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International adoptions (also called intercountry adoptions) are those where the child is born out­side the United States, but is adopted by adoptive parents living within the United States. Every adoptive parent has heard rumors of one country or another having children awaiting immediate adoption. In past years this was the Soviet nations, China and Guatemala, but this has changed. Adoptive parents sometimes ask why they can't go to a more "pleasant" and accessable country, such as France or England, to adopt. There are several reasons, both practical and legal, why this is the case. All industrial nations all face the same problem as Ameri­ca - there are more couples waiting to adopt than there are children free for adoption. For that reason, when American adoptive parents travel overseas to their country of choice for their adoption, they are likely to meet other adoptive parents who have traveled there from Germany, Italy, France, England, Sweden, et cetera, who are there with the same goal. International adoption is not just popular with Americans. It is a global practice.

Most of the countries with children free for adoption are either third-world countries, or countries undergoing economic and/or social strife, leading to conditions where they can't offer enough homes for their children. Unlike America, where foster homes are used, most all foreign nations place children in orphanages until a home is found. In recent years, a handful of countries are finding the benefits to children when placed in a foster home, offering more nurturing contact. This is still quite rare in international adoption, and orphanages continue to be the norm, although the quality of the orphanages vary a great deal.- Dr. Barbara Bascom and Carole McKelvey explain the revitalization of international adoption in their book, THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO FOREIGN ADOPTION:

"International adoption had a turning point in 1990. After a steady decline that began in 1986 and continued through the cold war years, the numbers of children adopted from foreign countries suddenly reversed their downward trend and burst back into prominence when the plight of thousands of institutionalized children in former eastern bloc countries was exposed by the Western media. By the end of the year, the hollow faces and pleading eyes of these children had entered the living rooms - and hearts - of every Western family that had a television set. For more than one million American families on waiting lists of adoption agencies - many having been there for years - the media blitz became a living advertisement for intercountry adoption. The results were predictable. Thousands of Western families rushed to Eastern Europe to adopt its abandoned children. Returning airplanes were so full of adopted children and their new parents, they were dubbed 'the baby flights.' International adoption had begun its renaissance of the nineties."

Since that time, however, the trend has turned back, and more Americans are adopting domestically, rather than internationally. The U.S. State Department, which keeps the official international statistics, evidences the clear swing back to domestic adoption. In fact, international adoptions have dropped dramatically since 2004. We will discuss the reasons why momentarily. (For more information on international adoption, ADOPTING IN AMERICA: How To Adopt Within One Year by adoption attorney Randall Hicks, offers tremendously specific and helpful information on how to selet the best countries and programs from which to choose in its International Adoption chapter.)

Number of children adopted by Americans from other countries:

  • 2004: 22,990 children adopted
  • 2005: 22,734 children adopted
  • 2006: 20,680 children adopted
  • 2007: 19,609 children adopted
  • 2008: 17,475 children adopted
  • 2009: 12,753 children adopted
  • 2010: 11,059 children adopted
  • 2011:  9,320 children adopted
  • 2012:  8,667 children adopted
  • 2013:  7,092 children adopted
  • 2014:  6,438 children adopted
  • 2015:  5,647 children adopted
  • 2016:  5,372 children adopted

Where do the children come from?

Every year different countries take the top spot as the most popular country from which Americans adopt. Not every country permits its available children to be adopted by foreigners, and those that do have vastly different laws, procedures and costs. Some countries make the international adoption process reasonably straight-forward, while others are quite complex. Some countries have a reputation for reliability and honesty, while others frequently change their laws, temporarily shut down their adoption programs, or deal in corrupt practices.

In 2016, the most recent year of U.S. State Department statistics, the following countries were the most popular countries from which Americans adopted:

  • China: 2,231
  • Congo: 360
  • Ukraine: 303

For more statistics on international adoption, including a country by country list of the number of international adoptions completed by Americans, visit the U.S. Department of State website.

There are two primary reasons why international adoptions have declined in recent years. One is that the agencies which are legally permitted to perform international adoptions have declined in number due to an international treaty called the Hague Adoption Convention. The Hague has strict requirements on which agencies are permitted to do international adoptions, and many of the agencies doing them previously are now barred from doing so. (The Hague's requirements, and how to see if an agency is Hague accredited, is discussed below).

