In many parts of the world, it is culturally acceptable or normal to have more than one husband or wife. Under U.S. law, however, so-called "bigamy" (illegally marrying a second person while already married to the first) and "polygamy" (entering into multiple marriages at once, typically based on traditional or religious practices) are considered crimes. That creates problems for some foreign-born families seeking to come to the United States, whether as temporary ("nonimmigrant") visitors or as lawful permanent residents (green card holders).
This article will describe the barriers to U.S. entry caused by marriage to multiple spouses and possible ways to overcome them.
The difference between bigamy and polygamy isn't just a matter of the number of spouses.
Bigamy is ordinarily a criminal act, in which someone fails to get a divorce before marrying someone else. There's an element of secrecy or subterfuge, in which one spouse perhaps neglects to tell the other spouse or government authorities about the existing marriage. (See the Department of State's Foreign Affairs Manual at 9 FAM 302.12-2(B)(1) (U).)
By contrast, polygamy, or "plural marriage," is defined as the historical custom or religious practice of having more than one wife or husband simultaneously. Although the U.S. doesn't accept it, polygamy is often considered acceptable under the terms of the relevant culture or religion. It's typically consensual, with no deception involved; and it might be perfectly legal in the country where the marriages took place. (Note that having only two spouses could still be considered polygamy in this context.)
Both bigamy and polygamy are addressed by state law; each of the 50 American states makes both of them a crime. However, the states vary in whether they treat bigamy and polygamy as felonies or misdemeanors, and in what punishment they normally hand down.
You might know that in Utah, Mormons have a tradition of taking multiple wives. Although this is illegal there, the punishment, as of 2020, is minor; it's treated as an "infraction," much like a traffic ticket typically is. (See SB 102.)
In California, by contrast, bigamy is considered a "crime against nature," and is punishable by up to $10,000 in monetary fines and a jail sentence up to one year. (See California Penal Code §§ 281, 283.) And in Florida, bigamy is a third-degree felony, the penalty for which can include prison time of up to five years and a monetary fine of up to $5,000. (See Florida Statutes § 826.01.)
Although bigamy and polygamy have separate legal definitions, both create barriers to obtaining a temporary or permanent U.S. visa.
Bigamy itself is not a ground of inadmissibility for a U.S. visa. However, a conviction for, or even an admission that one committed bigamy, can still bar someone from receiving any type of U.S. visa, immigrant or nonimmigrant. That's because it could be considered a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT or CMT). (See 8 U.S.C. Section 1182(a)(2)(A)), one of the many crimes that can make visa applicants inadmissible.
Anyone seeking an immigrant visa (lawful permanent residence or a green card) who plans to come to the U.S. and practice polygamy is considered inadmissible (barred from U.S. entry). (See I.N.A. Section 212(a)(10)(A).) That's bar blocks more than people who currently have multiple spouses; it could even be applied to someone who plans to enter into multiple marriages. (It does not, however, bar people who simply believe in polygamy.)
This bar definitely means that requesting a marriage-based visa for more than one spouse in total will be impossible. But petitioning for one's first spouse, even if involved in a polygamous family, can be done, as discussed below.
This ground of inadmissibility doesn't only apply to marriage-based immigrant visas. It also means that someone coming to the U.S. on, for example, an employment-based immigrant visa or the diversity visa lottery cannot expect to bring multiple spouses along; despite the fact that a spouse and minor children are typically allowed to accompany immigrant visa holders as so-called "derivatives." One spouse (the first spouse) would be the limit.
The polygamy ground of inadmissibility does not specifically apply to applicants for nonimmigrant visas (temporary visas such as for B-2 visitors, F-1 students, and H-1B specialty workers). Nevertheless, you'll find a question about whether you plan to practice polygamy in the U.S. on one of the main State Department forms for nonimmigrant visas, the DS-160. Even if you're not barred from a visa on this basis, a "yes" answer could become a problem if you were to eventually apply for U.S. lawful permanent residence. (And answering dishonestly could be an even bigger problem; see a lawyer if you are struggling with how to answer this question.)
Again, planning to practice polygamy in the U.S. is not a bar to entering on a nonimmigrant (temporary) visa, because you will be here only on a limited-term basis. But what about actually bringing multiple spouses along? The law allows only one spouse into the United States as a "derivative" on the primary visa. Nevertheless, the U.S. consular officer who reviews the visa application actually has the power and discretion to approve additional spouse(s) for a B-2 visitor visa, if they are otherwise eligible and qualified. (See 9 FAM 302.12-2(B)(3).)
If you wish to come to the U.S. as an immigrant (with a green card) and are in a polygamous marriage, the legal paths to bringing more than one spouse along are quite limited. As the Foreign Affairs Manual makes clear, "No waiver is available for immigrant visa applicants ineligible under I.N.A. 212(a)(10)(A)" (that being the section of the law naming polygamy as a ground of inadmissibility).
As mentioned above, however, U.S. law does allow someone in a polygamous marriage to be granted U.S. residence along with their first spouse. (The U.S. State Department specifically says that in cases of polygamous marriages, "only the first spouse may qualify as a spouse for immigration.") The visa would only be issued with the understanding that any other spouses will be left behind and that you will maintain no active relationship with them. (See 9 FAM Section 302.12-2(B)(3).) The expectation seems to be that the person would give up their polygamous lifestyle in order to enter the United States.
Which children will be allowed to enter as accompanying immigrants is another question. Any children born of the first spouse in a polygamous marriage can qualify under the normal immigration definition of a child. (See how U.S. immigration law defines children at I.N.A. § 101(b).) Children of additional wives might be able to accompany a father if they qualify as "legitimated children" or "stepchildren."
For someone wishing to come to the U.S. as either an immigrant or nonimmigrant but with bigamy on record as a crime, you'd need to speak with an attorney. The issue will be whether there's a way to avoid being barred for having committed a crime of moral turpitude (CIMT).
If the issue is merely that you accidentally married without knowing that the previous marriage was still valid, and have not been convicted of a crime, you could potentially solve the situation by finalizing a divorce with the earlier spouse. That way, you would no longer be committing bigamy.
A waiver of inadmissibility (legal forgiveness) is also available for a CIMT. If applying for an immigrant visa, see Can a Crime Be Waived So I Can Get a Green Card?. If applying for a nonimmigrant visa, see Filing for an I-192 Waiver: "Forgiveness" of U.S. Inadmissibility.