Are Mail Order Brides Legal?

DISCLAIMER: This article is our attempt to fairly address this issue. It is not legal advice. We are not lawyers! You know that because we are not charging you anything, so this is not legal advice, and you don’t owe us $769!

“Are mail order brides legal?” is a question we get regularly because the entire concept of mail order brides has been so tarnished by uniformed and often dishonest critics who constantly compare international dating to human trafficking and sex slavery. 

Of course, the professors who actually study mail order brides, often interviewing men, women, and employees of agencies, almost universally find that the relationships that develop on international dating sites are good for the men and great for the women

But, of course, people remember scandalous charges of horrible crimes not the truth of thousands of happy couple going to PTA meetings and playing bridge on Wednesday nights, so people keep asking us, “Are mail order brides are legal?”

The simple answer is, “Yes!” Mail order brides are legal…

…well almost everywhere. 

And, this is a legal question and like all legal questions there really are no simple answers.

Define Mail Order Bride

First, we need to define our terms. You cannot simply look in a catalog or an online website and buy a woman.  That would be slavery. That does not happen and in fact, that was never a regular feature of the industry – not among mainstream culture.  

Historically, mail order brides always had a legal veto if the man they traveled to meet did not meet their standards or there was simply no chemistry.

One apparent exception was some Chinese and Japanese brides in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  They mostly came to marry immigrants from their home country and they seem to have more or less been in this situation.  But this lack of free will seems to have largely mirrored the courting rituals at the time in China and Japan.

But that is all history.

And, in fact, restrictions on legitimate mail order bride agencies actually foster the trafficking of women and girls.

Today, at least in Western countries, the term mail order bride is synonymous with international dating.  It means that the sites basically help women from less economically developed countries in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe meet men from more developed countries. 

Most men are from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but men also sign up from Norway, Germany, Switzerland, France, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore. Basically, any country with a stable government and a high standard of living.      

Most of the mail order brides come from the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam in Asia.  Modern international dating really started in Russia and Ukraine in the 1990s and many women in those countries still sign up. 

In Latin America Colombia, Costa Rica, and Peru all have lots of women who want to sign up to meet foreign men.

But everyone involved is acting of their own free will. The dating agencies are obsessive about this because the penalty for human trafficking is severe

No one running a dating agency is going to risk spending decades in prison – particularly if they are residents of the United States or another Western nation. 

Confusing Human Trafficking and Mail Order Brides

This is not to say that human trafficking does not exist.  It is a tragedy, a despicable practice that deserves to be punished to the maximum extent of the law, but it has nothing to do with the modern mail order bride industry. 

And, in fact, restrictions on legitimate mail order bride agencies actually foster the trafficking of women and girls.

Criminal gangs regularly smuggle women into the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. This criminal enterprise is widespread and complicated.

Human traffickers hide within the existing legal immigration flow and generally operate in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations. 

Nearly, all of the gangsters organizing the trade within the United States are themselves immigrants from the very countries where the women are coming from because that is where they have contacts. 

The ACLU notes that…

The majority of trafficking cases in the U.S. have been reported in New York, California, and Florida, states with high concentrations of immigrants. 

ACLU

Because sadly, slavery is common in huge swaths of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.  According to the Global Slavery Index…

An estimated 40.3 million men, women, and children were victims of modern slavery on any given day in 2016. Of these, 24.9 million people were in forced labour and 15.4 million people were living in a forced marriage.  

Global Slavery Index

But those forced marriages are not because of mail order bride agencies.  Nearly, all forced marriages occur within cultures where that is the cultural norm, particularly in India, Pakistan, and large parts of Africa.  Or in many cases, among immigrants from these countries living in the United States or Western Europe.

But again, none of this has anything to the modern mail order bride movement or international dating more generally, and, in fact, the most active centers of human trafficking are all in countries where international dating is weak or non-existent.  

In Europe both Romania and Albania are centers of sex trafficking and those are also two countries without much in the way of international matchmaking. 

