A Tale of Two Foreigners – Getting Married In South Korea When Neither Of Us Were Korean

Note: This is a collaborative piece between my wife and I. So, we switch off in our telling of the story, in the use of pronouns and such. So, if you have any questions or confusion about this process, email me directly. james.r.moreau [at] gmail [dot] com

In the summer of 2015 I went on a date with a nerdy Master’s student from Vietnam, who like me, lived in Korea. She showed up an hour and a half late and demanded we eat something as fast as possible after I watcher her goofily saunter up the stairs from the subway. One year later, in August of 2016, I married her. I knew in my heart that this was my partner in life and the entire world and future looked wide and full of possibilities. This was both empowering and at times scary. But we figured out how to navigate the foreign bureaucracy for both of us to get officially and legally married while in Korea and then figure out where we’d go next and how we’d get there. We both knew that getting the paperwork together from our respective countries to get married would be just the beginning of a long, tiresome and stressful journey which would re-shape both of our perspectives on what it means to be “American” and yet something else.

Even with Donald Trump being elected president in the United States recently, I’ve still spoken with people from all over the world who have told me they would trade citizenships with me in a second of given the chance. They see with so much negative news about how emboldened racists harassing minorities still a country which offers the most opportunity to “make it” out of anywhere else on the planet. This is easy to take for granted. Even as someone who was born into a lower-middle class socio-economic setting within the United States, I sort of always felt that there was a certain level of upward mobility that I was entitled to in the U.S. Of course, as I grew up and lived in other places throughout the world, I’d realize that this was incredibly fortunate for me to even consider this, but that it is also something that I should analyze more carefully when I consider if and why I want to make a long term home for my wife and I in the U.S.

My wife has already been approved a green card to become a U.S. permanent resident, which is more or less a path to U.S. citizenship. We went through a rather expensive, drawn out, stressful and totally opaque process which, up until the moment we went in for her final interview, we weren’t sure if my wife would get approved or not. We had no reason to believe there was anything barring her from getting a green card, but we also got no real official or verifiable guidance along the way to make sure we were doing things right. We actually had to go back and forth to the embassy in Seoul several times because we were given conflicting information about what we needed to bring and when. Funny enough, our city-hall style wedding day was logistically the easiest step in the entire process, yet we were the most stressed out for that. I think we actually learned a lot about how we respond to stress based on the latter half of 2016 as we went through this process and we strengthened our relationship for the better because of it.

What’s more – we had each other throughout the entire ordeal, which made it much better and easier to deal with.

In a recent This American Life podcast titled “Abdi and the Golden Ticket,” they followed a Somali refugee living in Kenya who won a path to U.S. citizenship lottery. As they described his life as a refugee and how he almost wasn’t able to even get to the final stages of his visa interview because of how badly the Kenyans had been treating Somali refugees because of Al-Shabad associated terrorism. I got so choked up in the part of the story when Abdi finally got his last piece of paperwork together and was able to apply for the final interview. I think before I went through this process myself, I would have had a certain level of empathy for him, but now, as the husband of a U.S. immigrant, the concept of having so many people outside of the U.S. which value the opportunity that being a U.S. citizen offers is an incredible honor, yet a burden of conscience.

My wife and I have considered living elsewhere than the U.S. Canada has always been high on the list as has her motherland of Vietnam. Obviously no country is perfect and both of those places have their flaws, however, surprisingly we both had great luck finding jobs in the U.S. months in advance of even moving there. We will move to New York City in the Spring and I will continue to work for the company I’ve been working remotely for and she will begin work for a pharmaceutical company which has already hired her months in advance of her graduation date.

We sort of have the American Dream and we’re both full of excitement and some anxiety around it.

  • We’re afraid of the rat race destroying us. My wife and I have both been seriously affected by overworking ourselves in the past. We’re setting ourselves up in similar types of jobs as before, however, we’re both better equipped to deal with stress now. We’ve both prioritized our health in a physical and emotional sense through working out and meditation and active work towards bettering ourselves. We didn’t have that before when we got overwhelmed and we didn’t have support from others either – so this time may be different.
  • We’re afraid of being a bi-racial couple in the U.S. She’s afraid of being harassed for being a foreign looking person, even as a permanent resident. I’m afraid of what I might physically do to someone if I ever saw them disrespect my wife on the grounds of racist ideals.
  • We’re afraid of putting off a slower lifestyle indefinitely because of the allure of the great money we’re now making and probably will continue to make. So many times we’ve honestly looked at the option of going elsewhere in the world where our money would go much further and we could do more with less. Then again, what’s more colonial and privileged? Coasting on inflated currency or working within the economy which supports the success of that currency?

  • We’re afraid of getting priced out. New York is very expensive. We hope to not get locked into that geographic area, paying so much of our money every month just for the privilege of having our careers based out of there. We don’t want to pay all our money on health insurance, etc. We’d like our money to go further.

