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How to Adopt a Child | Step 1: Domestic vs International Adoption

Different families enter the adoption process at different places. There is no universal starting line.

Some enter at, “We want to be a multiethnic family,” or, “We know a young woman that we want to partner with.” And that’s great.

Some enter, like ours did, at, “We want a child,” and for those families the gap to getting started on the adoption journey is biggest. Because those families are still trying to find a starting line.

If that’s you, your starting line is here: Domestic or International Adoption? That’s your first decision.

Table of contents:


Step 1: Domestic, Foster Care, or International

Step 2: Choose a Country to Adopt From

Step 3: Choose an Adoption Agency

Step 4: Adoption Fundraising Tips and Ideas

Step 5: A List of Adoption Grants

The Adoption Journey Starting Line

I realize now that this seems odd to people familiar with the world of adoption, but we didn’t even know that this was the first decision we had to make. We just wanted a toddler, and we didn’t really care if he came from Nevada or China. I guess I thought I could sign up with an adoption agency and they would just find one for me—from wherever—but it doesn’t work like that.

The first fork in the road is deciding which race you’re even going to run.

Option A: Domestic Adoption

I can’t tell you a whole lot about this option, but there are lots of people who can and they’re only a Google away. I can tell you this:

  • Domestic adoption is much more affordable than international adoption. There will be lawyer fees or agency fees, and probably other fees that I’m not aware of, but the total is much smaller overall.
  • Domestic adoption is really the only way to adopt an infant. The domestic adoption process matches adoptive families with pregnant birth mothers (and it’s ultimately up to the birth mother to choose the adopting couple or family).
  • Domestic adoption is generally faster than international adoption. Once a family is matched with a birth mother there is, obviously, a very limited wait time. Except in circumstances where birth mothers change their minds about giving up a baby, a domestic adoption is generally completed within a year.
  • Domestic adoption is open or semi-open these days, which means the child’s birth/first mother and/or family will always be a part of your lives. Closed domestic adoptions—where the birth family has no contact or information about the child—are very rare, and generally discouraged by the adoption community on the basis of what’s best for the child.
  • Adopting a child older than a newborn means adopting out of the foster care system. Foster care is state-run, so that process will be different everywhere, but as the general goal of foster care is to eventually reunite families, younger children tend not to be free for permanent adoption. Older children can be adopted more easily. Adopting a toddler from foster care generally means starting your relationship as a foster family with an uncertain future.

Option B: International Adoption

International adoption journeys vary dramatically depending on which country you adopt from (yes, that’s your next decision), but in general:

  • International adoption is expensive. There’s really no way around it. Even the estimated price tag will vary depending on the country from which you adopt, but plan on tens of thousands of dollars.
  • International adoption takes time. Again, this varies dramatically depending on the country program you choose, but the fastest international adoption processes start at 12 to 18 months. Others take years.
  • International adoption is closed. Most children in international orphanages were anonymously given up, so there is no way to know about their family history. That has emotional implications for the child as he/she grows. It also brings with it immediate and long-term implications related to the lack of information about pregnancy, labor, and delivery, as well as family medical history.
  • International adoption is especially uncertain, as any number of international or domestic crises, natural disasters, policy changes, diplomatic failures, etc., could have unknown consequences for the adoption community.
  • International adoptees usually have at least a minor medical need. Again, this varies widely, as some country programs consider things like low birth weight and eczema “special needs,” but it is a consideration.

Domestic vs. International Adoption

It’s a lot to think about.

There may be (hopefully) one condition or circumstance that makes the decision for you. For our family, it was the age factor. We wanted to adopt a toddler and our house was too small to license for foster care, so the only remaining option was international adoption. The reverse is true for other families: They really want a newborn, so domestic adoption is right for them. For others the issue of open vs closed, or the financial considerations, might be non-negotiable.

Open vs closed adoption tends to be the most commonly unforeseen factor in deciding between domestic and international adoption. Many families may not realize that in most domestic adoptions today, you are not only adopting a newborn: you are also accepting the birth parent into your life – potentially a big part! It can be a beautiful thing but certainly has its challenges.

Because the children in international adoption are abandoned or fully relinquished, there is typically no birth parent involved (until maybe the child is an adult). — Madelyn Pierce, AWAA

If none of that resonates, then talk with your spouse about what you both want, and prioritize the list. Maybe you’d prefer an international adoption, but the expense is more than you want to deal with. Maybe you’d prefer an infant, but just don’t think you could handle an open-adoption situation.

It’s a lot to think about, but as you start to go through the options, you’ll discover which route is right for your family.

If you decide that domestic adoption is the right path for your family, then I hug you and send you on your way. You’ll need an attorney or an agency next (probably), so ask your Facebook crew for recommendations or start Googling. Please please don’t try to do it without legal representation, though. Because that’s not adoption; that’s human trafficking.

Step 2: Choose a Country to Adopt From →