When my husband and I first started our adoption journey, I must confess we had no idea where to begin. We wanted to adopt, but we weren’t sure whether domestic or international adoption would be right for us. We attended a few webinars and concluded that international adoption would be a good fit for our family. We loved to travel, and the idea of welcoming another culture into our hearts and homes was very appealing. But after making that decision, an almost more daunting question loomed: From which country should we adopt our prospective child?

At first glance, it seemed as if the world was literally our oyster. We knew there were waiting children in Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and in the Middle East, and we were happy to welcome a child from any of these places. We shared our openness with our agency social worker. She smiled kindly and proceeded to present us with a list of questions for our consideration. Were we interested in a specific age range? Were sibling groups something we would consider? Were we open to a  child with special needs? Did we have a timeline in mind for our adoption journey? Did we have any travel restrictions? We were both under 40, so that was good, but there are age and marital restrictions in some countries. Also, not all countries were open to intercountry adoption, so some, like Ethiopia, should be stricken from our list.

We realized that adopting internationally would be very different from domestic adoption. Where with domestic adoption—as a prospective adoptive parent—you match with an expectant mother; internationally, as a prospective adoptive parent, you have to match with an entire country and that country’s rules and regulations concerning intercountry adoption. Two adoptions from two different countries later, we have a better understanding of what to consider when deciding where to adopt internationally. Here are some things you should know.

1. There Are Requirements

International adoption is handled on the federal level, and each country has the authority to set what type of prospective adoptive parents they are open to placing their country’s children with. Country requirements vary in terms of the ages of the prospective adoptive parents, specifically in relation to the prospective adoptive child. In South Korea, for example, prospective adoptive parents must be between the ages of 25-44, but in India, prospective adoptive parents may be up to 55 years old. Many countries require no more than a 50 year age difference between the prospective adoptive parent and prospective adoptive child, and some have a minimum age difference as well.

Additionally, some countries have rules and regulations with respect to how long a couple has been married (typically between two-three years), and some countries, notably Columbia, welcome both singles and couples of the LGBTQ community. Single parents are welcome to adopt in many counties, but not South Korea. Family size is often taken into consideration; many countries do not allow more than three or four children to currently reside within the household. All prospective intercountry adoptive parents must prove they are financially stable and capable of supporting a child, and some countries—such as China—require families to provide minimum net worth evidence. Prospective adoptive parents must prove they are well in both physical and mental health, and some countries have restrictions on BMI (body mass index), ruling out prospective adoptive parents with a history of chronic physical conditions or mental health issues.

2. Decide What You Are Open To

One of the most important things our agency relayed to us is that if we were interested in infant adoption, then perhaps domestic adoption would better suit our needs. Because of the intricacies of international adoption, and because most intercountry adoption programs involve Hague Convention compliant countries, children who are eligible for intercountry adoption are typically older. The Hague Convention states that in order for a child to be eligible for intercountry adoption, the child must first be proven to be an orphan (which can be a time-consuming endeavor in some countries), and every effort must be made to place the child domestically, first. If the child is unable to be placed domestically, then her or his country of origin will usually try to place the child internationally. As such, most children available are over the age of 6 months at referral. The time from referral to placement varies by country and can take anywhere from six months to over a year, meaning that by the time the child comes home, he or she is anywhere from 12-18 months.

Some countries have younger children available for intercountry adoption (like South Korea where the age at referral is 12-16 months), and some countries have older children available for adoption, like Colombia and Haiti. Sibling groups are usually available in Colombia and Ecuador, very rare in China and India, and simply do not occur in South Korea. In some countries, like China, you may be allowed to choose the gender of your prospective adoptive child, and in other countries, like Jamaica, you may not. As part of the home study process, prospective adoptive parents will be asked what age ranges of a child they are open to, if they are open to either gender, and what special needs they are willing to consider.

Prospective adoptive parents should be aware that children with special needs are prevalent in intercountry adoption. Special needs may range from mild, medically correctable (such as hearing loss, vision loss, heart defects), to more severe (like limb differences, cerebral palsy, or HIV positive). Sometimes the term “special need” simply refers to the child’s age. Children 3 years and older, at referral, are considered “special needs” in many countries.

