When foreign nationals seek U.S. visas or green cards as the spouses of either U.S. citizens, permanent residents, or other persons with qualifying legal status, they are required to establish the validity of their marriage for immigration purposes. But that can be tricky when the ceremony was a religious one, or done in accordance with ethnic tradition, but never registered with any civic authorities.
This article describes the steps needed to determine whether a religious or traditional marriage ceremony had legal effect in the country where it was performed, and when, as a result, alternative forms of evidence (such as clerical records and personal affidavits) can be substituted for civil marriage records.
To prove a legal marriage, people usually submit a marriage certificate—a civil record obtained from the government of the place where the marriage took place. That usually comports with the laws of the country where the marriage took place, and the U.S. government therefore asks for copies of these documents.
A religious or traditional marriage will be valid for U.S. immigration purposes if— among other conditions—it was recognized under the law of the place where it was formed at the time when it was formed. (Other notable conditions—which fall outside the scope of this article—include that the marriage was formed in the physical presence of both spouses, that neither spouse was underage or married to anyone else at the time when the marriage was formed, and that the spouses are not closely related by blood.)
Although many countries continue to recognize religious or traditional marriage ceremonies, many others do not. To find out what any particular country's law, policy, or practice is on this issue, we must look at both the U.S. State Department's Reciprocity Tables and the country's relevant marriage laws.
The Reciprocity Tables (published on the State Department's website) are a compilation of country data relevant to U.S. visa applicants. This data includes (among other things) information on the availability of marriage records in different countries.
For example: As of February 2023, it indicates for Somalia that (because marriage certificates have long been unavailable there) applicants will be expected to submit a sworn affidavit by at least two people, done before a notary public, lawyer, or attorney, stating where the marriage took place, when it took place, and the full names of the two people marrying.
As a rule, if the Reciprocity Tables indicate that marriage records are available in the country where your marriage ceremony took place, you will be expected either to submit such records as primary evidence with your application for marriage-based admission to the U.S., or, at least, to provide an explanation for your inability to do so—possibly with a supporting letter from the country's relevant authority. (Note: Not knowing the law is never a good enough explanation for such failure.) If, however, as in the case of Somalia, the country's reciprocity page indicates that marriage records are unavailable, then secondary evidence including affidavits of marriage (sworn letters from family members and other persons attesting to the existence and circumstances of your marriage) should be submitted instead.
In addition, the Reciprocity Tables will sometimes (but not always) include specific information on the validity of religious or traditional marriages in different countries. For example: As of February 2023, for example, the Tables indicate that, although religious ceremonies are recognized in India (and clerical records might be available), this is not the case in Chile (where religious ceremonies are, nonetheless, frequently performed). As a result, when a church in India issues a marriage record, this document may be accepted by U.S. immigration authorities as sufficient evidence of the validity of a marriage. But a marriage record issued by a church in Chile will not be accepted for U.S. immigration purposes unless there is a good explanation why civil records cannot be submitted.
When the Reciprocity Tables do not state explicitly whether traditional or religious marriages are legal in a particular country, the next step is to consult the country's marriage laws—an exercise that can be difficult and require the assistance of an attorney.
If you think your religious or traditional marriage ceremony had no legal effect in the country where it was performed, then your main remaining option for marriage-based admission to the U.S. would be to hold a new marriage ceremony, this time making sure that it complies with local laws. However, especially if that option seems impractical, you should still consider hiring an immigration attorney to explore possible alternatives, based either on humanitarian arguments or new developments in U.S. law or policy.