What we’ve realized and accepted collectively is that we’re both growing in some way in a positive direction by taking this next step towards living in the U.S. Whether we stay long enough for my wife to get her citizenship or if we wind up going elsewhere in the world to forge another path together, the fact remains that I am working on something I am passionate about right now and still have the bandwidth and desire to expand myself creatively along the way. My wife is still figuring out how she wants to express herself, but I know it’s a good form of growth for her to come back to her career in a sense of power, rather than desperation like she was in before. We’re both in a powerful spot that we don’t take for granted.

So how do we make good on this opportunity and enable ourselves to live the best and most positive lives possible? How can we affect the lives of others. I feel a debt of gratitude for making it through the process as we did, but I feel we must give back in some way to people who need it in the U.S. who are not as fortunate as we are who are also just looking to make positive strides in their own lives.

These are the questions we will continue to ponder moving forward as we stumble forward toward hope of a better life for everyone.  

For couples having the same situation like us, I also note here our paperwork procedures in Korea. Hope it will help and relieve some of your stress during the process.

  • During the dating time, remember to capture all your dating pictures and announce publicly  your special events like engagement, family visit…(this is not required in Korea and I did not use at all but to be extra prepared).
  • Schedule an appointment at the U.S embassy to consult how and what to do to get married ( I found it super helpful as I explained the consultant when my wife and I are expected to leave Korea. They will tell you exactly what to do and what should be expected). And here I also get my single certificate.
  • First step is getting married: I am a US citizen so I need to bring my passport, my single certificate and my ARC. My wife needs to bring her passport, her birth certificate (the copy and notarized English translation), her single certificate (the original and notarized English translation), her ARC. We came to City Hall (address…) to register. Oh and do not forget to bring 1000 KRW in cash. If you forget then there is a NH bank in the building also. They will bring you a form then have you signed, check your documents then issue a marriage certificate in 10 mins. After that you can go to take wedding picture in Hanbok (no fee).
  • After having the marriage certificate, go to translate it in English and notarize  (the certificate is in Korean, the fee is 50.000 KRW) then apostille. I sent our marriage certificate (the original one and the notarized English translation) and her supporting documents (house contract, student ID, ARC, score report at her graduate school here) to the U.S. embassy?
  • Within 3 weeks, she got an email from the U.S. embassy to prepare for visa interview. In this email, they will instruct you from step to step: go to have health check at one of five designate hospital in Korea (the fee is ~300.000 KRW), go to have criminal records (both in Korea and in Vietnam. As we planned to get married for awhile so when I came to visit her family, she applied for criminal records in Vietnam – remember to apply for form 1). Those are two major steps, and for me, I need to prepare financial affidavit for my wife. The affidavit needs to be wet ink signed. When you prepare all the documents, schedule the interview with the U.S. embassy. Prepare 325$ in cash to submit on the interview day. Prepare some documents related to financial sponsors in affidavit if you have (As my mom is joint financial sponsor for my wife, it required  my mom’s income tax in most recent years. Even it is not required, but you should also prepare your mom’s passport page copy, her birth certificate. I did not prepare these two documents so they required us to supplement later)
  • By the way the agency that the U.S.embassy uses in Korea sucks. Here is why: I called the agency to ask what should we do in the interview and should I come to the embassy with her. They said “No, she should go in herself”. However, when she came in the woman in the U.S embassy asked “where is your husband, he is supposed to be here with you”. Remember that we cannot bring any phone or any electronical devices into the U.S. embassy so she gave me all the devices and told me to go to cafe and wait. Luckily, when she ran out to find me, I standed right at the embassy’s gate and waited for her (The procedure can be longer than you expected, after 2 hour waiting, I felt worried that my wife could get lost (based on the fact that she did get lost several times since we dated :D). So remember that day bring your phone, your wife’s phone and the necessary documents (another story: as I thought I could not go in with her. I bought my laptop, everything I can so I can work while waiting for her at cafe. When it turned out that I need to come in with her, I need to find a locker room in subway station to keep my luggage. As we hurry to find a place, my wife realized she put all her things on the table in the U.S. embassy – money and documents. OMG T.T. Fortunately, all her belongings were safely returned to the security desk). Remember you and your wife need to be present on the interview day.
  • During the interview, they will ask you simple questions, just to check if your relationship is real. Then if your documents are all good, your wife’s visa will be sent back by courier within 5 days. If you miss any, they will list out and you will submit later. My wife got her visa back within 2 weeks I submitted the lacking document.
  • In total, we began the process from marriage in August to getting her visa in November without lawyer’s fee or consultant. The U.S. embassy’s instruction is pretty straightforward so we do not have really big difficulty during the process.


2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Foreigners – Getting Married In South Korea When Neither Of Us Were Korean”

  1. Maybe I didn’t read close enough,
    but for you, an American, to get married in Korea, you need to be interviewed at the U.S. embassy? Is this a Korean requirement?

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