On the other hand, Russia and Ukraine, with robust international dating and matchmaking infrastructure have significantly fewer problems today with sex trafficking.   

First, the most of the local matchmakers are really trying to help the young women in their communities, so they really know what is going on and are in a position to help the police stop human trafficking schemes. 

And for those cynics that doubt the ethical nature of the matchmakers, it is also worth remembering that they have a strong economic incentive to run respectable business and report anything they hear about sex trafficking.  This makes it much harder for criminal gangs to operate. 

Second, mail order bride agencies give women the opportunity to better their lives without risking the sort of criminal traps that ensnare so many women in countries where international dating is not an option.  This has been shown in numerous academic studies over the years. 

So, if activists really wanted to help limit sex trafficking and improve the lives of women around the world, they would encourage international dating.  But that is probably not going to happen.

Laws Against Mail Order Brides

So, under pressure from anti-mail order bride activists and often businesses exploiting women, a few countries have passed laws to ban or restrict the mail order bride industry.  While other countries have passed laws that do not mention mail order brides but instead make it more difficult for anyone in their country to marry a foreigner. 

Mail Order Bride Laws in The Philippines

Filipina bride and foreigner man and Philippine law

On paper the country with the strictest laws against mail order brides is undoubtedly the Philippines. 

In 1990 it passed a law that made it illegal, “To establish or carry on a business which has for its purpose the matching of Filipino women for marriage to foreign nationals either on a mail-order basis or through personal introduction.” 

However, that law was rarely enforced and in 2016 the Philippines pasted a new law with a sentence of up to twenty years in prison for violators.

The 2016 law was specifically aimed at Chinese, South Korean, and Taiwanese criminal gangs who actually sell women to men in these countries. 

But because millions of Filipinas travel all over the world to work as nurses, maids, and factory workers every year this law is probably going to be equally difficult to enforce. 

Oddly, it did not make internet dating sites illegal, but to most Americans or Europeans these internet dating sites are mail order bride sites.  

One strange result of all of this is that the only international dating agency to operate legally and openly in the Philippines is A Foreign Affair

That is one more example of the exemplary nature of AFA in the business.  They really are in a class by themselves, but it is also something to remember if you are ever offered a tour or introduction by any other company in the Philippines except A Foreign Affair.

Mail Order Bride Laws in Belarus

Belarus restricted international dating agencies in 2005.  This did not occur because of any concern about the fate of the women, but because of the government’s concern that Belarus was being depleted of its childbearing women.  

These restrictions began to be relaxed in about 2015 and apparently are going to be removed sometime soon, but Belarus is still one of the least visited countries in Eastern Europe.

Laos and Cambodia Mail Order Bride Laws

Both Laos and Cambodia have also passed similar laws. 

In Laos, a foreigner must pass a financial background check before he is allowed to marry a Laotian girl and in Cambodia, there is an age limit. The foreign man cannot be older than the age of fifty.

Neither of these laws appears to have been passed to protect the local women as much as efforts to protect the national economies, and perhaps assuage the ego of local men.  Still, it is a pretty good reason to scratch Cambodia and Laos off of your travel itinerary.

Immigration Laws

books about immigration law and a gavel

So, with the exception of cases mentioned above mail order brides are not illegal, but in many countries, there are special immigration rules that you must follow. 

For the most part, these rules are not going to stop you from actually bringing a mail order bride back to your country, but they are going to slow the immigration process down.  It is a hassle, but it is not the end of the world.

IMBRA

IMBRA

The most important of mail order bride law is the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act or IMBRA which the United States enacted in 2005.

Obviously, IMBRA is the law for Americans, but it has also been followed as a model for other nations who have decided to pass laws aimed at helping protect immigrant brides.

It is so important that we have written a long, detailed article on it:  Understanding IMBRA: What Is It And Why Does It Matter?   If you are American you need to read it.

We have also written articles for men from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.  Here are those articles:

On some level, all of these laws were written to address a problem no more common among international brides than among women in general, but the truth is none of these women should have to face abuse at the hands of a jerk. So, try to remember that while you are filling out all of the extra forms involved.

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