The second reason international adoption is not as prevalent as before is that there are less children available internationally, at least those that Americans seem to deem "adoptable." In prior years, many of the children available were in a category many adoptive parents desired: young, healthy, and perhaps satisfying a desire to match the adoptive parents' own ethnic group. As the years have passed, however, many of the countries that were traditionally a source of international adoptions are now finding homes for their parentless children within their own country. This frequently means the children made available for international adoption are significantly older, or have a special need of some sort. This is not true of all international adoptions, but is increasingly becoming the case. For this reason, many adoptive parents who are open to adopting an older child, and/or a child of a minority ethnic heritage, are now turning to domestic adoption, and the waiting children in our own country, where no international travel is required, and the adoptions are virtually free to the adoptive parents (as they are underwritten by our government to find homes for these children). For more information on the adoption of waiting children, please visit our "Waiting Children" seminar.

This not to say that international adoption is still not the preferred route for some adoptive parents, and it remains an adoption option for those with a particular mindset. Let's look at how international adoption works, and how to give yourself the best chance of a successful one. Because international adoptions are inherently more complex than most domestic ones (because you are dealing with your state's adoption laws, the laws of the foreign country, international treaties like the Hague, and U.S. visa and immigration issues), it is critical to go into the process fully informed.

How to avoid problems in an international adoption

It is critical to do two things:

  1. Find the right international program; and
  2. Find the right country from which to adopt.

There is no shortage of good international agencies - and no shortage of poor ones! There are many good countries from which to adopt, and others to avoid. It is too complicated a matter to list here, as what is good for one adoptive parent is not necessarily good for another. Each person has different goals. Also, what might be a good country today, can become a bad country tomorrow, due to an unanticipated change in laws or health care procedures. Most adoptive parents find an agency in their own county and state. However, it is usually possible to retain an agency in a different state (let's assume that out-of-state agency has what you feel is the best international program for you), and that out-of-state agency will work in concert with a local agency (which will provide necessary services like your home study and needed reports).

Hague and non-Hague countries

One of the first things those interested in international adoption need to be aware of is that there are two completely different types of international adoption. Several years ago, the United States, along with most countries in the world, signed the Hague Treaty. This set forth a procedure that each participating country would be required to follow in processing and completing international adoptions. The treaty was designed to address problems in the international adoption community, by hopefully eliminating fraud and legal uncertainty for both the children being adopted, and the adoptive parents.

Hague countries

In addition to the United States, about 89 countries have joined the Hague Adoption Convention. A key component to the Hague process is that the entity you select to handle the adoption in the United States must be accredited by the U.S. government. These accredited agencies are called "Accredited Adoption Service Providers." In almost every case they are adoption agencies, but in a few rare cases attorneys have been accredited as well. Notably, facilitators (unlicensed entitles) are barred.

The U.S. Department of State maintains a list of agencies which are accredited (on the right side of that page, select your state, or "all states" from the "locate an agency" option), and those which have been denied accreditation. Please click on those links to check out any agencies being considered. This does not mean each listed agency will have a program in the country from which you wish to adopt, or that the children they have available will match your desires, but you will know they have met the Hague requirements (which are quite demanding of the agencies, by the way).

There are six basic steps in completing a Hague country adoption:

