Mon. Apr 15th, 2024

To many Americans, the concept of mail-order brides conjures up thoughts of men looking to buy foreign brides in semi-legal, if not fully illegal, ways. But if any of them have actually talked to American men who have successfully met and wed a mail-order bride, they will learn differently.

Actually, mail-order brides have a long history in the US. So, first, we’re going to take a short look at the history of this activity in America, and then address the laws that are now in place to ensure that everything protects the brides and the husbands who want to meet and marry them.

A History of Mail-Order Brides in America

It would probably surprise you to know that the mail-order brides business goes all the way back to colonial America.

17th and 18th centuries

Jamestown was the first colony, and in 1620, The Virginia Company became concerned that men were deserting and marrying Native American women. And so, it arranged to have a bunch of women brought over from England. They were called “tobacco wives,” because each man who wanted a wife had to pay with 120 lbs. of tobacco.

France followed Jamestown’s lead, first in Canada and then Louisiana.

19th Century

Mail-order bride activity during the 19th century moved to the West because of two factors.

Asian Immigrants

Asian men who immigrated to the Western part of America. And so, Asian women came over too, entered the US without any papers or passports, and fulfilled the need for wives. Some legal changes came in the 20th century.

Migration of American Men to the West

The attraction of a sense of adventure and opportunity, along with the Gold Rush, took many European male settlers to the West. And of course, there was a shortage of women. The solution? They sent letters back home to churches and newspapers, asking them to advertise for them, often including photos. They then communicated with women via letter writing. If a woman decided to accept a proposal of marriage, she migrated west sight unseen.

Early 20th Century

The first regulations regarding mail-order brides came through the Japanese-American Passport Agreement in 1907. Wives of Japanese male immigrants were given passports to America, but single Japanese women were barred. To get around this, a system known as “picture brides” was put in place. These were catalogs with photos of Japanese women, and Japanese male immigrants could choose a bride from them. They paid a fee, and the “brokers” circumvented the system with marriage certificates, and the women were granted a passport.

Laws that restricted the number of immigrants began to be passed in the US. To circumvent these, foreign women began to respond to ads from American men looking for brides. The men could then travel to the country, marry the woman, and bring her home as his wife.

Later 20th Century

Faced with some serious incident reporting of foreign brides suffering abuse and some trafficking of minors, the US government got involved with laws regulating the mail-order bride industry.

While many of these relate to broker agencies, there are some that relate to all who provide this service, including online sites that do not involve brokers.


The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA) was passed by Congress in 2005. Most of these regulations relate to brokerage agencies which are for-profit organizations that find foreign brides for American men. Right now, there are well over 1,000 such agencies operating in the US.

If you use a brokerage agency, there will be an upfront fee for its services, and you will be required to jump through a number of hoops to meet the regulations outlined in the law.


You must disclose to USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) that you have used an IMB (International Marriage Brokerage) to find your wife. And you must name the agency so it can be checked for meeting IMBRA standards.

Background Checks

You must have a background check. If you have a criminal record, it must then be disclosed to your potential bride who is applying for a visa. If that record includes any sexual or violent crimes, you are automatically disqualified. You can apply for a waiver but don’t count on getting one – they are rare.

Limitations on the Number of K-1 Visas

A K-1 visa, also known as a fiancée visa, can only be applied for two times in a petitioner’s lifetime. This is obviously meant to prevent a man from doing this multiple times with multiple women just to give them entry into the U.S. And yes, there are men who used to make a living doing this.

This regulation doesn’t apply to spousal visas, though, so if a man marries a woman in her country, he can then bring her home on another visa type.

Using an Online Mail-Order Bride Platform is Different

When men decide to seek mail-order brides via an online website, such as, he is not subject to all of the regulations of using a broker.

Once a man has chosen his bride, he must apply for the K-1 visa to bring her home. This involves the application paperwork, a medical exam for her, and an interview to determine that she is genuinely planning to marry of her own free will.

The other legal requirement to obtain that visa is that the couple has been physically together within the past 90 days before applying for the visa.

From a legal standpoint, using an online mail-order website is much less of a hassle. 

That’s a Wrap

There are some more details in the IMBRA law than are summarized here. If you decide to use a brokerage, be certain that your representative explains all of the details that pertain to you. You don’t want to face any snags in the process. Otherwise, use an online mail-order platform and avoid some of the red tape.

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