Looking to Marry Your Partner Who Lives Overseas Anytime Soon? It's Not Going to Be Easy

Every morning at 4:30 a.m. Jake Rieke of Oregon phones Gretchen, his bride to be, and speaks to her for two hours before she falls asleep around 9 p.m. in her apartment on an island in Cebu, a province in the Philippines.

The couple were planning on marrying in the U.S. in May, though now the ceremony is on hold for at least six months, Gretchen being one of the hundreds — perhaps thousands — of unheralded victims forced to put her nuptials, and her new life in America, on hold due to the coronavirus.

Twenty-eight-year-old Gretchen, like an estimated 35,000 others who are betrothed to U.S. citizens each year, needs a K-1 visa — nicknamed the Fiancé Visa — to marry her beloved, but hasn't been able to get one as U.S. embassies have practically shut down worldwide and air travel has been severely limited due to the pandemic. Gretchen's best friend in the Philippines is in the same boat, as she's engaged to a friend of Rieke's who works for the same trucking firm in Oregon.

"I am really disappointed," said Rieke, 35. "Everything was already taking longer than I thought it would, and now I'm really antsy to get married."

Rieke, along with his buddy, Arthur Banning. were using RapidVisa to assist with the process for a fee of $429 apiece on top of the $535 government fee. The firm is the largest of its kind in the U.S. and CEO Ben Ives told Newsweek that the challenge of uniting future brides and grooms who live worlds apart from each other will only get worse due not only to the pandemic, but the economic destruction in its wake.

That's because President Donald Trump has invoked a "public charge" requirement that restricts K-1 visa applicants to those who will not be taking advantage of government subsidies, such as welfare and food stamps, on top of previous requirements that the bride or groom who is a U.S. citizen earn at least 100 percent of the poverty level, about $17,240 annually today.

"The problem now, is you got people laid off. If you're in the process of bringing a fiancé here, that's a real problem, especially with a recession coming," said Ives. "Even before this, due to the public-charge rule, we were seeing people who make $30,000 per year being challenged. The rule change means they can look at back taxes or credit scores to determine if their spouse will at any time in the future end up on public benefits."

While Rieke and his buddy don't expect to be affected by the public-charge provision, the wait alone is a hardship.

Ben Ives CEO RapidVisa
Ben Ives is the CEO of RapidVisa, which helps U.S. citizens marry their overseas partners. RapidVisa

Rieke met Gretchen two years ago on a dating website called InternationalCupid and on his third visit to Cebu he proposed. That was in August, and he was supposed to accompany Gretchen to the embassy in the Philippines in February to prove he had jumped through all the necessary hoops required for her to obtain her Fiancé Visa. "I had a head cold and a fever at the time and was told I'd be held in quarantine for 14 days on arrival or sent back home," he recalled, thus he canceled the trip.

Banning, 54, was planning to marry 47-year-old Emily, also from the Philippines, in the fall and was researching venues near his home in Oregon and in Reno, Nevada, though now he's eyeing next spring. "Isn't that messed up? I'm missing six months with my future wife because of coronavirus," said Banning.

"I visited her in February. She had been planning to be a nun before, and I wanted to be her first boyfriend she had on Valentine's Day. I'm the first one she had who held her hand and kissed her. We were making plans to start a family."

When he returned home, he was notified they had been approved for the next step: the embassy visit, but a couple of days later the Philippines shut down air travel, and she also suddenly had no access to a doctor for a mandatory physical exam. "It was heartbreaking. We had two days of bliss," said Banning.

Another challenge for couples going through the process is that time may run out for many of them who now qualify for the "face-to-face" requirement, whereby obtaining a K-1 visa dictates that the couple needs to have been physically together in the past 24 months, said Ives. "They have to show proof. All of these requirements are going to cause a large backlog. Some will have to make plans for an additional visit," he said.

Xiao Wang, CEO of Boundless Immigration, also points out that medical exams expire in six months. "They typically cost several hundreds of dollars and you see people pressing up against this deadline, too, so they'll have to spend more money for another exam."

That Rieke and Banning both met their intended brides at a dating site isn't unusual, as Ives said that 60 percent of international couples meet over the Internet — some even while playing online games. "I'm a kind of fat guy, and I couldn't find anyone interested in a long-haul truck driver because we're always gone. So, for the fun of it, I put my profile on an international site," said Rieke.

Ives, too, went a similar route. "I chose to look for a partner in the Philippines because while I was in the U.S. Air Force I had met many guys who were stationed there, married local girls and always seemed to be bragging about how great they were. They were right," he said.

When Ives discovered that there was no place online to go for help with a K-1 visa, he created RapidVisa, which launched 11 years ago and now handles the process for about 14 percent of those who seek a Fiance' Visa.

The K-1 visa, which mandates the engaged partner marry the U.S. citizen within 90 days of arrival, was established on April 7, 1970 and was designed to help U.S. soldiers legally bring home and marry women whom they fell in love with while fighting the Vietnam War.

"That's ironic," said Ives. "On the 50th anniversary of the visa, you couldn't actually get one."