  1. Choose an Accredited Adoption Service Provider (ASP). Remember, only accredited agencies or approved persons can provide adoption services between the United States and a Hague-member country. The Adoption Service Provider's duties are to: identify a child free for adoption for you; secure the necessary consent to adoption; perform a home study (or approve another agencies's evaluation if out-of-state); make sure the child's best interests are served by the adoption; monitor the adoption after the initial placement; and take custody of the child if the adoption were to fail for some reason.
  2. Be found eligible to adopt. You will be required to complete a home study to confirm you are an appropriate candidate for adoption. This is a key part of being deemed eligible to adopt under U.S. law by the governmental entity we used to called the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) but is now the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). To complete this process, you will file a form called an Application for Determination of Suitability to Adopt a Child from a Convention Country (form I-800A). This is a process your selected agency will assist you with. As you will see when you later read the section below on non-Hague adoptions, the Hague process is "front-loaded," to help assure there will be no disappointments later.
  3. Be referred to a child. Once your I-800A is approved by the USCIS, your ASP can send your dossier (required forms by the other country, such as a copy of your home study) to the foreign country's central adoption authority. (Prior the Hague, many countries had no such central adoption authority, causing confusion. The Hague requires a central adoption authority.) If/when a chid is identified for you, your ASP is sent a report on the child's medical, psychological and social history (called an Article 16 report) and also provides the child's name and birth date. It is also the job of the foreign country's central adoption authority to make sure the child is fully free for adoption (ex. parental rights terminated, or consent to adoption given). An English translation is provided to you by your ASP.
  4. Apply for the child's eligibility to immigrate to the U.S. Once you have accepted the child's referral, you will request USCIS's provisional approval to adopt that child (or children)via a form called Petition to Classify Convention Adoptee as an Immediate Relative (form I-800). Your agency assists you with this. The USCIS will determine that the child meets certain legal requirements to be what it terms a "Convention adoptee," then you or your agency will submit a visa application for the child. When it is determined that the child appears eligible to immigrate to the U.S., the U.S. Consular Office will issue an "Article 5" letter.
  5. You adopt the child. Every country has different laws and procedures to finalize an adoption. You will want your agency to fully educate you on your selected country's procedures prior to formalizing an adoption plan with that country. In most cases one or both adoptive parents travel to the country, usually staying two or more weeks. Some countries require more than one visit. Prior to asking the foreign country's court to grant the adoption, you will want to meet and spend time with the child. This is not only to be sure you are a good match for each other, but you confirm the information provided about the child seems correct. Even with the greater security of a Hague adoption, it is not unheard of that some of the information provided about the child might be inaccurate (such as subjective assessments of the child's emotional or psychological state). Just as in the U.S., the finalization of the adoption will be in court, and your ASP will normally arrange for a translator to be present, as well as needed parties, like an attorney.
  6. Obtain the child's visa and passport. With your adoption now complete overseas, you are legal parents of the child, but you still need to get him or her home. The foreign country which just granted the adoption will issue a new birth certificate. Normally this will list you as lawful parents, and show the child's new name, as was changed due to the adoption. The child is not yet a U.S. citizen, so the foreign country will issue a passport. Once you have the amended birth certificate and a passport, you can apply for a U.S. visa. The child must first be examined by a physician in the foreign country designated by the U.S. government (called a "panel physician"). The primary purpose is to be sure the child does not have a contagious disease or disability that may be a bar to visa issuance. The visa will be issued by the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country from which you adopted. An immigrant visa is issued, allowing the child to enter the U.S. 
  7. For U.S. citizenship issues, see below.

Visit the U.S. Department of State's website for more detailed information on the Hague process, and to view or download forms, such as the above-mentioned I-800A and I-800 click here.

Non-Hague countries

Even though the United States has signed the Hague treaty, if the country from which you adopt is not a party to the treaty, then the provisions of the Hague Adoption Convention do not apply, and the international adoption is handled differently, as a "non-Hague adoption." For example, the adoption agency or attorney need not obtain the difficult clearances required of a Hague Accredited Adoption Services Provider.


Here are the six basic steps of a non-Hague adoption:


  1. Select an adoption agency or attorney. Since the U.S. government is not screening these entities, you will want to exercise even more caution and investigate any agency or attorney you are considering hiring. In most countries you will be adopting from, the adoption will be arranged via a licensed U.S. adoption agency. In a small number of countries, however, U.S. attorneys assume this role. (Regardless, you will always need an agency to at least conduct your home study.) It is wise to make sure the agency or attorney you work with is licensed as an agency or attorney, and is not just a facilitator (a business, usually employing a name that sounds like an agency, but is not licensed as an agency or attorney). Many states have laws making facilitators (referred to by some as "paid child finders") illegal, but some states permit them. To confirm they are licensed as an agency, check the official U.S. government's site, the Adoption Information Clearinghouse, which includes a state-by-state list of licensed agencies. For attorneys, check with the state bar. Talk to other adoptive parents who have recently completed their adoptions through the entity you are considering to verify the quality of their services. It is also recommended you visit the seminars regarding “Agency Adoption” and “Independent Adoption” seminars, for tips on questions to ask agencies or attorneys, as many of the same questions are appropriate for domestic and international adoption.
  2. Confirm you are deemed eligible to adopt. Just as in Hague adoptions, you will be working with the USCIS. You complete an Application for Advance Processing of Orphan Petition (form I-600A). You will need to complete a home study prior to submitting this form, along with other documents (like marriage certificate if married). Your agency or attorney will help you with this form. At the time the I-600A is filed, you notify the USCIS of the country from which you plan to adopt, so that they can notify the U.S. embassy or consulate in that country of your approval.
  3. Obtain a referral of a child. Your agency or attorney will notify you when/if they have found a child deemed appropriate for you. Since this is a non-Hague country, the country may have no central adoption authority making the placement determination. Instead, your agency or attorney may be working with a regional authority or even a specific orphanage. There is no specified transmittal of information about the child, as in Hague adoptions, but you will want to make sure you receive as much information as you feel you need prior to commencing further in the adoption plan, such as traveling to the child's country to meet him or her.
  4. You adopt the child. Most countries require one or both of the adoptive parents to travel to the foreign county to do the adoption, while a few allow the child to be transported to the U.S. for the adoption to occur there. Regardless, the adoptive parents will want to spend time with the child prior to the adoption being finalized to make sure the placement feels right to them, and to learn more about the child and verify prior information provided to them about him or her.
  5. Apply for the child to be deemed eligible for immigration to the U.S. Just because a foreign country's laws permit you to adopt a child there does not mean that child will be granted permission to enter the U.S.  Only children who meet certain qualifications are eligible. Accordingly, it is critical, prior to adopting a child, that he or she will be considered what the U.S. State Department defines as "an orphan." This is a more restrictive test than exists in Hague adoptions. Just because you can adopt a child overseas does not mean that he or she legally qualifies as "an orphan" to be permitted a visa to enter the U.S. and gain citizenship. The term "orphan" as used for this legal purpose is broader than the traditional meaning of a child's whose parents have died. (For example, it can include a child relinquished to an orphanage or whose parents have had their parental rights terminated by a foreign court.) Usually, the adoptive parents file the Petition to Classify Orphan as Immediate Relative (form I-600) at the U.S. embassy or consulate in the foreign country. Included with the Petition will be required documents, such a the child's birth certificate, court order of adoption, proof of orphan status, and more.
  6. Obtain child's visa and passport. When the USCIS has approved the I-600, you must obtain an immigrant visa so the child can accompany you home to the U.S. As discussed above for Hague country adoptions, the child will need to be examined by a panel physician as part of the visa process.

