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Lesson 7 of 7

International or Intercountry Adoption 101

Video Lesson

Written Lesson

Quick Summary

Intercountry adoption is the adoption of a child from a country other than your own. Often, far less information is available about the child and family of origin than if you were adopting domestically. Another important point: There are very few infants available for adoption through this route, and most have special needs at some level.

While timelines and costs generally track domestic infant adoption in the United States, the duration of the process and fees involved are far higher in some cases.

Furthermore, it is usually significantly harder – and sometimes impossible – for single or LGBTQ people to adopt from most other countries.

In this chapter, we’ll provide a brief overview of what to consider when thinking through international adoption.

Waning Popularity of Intercountry Adoption

The rate of intercountry adoption has dropped dramatically from its peak around 2005-2006. Simultaneously (or relatedly), the number of US domestic adoptions from foster care during this same period have climbed.

There are a number of reasons for the decline in intercountry adoptions, from political ones, such as Russia halting all adoptions to the US; to allegations of malfeasance, as was the case in Guatemala; to shifting internal realities like China’s decision to reverse its one-child policy. Many countries, such as Korea, have also decided over time to bolster domestic adoption within their own borders and/or to stamp out “unethical adoptions.”

In many countries, the hurdles to intercountry adoption have been raised, and as you’ll see, the profile of children being adopted today are very different than they were just a decade ago.

While it may seem like there are a dizzying number of countries from which to adopt, the reality is that 90% of intercountry adoptions into the US are from eight sending countries: China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nigeria, South Korea, and Ukraine.

While it’s generally true that intercountry adoptions into the United States are down, as you can see from the data below, that’s not the case for each “sending” country. Adoptions from Colombia, India, and Nigeria have increased (and in the case of India, dramatically) over the last half decade – though not nearly enough to compensate for the steep declines from Russia, China, Korea, and Guatemala over that time.


The fees associated with adoption can vary greatly depending on the country from which you adopt. In addition, many countries require at least one of the adoptive parents to stay in the country for a length of time before flying home with their child. So the cost of adopting from South Korea, for instance, can be much higher because it mandates a longer stay than some others.

How the adoption is finalized also varies from country to country, though this part of the process is slightly standardized and streamlined when “sending” countries are party to the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (more on that below). In some cases you may complete and finalize the paperwork in the child’s home country, while in others you may finalize the adoption in the United States.

Immigration, visa, and passport requirements to bring the child home and obtain US citizenship will also vary depending on the country. Having a lawyer and reputable agency to guide you through the process is crucial.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency must approve all intercountry adoptions. USCIS requires prospective adoptive parents to be US citizens and, if unmarried, they must be at least 25 years old when filing the petition to adopt. Married individuals have no age requirement, and citizenship is only required for one spouse.

Demographics and Special Needs

As you can see in the data below, the vast majority of intercountry adoptions involve children ages 1 to 4 years old. Americans seldom adopt an infant or child over age 5 from another country.

This represents a major shift: as late as 2003, nearly 50% of all intercountry adoptions to the US involved children under the age of 1; today that ratio is approaching single digits.

In addition, many intercountry adoptions involve children who have lived in an institution and/or have suffered from early-life trauma, which means they have resulting (small or large) special needs. For parents who adopt from abroad, having medical professionals in place to make a diagnosis and treatment plan is critical.

Most studies that compare children who have been institutionalized to those who never have been show a difference in motor skills, strength, and coordination. Below are data from one study of 250+ children living in Romania, published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

The degree to which such children “catch up” is a matter of debate and likely a function of the age and duration of institutionalization, as well as the characteristics being studied.

According to a survey of 1,000 parents who adopted from abroad, nearly half said their child had special needs. Below, we spell out the results in a flow chart. Of those parents with a child with special needs, roughly half got the diagnosis only after the adoption had been completed. Of those who received the diagnosis before the adoption, 42% were given at least one additional diagnosis when the child was brought home. So, in total, over a third of all parents adopting from abroad learned of a special need only after the adoption had been finalized.

Special Needs and International Adoption

Hague Convention

If you consider intercountry adoption, you’ll hear a lot about the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (which actually has a much longer name). Effectively, it’s an agreement to safeguard the rights and well-being of children adopted internationally. The intent is to promote them being raised in their country of origin when possible; to protect them from abduction, sale, or trafficking; and to ensure the adoption process is legal and ethical.

The Hague Convention establishes requirements for agencies facilitating international adoptions and regulates ethical adoption practices. To some extent, it also makes the process more uniform and predictable for those adopting from countries that sign onto it (see the list here)

To adopt from a convention member country, you must use an accredited agency that will be solely responsible for handling a number of delineated services and tasks.

Transracial and Transcultural Factors

Nearly 84% of intercountry adoptions are transracial. The top 10 “receiving” countries have majority white/Western European populations, while the top “sending” countries (Ukraine being an exception) are primarily populated by people of color or mixed heritage. Parenting a transracially adopted child requires special consideration for their needs which we address in our earlier lesson on transracial adoption.

Single and LGBTQ Parents

All countries designate who can (and therefore who cannot) adopt their children. A small number permit single adults to adopt and even fewer allow LGBT individuals or couples to do so.

By comparison, you can reference our earlier lessons on domestic adoption for single and LGBTQ individuals, the foster process for both groups, and our fertility courses for lesbian women and gay men.