International Adoption has been a popular way to adopt for several decades. With about a million and a half adoptions taking place in the U.S. each year, the twenty thousand children adopted internationally seems like a modest portion, but those twenty thousand children are not only the most important thing in their parents’ lives, they are also a big piece of the adoption puzzle.

But the phrase “international adoption” is a bit of a misnomer, because in many cases the children who come to the U.S. from overseas are not actually adopted when they come home. Therefore, it is important to understand the international adoption process to ensure that your child has the protection that is critically important for their legal safety.

In some cases, parents actually adopt their child through an adoption proceeding in the foreign country. However, that is not always true. There are many countries where children are placed with their adopting parents in a form of permanent guardianship. While the legal relationship between the adopting parents and the child is permanent and like an adoption, it is not in fact an adoption under U.S. law. Any child adopted thorugh a guardianship process in the foreign country (as is done with Korean and Moroccan adoptions, for example) must. be readopted in the U.S. Without the readoption, the parents’ legal relationship with the child is not cemented under U.S. law. Moreover, the child will not be a U.S. citizen until that adoption is completed.

In addition, the type of visa issued to the child before he or she is brought home will also determine whether the child is adopted under U.S. law. Under U.S. law, if all of the adopting parents (both of a married couple or just the single person) travel to the foreign country and see the child before the final decree of adoption is issued in that country, the child will be issued an IR-3 visa by the U.S. Embassy in that country. This is a requirement in some countries (such as Russia) but it is optional in many other countries (such as China). If the child is issued an IR-3 visa, the parents are not required to readopt because the overseas adoption was “full and final” under U.S. law. Furthermore, if a child travels on an IR-3 visa, he or she automatically becomes a U.S. citizen immediately upon entrance to the U.S. (In fact, a certificate of citizenship will be sent automatically to the family within about a few months without any fee).

Thus, both of these factors — a completed adoption in the foreign country and finalization of U.S. citizenship — have to be met before adopting parents can think that a U.S. readoption is optional. If either is not in place, readoption is required. In other words, if the foreign country issues an order of guardianship, the child must be adopted in the U.S. even if both parents saw the child before the guardianship was issued. And even if the foreign country issues a final adoption decree, rather than a guardianship, but both of the adopting parents did not see the child before the adoption was finalized there (as is often the case with Guatemalan adoptions, for example), the child will receive an IR-4 visa and the child must be readopted in the U.S. Any parent with a child who came to the U.S. under an IR-4 visa must readopt the child, because the U.S. government does not consider the child to have had a “full and final” adoption. This means not only that the parent-child relationship is not fully recognized under U.S. law, but it also means that the child is not a U.S. citizen. The child will become a U.S. citizen when adopted in the U.S., but it is a slightly more complicated process because the adopting parents will have to use the N-600 form to apply for a certificate of citizenship for the child, for which a fee must be paid.

Even if you are not required to do a readoption, you may choose to do one anyway because it allows you to get a new state-issued birth certificate for your child, with your names on it as the child’s parents. Given the frequency with which birth certificates must be presented, having one in English with your names on it as the “original” parents can simplify your life. (Even if you do not do a readoption, you should still seek a certificate of foreign birth for your child if possible.) Not only is the U.S. birth certificate more useful for those reasons, but it also will omit information which may appear on the original birth certificate that you may not want to share publicly, such as the fact that the child was classified as an orphan because she was abandoned by unknown parents.