To learn more about non-Hague adoptions visit the U.S. Department of State's website, and to view or download forms I-600A and I-600 click here.


The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 made obtaining U.S. citizenship easier for you. Generally speaking, the child automatically is granted U.S. citizenship upon entry, assuming he or she is living in the custody of the American citizen parent, the child was properly admitted into the U.S. in the manner discussed above, and that the adoption is final pursuant to the foreign court order.

Who are the Kids?

A frequent question by those considering adoption is “What are these kids like who are adopted from overseas? What do they look like? How to they act?"

International adoptees are both boys and girls. They are of all different ages and ethnicities. Some are fully healthy and some were adopted with knowledge of special needs. Some were raised in nurturing environments and some were not. In other words, they are like the rest of us, just born elsewhere and usually under less fortunate circumstances.

Others ask about a child’s ability to bond with new adoptive parents, and the adjustment to a new country, new language, et cetera. A valuable book for adoptive parents on such issues is Lois Melina’s RAISING ADOPTED CHILDREN. To summarize a complicated issue, however, children can be amazingly adaptable. More so than we adults. Most international adoptive parents report the complete bonding between themselves and their adopted children, although there is a period of building trust. Also, some children, whether adopted internationally or domestically, who have suffered trauma, even at an early age, may have lost the ability to ever fully bond with their new parents. If you are considering a child with a tragic early life history, make sure you are prepared for the fact that entering your secure and loving home will be a huge step in that child's security and growth, but it is not always enough to "cure" what has occurred prior.

A quality international adoption program will usually be able to help you learn detailed facts about the child you will be adopting. There are tens of thousands of happy international adoption stories out there. They are at your local school, your church, or down the street. Ask, and you will be surprised how many families created from international adoption are around you. Ask them questions. Learn from their knowledge, and from their mistakes. You will find most of them did not just fall into their successful adoption, however. They educated themselves enough to select the right program to assist them in the most important decision of their lives – the adoption of their child. There are also some sad international adoption stories out there, of families for whom it was not a success. Often this is due to unreasonable expectations of what it would be like to bring an existing child into a new home, a new family, a new school, a new language, a new culture, a new country.


Adoption is different from marriage, as only the former is truly "forever." The wrong marriage can be ended with a trip to a divorce attorney. An adoption is for life. Take as much, or more, time with your preparation for your adoption as you would your marriage. It is important to realize children, even those “saved” from sometimes terrible environments to live in their new American homes, will not shower their parents with a lifetime of gratitude, and be perfect children in their desire to please. Those adopting for those "humanitarian" reasons should reevaluate their motivations to adopt. Adoption is for those who have the desire to be parents. Kids will be kids, and the same headaches a biological parent experiences with their child will fall on the shoulders of an adoptive parent, plus a few extra issues to boot. Education from trained adoption professionals is essential in preparing for adopting any older or waiting child, but it is particularly important in international adoption.

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