How Many Mail-Order Brides?

By Robert J. Scholes April 1997

pp. 7-10 in Immigration Review no. 28, Spring 1997

The INS later published a version of this entitled "The 'Mail-Order Bride' Industry and Its Impact on U.S. Immigration"


"Heaven is having a Japanese wife, a Chinese cook, a British country home and an American salary. Hell, on the other hand, is having a Chinese salary, a British cook, a Japanese house and an American wife."

— Gary Clark, An Introduction to the "Penpal Bride" or so-called "Mail Order Bride" Movement, Copyright © 1995, available on line: www.upbeat.com/wtwpubs/intro.htm

While there is little demand among foreign men for American wives, there is a huge demand for American husbands. Thousands of foreign women are seeking husbands in the international bride market. Most of these women seem to prefer an American man if they can find one. American men are highly sought after because, compared with (what these women know about) the men in most countries, American men simply make better husbands.

At any one time, there are approximately 90 agencies offering the names, addresses, pictures, and short biographies of around 25,000 women who are looking for husbands. The women listed by these services are predominantly Filipino or Russian, but entries may be found from nearly every country of the world. Most of these agencies update their listings quarterly (some more often, some less), indicating that the annual number of women available as "mail-order brides" is in the neighborhood of 100,000.

According to the agencies themselves (in written replies to a 1996 questionnaire from the author) approximately 10 percent of these women are successful — they find and marry a man through the service. There are, then, around 10,000 marriages a year between women listed by these agencies and men who use the service; i.e., 10,000 mail-order marriages a year.

Of these 10,000, around 4,000 involve U.S. men. The remainder is distributed among Canadian, Australian, European and, increasingly, Japanese clients.

Who Are They?

An analysis of the listings in recent issues of five popular catalogs featuring 1,400 Asian women found that 70 percent were Filipino (despite the fact that Republic act No. 6955 makes such listings illegal), many of whom are "in-service" as domestic workers in other countries, 16 percent Indonesian, 8 percent Thai, 2 percent Malaysian and Japanese, and 1 percent Chinese and Korean. In terms of age, 20 percent are 16-20 years of age, 41 percent are 21-25, 24 percent are 26-30, 11 percent 31-35, and just 4 percent over the age of 35.

According to a report from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (see "Data from Filipino women and intermarriages" by Catherine Paredes-Maceda in Asian Migrant 8.4, 1995), mail-order brides constitute 10 percent of the marriages between Filipinos and foreign nationals. Between 1989 and 1994, 95,000 Filipino men and women were engaged to be married to foreigners, the great majority of whom met their partners through work or personal introductions. Of the foreign men who marry Filipinos, 44 percent are U.S. citizens.

On the basis of these data, it would appear that about 2,000 Filipino women find husbands each year through the agencies, 800 of whom marry Americans.

Based on published material from the agencies, similar numbers apply to women from Russia, Latin America, and other areas; i.e., 10 percent find husbands, of whom 40 to 50 percent are U.S. citizens.

Again, based largely on data supplied by the agencies themselves (along with the Commission on Filipinos Overseas report), marriages arranged through the mail-order services would appear to have a lower divorce rate than the nation as a whole, fully 80 percent of these marriages having lasted over the years for which reports are available.

The Reasons for Mail-Order Marriages

Why do foreign women want American husbands? Many sources suggest that the women are searching for a "better life" in terms of socio-economic factors — they do, for the most part, come from places in which jobs and educational opportunities for women are scarce and wages are low. However, when the women themselves are asked this question, the answer generally indicates an attraction to American men (they look like movie stars) and an aversion to native men. Americans, they say, "make good husbands" while Filipino (Thai / Indonesian / Russian / etc.) men do not. Americans are thought to be faithful and kind to their wives, while the native men are cruel and run around with other women. True or not, this is the perception.

Why do American men want foreign wives? Most of the personal reports from American men who have married women through these agencies talk about "traditional values." That is, that American women are not content to be wives and mothers, but seek personal satisfaction through their own careers and interests, while the foreign woman is happy to be the homemaker and asks for nothing more than husband, home, and family. Again, true or not, this is the perception.

I would like to suggest, however, other attractions to the "mail-order bride." For one, these girls tend to be younger (by an average of 15 years) than the man and slimmer and better-looking than most of the American women the man might have access to. Further, it should not be overlooked that there are few, if any, occasions where a man might browse several hundred American women — all of whom anxiously awaiting his attentions — from whom to select one or more candidates for his wife; and yet, that is exactly what is offered by the agencies.

It is interesting to note that these views on native and foreign men and women are not limited to the Occident — a similar attitude exists in Taiwan. According to "Taiwan Moves to Boost Women's Marriage Prospects" (The Associated Press, Aug. 30, 1996, by Annie Huang), many Taiwanese men prefer brides from other Asian countries because they feel Taiwanese women — who tend to be better educated and more affluent — expect too much from their husbands. Due to this attitude, Taiwan has imposed a limit on the number of brides from certain countries that can enter Taiwan each year — 360 from Indonesia, 420 from Burma and 1,080 from China. On the women's side, many of them are seeking Western men since, they say, Taiwanese men want to marry only hard-working, obedient drudges while Taiwanese women have discarded this traditional role and are seeking equality and mutual respect in marriage.

Impact on the United States

Clearly, an annual figure of 4,000 to 5,000 new Americans arriving via the "mail-order bride" route is a small figure compared to total immigration of more than one million. Moreover, these newcomers, unlike refugees and other immigrant groups who concentrate in specific urban areas, tend to be dispersed over a wide geographic range, further diminishing any impact they may have. Encounters International, for example, reports that the 53 couples who have married during the agency's three years of existence reside in 12 different states (none in California or New York).

Compared to the 40,000 to 50,000 annual marriages between Americans and foreign nationals where the couple met through other means (friends, travel, military, workplace, etc.), the "mail-order bride" source of new Americans is small. Nonetheless, this stream of women who would not otherwise be able to enter the United States may create future chain migration as they petition for parents or siblings. Also, the perception that these women have succeeded in dramatically improving their lives may encourage still more foreign women to seek this route into the United States.


Robert Scholes is a professor of linguistics at the University of Florida.