Standing outside a glass door my husband grabs my hand. We look at each other, take a deep breath, then step inside to our first adoption fair. Lining the walls of the room are tables with country flags and pictures of smiling faces on countless brochures. We find a seat at the back and the presentation begins. For the next hour we receive a crash course in the adoption process. The speaker concludes by asking if there are any questions. I timidly raise my hand. “Can you speak about domestic adoption?” The woman smiles and says she can recommend a few agencies, but their agency specializes in international adoption.

In truth, up until that moment we had not considered international adoption. We spent the rest of the afternoon going from table to table and talking extensively to social workers and country program directors about the differences between domestic and international adoption. Here’s what we learned:

1. Age

Unlike domestic adoption, children adopted internationally tend to be older. Depending on the country of your choosing the age at referral can vary between 7 months to 2 – 4 years old. Older child adoption, children between the ages of 5 – 12, accounted for half of all international adoptions in 2016 according to the U.S. Department of State.

2. Medical Records

It is common to receive both the medical information and social background of the child and birth parents in domestic adoption. This can be helpful for families deciding what conditions, both in the child and in the child’s heritage, they might be open to (such as a family’s history of depression). In international adoption the information provided relates solely to the child. Such information, particularly from Hague Convention countries, can include birth weight, head circumference, growth reports, present medical conditions, and preliminary blood work.

3. Special Needs

Adopting a healthy baby through intercountry adoptions is no longer an option in most countries. Special needs, or “Waiting Child” adoption has been on the rise for years and wait times for these children can be significantly less. The term special needs varies, but for most children it refers to cases of mild, medically correctable needs–such as vision issues, cleft lip/palate, hearing issues, club foot, etc. Special needs may also refer to older children or sibling groups.

4. Open vs. Closed

While domestic adoption has the option to be either open (meaning the adoptive family and birth family choose to maintain contact) or closed, in international adoption most adoptions are closed. This is due to the fact that children available for adoption reside in orphanages or with in-country foster families who have no contact with the birth families. 

5. Referral to Placement Timeline

Just like with domestic adoption, there is a wait from being matched with a child to traveling to meet your child. Depending on when you are matched in the domestic process this wait could be as little as a few weeks or a few months. With international adoption, the wait from referral to placement is typically a longer process. The child’s country of origin, as well as the United States, must process the adopted child’s paperwork to rule if the child is eligible for adoption. Additionally, both the child’s country or origin and the U.S. must find the prospective parents to be suitable to care for a child.

6. Travel

Instead of traveling across the country to California to meet your child you could be traveling across the globe to China, India, or South Korea. This kind of travel comes with its own set of challenges–different languages, different foods, different cultural customs. For some this is an exciting prospect. For others a daunting trip.

7. Adopting a Whole Country

The biggest difference between domestic and international adoption is that when you adopt a child internationally you adopt a whole country. Your family will no longer celebrate just Christmas. You will celebrate Christmas and Diwali or Chinese New Year or Chuseok. You will find ways to incorporate a new country into your daily life through books, food, and cultural outings. You will learn, and come to love, a different country because that is your child’s cultural heritage. And in a weird, wonderful way all those customs will weave together to form your family’s new traditions.

We left that adoption fair knowing international adoption was right for us. We called our agency and signed up for the Waiting Child program in China. A year and a half later our son joined our family at 22 months old. When we decided to adopt again, we knew we wanted to go international. But this time from India!