Prospective adopters must submit marriage and divorce decrees, if any, change-of-name forms, and financial statements, such as copies of your tax and income statements. You’ll also need to provide fingerprints to the CIS and, depending on which state you live in, sometimes a state agency, so that officials can conduct a criminal background check.

Birth certificates may be hard to obtain in countries from which, say, refugees have fled to avoid persecution. Every case is different, so talk with your agency about what to do.

Agencies that handle adoptions require a different set of documents. Their initial goal is to evaluate you and your parenting ability, and to complete what’s called a home study. You can expect to be asked for documentation of your finances, such as your tax statements, savings records, 401(k) or IRA statements, and a declaration of your assets. To prove you’re in good health, you may have to undergo a medical examination and testing. And many agencies also require three to four written references from people who know you.

Some agencies require certain documents to be signed by a public notary, which costs about $10 per signature. Make sure that you make copies of all the documents you send to your agency and to the CIS before you drop them in the mailbox.

What is a home study, and why do I need it?

Before considering an application by a U.S. citizen to adopt a child from a foreign country, U.S. and foreign government officials need to know that they’re placing the child in a stable and loving home. This evaluation is known as a home study, and it’s typically conducted by a licensed social worker. (If you don’t have one, the agency you’re working with can refer you to a social worker in your state.)

The person doing your home study will need a lot of information to evaluate you, and will examine your personal history, but also that of your partner and of anyone living in your home. This includes reviewing your financial records, performing a criminal background check, seeing the home where your child will be raised, and determining whether you have health care insurance. Some people are nervous about these questions, but don’t be: The purpose is to help all qualified parents adopt a child.

Your social worker will pay a visit to interview you and the rest of the family. They may ask you what your childhood was like, what your relationship with your parents and siblings was like, how your physical health is, whether you have child care, and what values you hold regarding childraising. After you bring your child home, your social worker will visit again to evaluate the placement.

How much will a foreign adoption cost?

The cost of foreign adoptions varies widely, depending on the country you choose and the agency you work with. But even in the least expensive countries, expect to spend between $14,000 and $20,000. Add to this the fees charged by the agency, the cost of travel, lodging, and visas, and you may soon exceed $20,000.

In addition to the fees charged by agencies to process an application, perform a home study, and translate your documents for the foreign country, you will have to pay an additional fee to the country to process your forms.

Are there sources of financial assistance?

In 2007, the federal tax credit for adoption expenses was $11,390. Unlike a deduction, which lowers your taxable income, this credit is deducted directly from the taxes you pay in any given year. The credit may be taken in the year when the adoption is completed or the following year.

You should also investigate whether your own employer offers subsidies for adoption. Many U.S. employers offer adoption benefits that pay for part of your expenses; some will reimburse you close to $4,000 in adoption expenses. (After you bring home your child, some offer paid leaves of one to two weeks to care for the new adoptee.) The military also offers a one-time reimbursement of up to $2,000 per child.

Some adoption agencies discount their fees for needy families. Ask your agency if such discounts are available.

Where can I talk to other people who’ve adopted abroad?

Many churches and community groups conduct free adoption workshops to discuss how to file documents and complete forms. There are also hundreds of online support groups that discuss the latest developments that can affect your adoption. Keep in mind when talking to other parents that some information may be erroneous or out-of-date, even when it comes from the most well-meaning sources.

Whether you contact adoptive parents at a workshop or online, they can offer useful tips on their experiences filing documents, choosing an agency, and traveling in a foreign country. Most of all, during the grueling process of waiting for a child, it may be useful to discuss your feelings with other parents who have made that journey and can offer support.

Is it possible to maintain contact with the biological parents?

Yes, in some cases adoptive parents have kept in touch with one or more biological parents in their child’s home country. Ask the agency about your options.

How can I help my child maintain his cultural identity?

Many adoption agencies have organized seminars and ongoing support groups for parents who adopt abroad on just this subject. They also provide a reading list from the home country you’re adopting from, and help organize get-togethers for other parents who’ve adopted from the same country. You may want to start by taking lots of photos of your baby and his caregivers in his home country, and then making them into a scrapbook for him to read later.

What can I do to make sure I don’t encounter problems with the adoption?

At the very least, you can ask your agency how it helps parents avoid bureaucratic pitfalls and fraud. When foreign adoptions were permitted in Guatemala, for example, a baby’s birth mother was required to undergo testing to prove she is the child’s biological parent.

In addition, it’s good to be aware that U.S. immigration policies can change at any time. In fact, recent concerns about security spurred the creation of the CIS, and renewing paperwork can involve extra documents previously not required by the INS. It’s helpful to check on the CIS and the U.S. Department of State’s Web sites for changes that can affect your adoption.

The Russian word for snow

Newman, the parent who adopted from Russia, says parents need to have patience, even when they encounter a maze of bureaucracy. She’s speaking from experience: After she and her husband traveled to Russia once to visit their baby’s orphanage, the adoption paperwork hit a snag. The couple waited in America for three months before they could pick up Alex. But they were successful, and Alex is the heart of Newman’s book about the adoption, The Russian Word for Snow.

“At first, [adoption] seemed like a second-choice way to get your child,” she says. “But once you do it, you realize there’s nothing second-choice about it. You have your child, and you feel the same way about your child as any parent does.”

Further Resources

National Endowment for Financial Education offers a free booklet called “How to Make Adoption Affordable.”

National Adoption Foundation: 100 Mill Plain Road; Danbury, CT 06811; This organization provides grants and home equity loan to help families with adoption costs. Grants are up to $4,000. You can call the foundation to request that an application packet be sent to you or download an application from its Web site. For grant information, call 203/791-3811.

Child Welfare Information Gateway

Financial assistance from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service):

Forms for intercountry adoptions…


Interview with Janis Cooke Newman, author of The Russian Word for Snow (St. Martin’s Press), a memoir about the adoption of her son

Nelson-Erichsen, Jean and Heino R. Erichsen. How to Adopt Internationally: A Guide for Agency-Directed and Independent Adoptions Mesa House Publishing, Fort Worth, Texas

National Endowment for Financial Education


U.S. Department of State. Immigrant Visas Issued to Orphans Coming to the U.S.

National Adoption Information Clearinghouse. Overview of Employer-Provided Adoption Benefits and Adoption Tax Benefits.…

U. S. Department of State. Immigrant Visas Issued to Orphans Coming to the United States.…

U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Inter-country Adoption.

U. S. Department of State. International Adoption.…

Internal Revenue Service. Qualified Adoption Expenses.

US Department of State. Immigrant Visas Issued to Orphans Coming to the US.…

US Department of State. Intercountry Adoption: Philippines.…

US Department of State. Intercountry Adoption: Thailand.…

Internal Revenue Service. Topic 607 — Adoption Credit.

Internal Revenue Service. Form 8839.

USCIS. How Do I Apply to Bring a Foreign-born Orphan to the United States?

Child Welfare Information Gateway. Employer-Provided Adoption Benefits.

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