When choosing a country, prospective adoptive parents should also consider if they are open to becoming a transracial family. For some prospective adoptive parents, it is important for their children to look like them. As such, they may choose to adopt from their parents’ or grandparents’ country of origin. For other prospective parents, they may be open to raising a child whose race is different from their own. Before making a decision either way, it is important to understand the implications of becoming a transracial family. Many intercountry adoptions lead to transcultural families, but it can be a very different experience when you do not look like your children. Take some time and consider where you live, is it a diverse area? Will you be able to offer your child racial mirrors in your immediate community and beyond? It can seem overwhelming to consider and answer these questions even before you get a referral, but doing the work now will mean you are ready to support your child when she or he comes home.

3.  Consider a Country’s Travel Requirements

Not unlike domestic adoption, you will often be required to travel for international adoption to meet your child. When intercountry adoption first began, social workers would travel to the child’s country of origin to meet the adoptive child, pick her up, then fly her back to the United States to unite with her adoptive parents. The head of our agency shared her own social worker’s words of “watch for the yellow blanket coming through customs,” and that’s how she would know it was her daughter from China.

Today, prospective adoptive parents are expected to travel to their adoptive child’s country of origin to meet their child and to experience their adoptive child’s country and culture firsthand. Adoption travel is very, very different from vacation travel, but it allows you to see your child’s country of origin through his or her eyes. You may be able to meet your child’s caregivers or visit where your child spent the first months or years of his life. Countries do vary regarding their travel requirements, so when deciding on which country is right for you and your family, it is important to learn what each country requires. For example, South Korea requires two trips of roughly five to six days, approximately four to six weeks apart from each other, and both parents must travel for both trips. India only requires one trip of two weeks, but some states in India (such as Hyderabad) require that parents travel for their child’s court date. Colombia requires that adoptive parents spend three to five weeks in-country before leaving for home with their newly adopted child. Ecuador requires a minimum stay of eight to ten weeks. And Uganda requires that adoptive parents live in-country with the adopted child for at least one year prior to relocation to the United States. For some, it is possible to take a leave of absence from work or to have one parent travel, but for others, a shorter travel requirement may be a better fit.

4. Consider a Country’s Timeline

Another element to consider in your international adoption journey is the timeline from home study, to dossier submission, to referral, to travel. There are normally two periods of waiting in the journey to adopt internationally: the wait for a referral and the wait to travel. The wait for a referral varies by country and varies depending on how open the prospective adoptive parents are to the child’s age, gender, and special needs. Country programs also vary from year-to-year, so it is important to check on current timelines with your agency. For example, China used to refer children in three to four months but now are averaging up to 24 months (particularly for younger girls with mild, medically correctable needs). Referrals, on average, come from South Korea in one to four months, from India in three to twelve months, and from Columbia in six to eighteen months. Once you receive a referral, review it and decide if the child is a good fit for your family. If he or she is, then you will often move to the acceptance process, complete acceptance paperwork, and wait to travel. Due to the Hague Convention, the timeline to travel to bring your child home may take anywhere from a few months to a year. This is because it takes time for the country of origin to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the child is, in fact, an orphan, that the child is eligible for intercountry adoption, and for the United States to investigate the same eligibility upon receiving the paperwork from the child’s country of origin. Once approval is granted (the I-800A form), the child’s case goes before either a federal or a local court, and the judge will rule if the child is eligible to be adopted and decree whether the adoptive parents may adopt the child. Current timelines from referral acceptance to travel averages four to six months for China, eight to eleven months from South Korea, seven to eleven months from India, and only five to nine weeks from Colombia. All that said, when considering a timeline, it is important to take into account both the referral timeline and the travel timeline. So for example, though it may take some time to receive a referral in Colombia, travel occurs quickly afterward.

5. Country Program Costs Vary

The last thing to consider is the overall cost of the country’s program. International adoption is not inexpensive, but it is important to understand that a lot of those costs go towards the support and care of the children in your child’s country of origin (be sure to check with your adoption agency for specifics on adoption costs per country as it varies). While adopting internationally may seem cost-prohibitive, know you will not have to pay all the fees at once. There are many adoption grants out there and ways to fundraise for your international adoption, and there is also the adoption tax credit to offset the costs of adopting.

In the end, we decided to move forward with the China program. We brought home our incredible son, a little over a year, and have been a forever family since 2015. Two years after that, we began the international adoption process again and brought home our daughter from India. The process in India was very different from our experience in China and a lot longer than we expected, but we have been a forever family of four since 2018. 

What country calls to you? How will you build your family through international adoption?

Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and “is this really us?!” whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at www.letterstojack.com.