Can a Single Parent Take a Child Abroad? [With & Without Consent]

Few things are as amazing as international travel. Unfortunately, it is one more thing that is more challenging for single parents. Avoid the threat of an Interpol arrest hanging over them as they check out the Eiffel Tower, by making sure you are complying with US and international laws.

To take a child abroad, single parents need the other parent’s permission or custody order that permits the proposed travel. A custody order that allocates sole decision-making to the single parent will also be sufficient.

Single parents may not take a child abroad to thwart the other parent’s time with the child. Doing so is a felony. 

Read on to learn about the many laws in place that single parents must comply with when taking their child to another country. We also tackle the issues that single parents without custody orders may encounter when traveling internationally.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for legal advice. Please consult a licensed attorney in your state if you have questions or believe you have a legal situation.

Can a Single Parent Take a Child Abroad?

Whether a single parent can take a child abroad is 100 percent dependent on the existence of a custody order for that child. If a child is subject to any type of custody order, check the terms of that order before investing too much time on TripAdvisor. 

A single parent without a custody order also experiences unique challenges with obtaining a passport. Because of these differences, this article addresses traveling with and without a custody order separately.

Traveling with a Custody Order is Subject to That Order

Most child custody orders have either default language or a customized section regarding travel outside of a certain radius. Either way, just about every custody order will address long-distance travel. 

Remember, custody orders come from divorce cases, cases for never-married parents, and through some child support cases. Even if the case is not yet completed, travel restrictions will apply.

A single parent planning to take their child abroad must follow the terms of the custody order when doing so. Violating the custody order can subject the parent to kidnapping allegations. 

When consulting their specific custody order, a single parent should look to see what restrictions it places on travel. Usually, the order specifies how far the parent can travel with the child without giving notice to the other parent.

That radius where travel is permitted without notice or permission may be as small as a few counties. Orders that limit travel within the state are more common.

Each state uses its own standard language regarding travel in custody orders. For example, here is the language in Colorado’s default parenting plan:

“The parties agree that should either of them require out-of-state or any type of overnight travel with the child(ren), each party will inform the other party of such travel and vacation plans, including notice and contact information.”

Of course, when going through the court process, many families modify that default language to make it more or less restrictive. Parents who trust each other and who each have family in other countries may not put any caveats on international travel.

Because of the many family situations the court sees, each person should be familiar with the contents of their court order. No one standard order fits every family’s needs, so that court may tailor yours in a way that impacts travel.

Expect Passport Challenges without a Custody Order

Many parents assume international travel will be easier if the other parent is not in the picture or if they do not have a custody order. After all, that makes one less hoop to jump through, right?

Unfortunately, single parents often run into an unwelcome surprise when preparing for international travel: inability or difficulty getting the child a passport. Some parents actually end up filing a custody case just to get an order authorizing them to get a passport.

The challenge arises when two parents are named on the birth certificate but only one is in the picture. The U.S. State Department requires that both parents consent to the passport application. 

Single moms in particular live with this day-to-day reality of being the only parent around to make decisions and provide for their child. After spending years being the only one there for their kid, it is a shock to be unable to unilaterally get a passport for the child. 

A Custody Order May Be Needed to Obtain a Passport

Ideally, the other parent can just sign a consent statement, and the application process can proceed as usual. If the other parent’s location is unknown, the applying parent uses a form for exigent circumstances.

Unfortunately, the exigent circumstances form is not a standalone request. Parents have to submit supplementary documents like an incarceration order or restraining order with it. If these things are not available, and the father is just not around, the state department will need to see a custody order. 

So, whether the father is an absent parent or whether he refuses to consent to the passport application, the mother needs to open a custody case. In that case, she can request sole decision-making authority regarding travel. The court can also issue an order that specifically gives her permission to obtain a passport for the child.

If you think you will be unable to get the father’s consent statement, plan to start the passport process well before you intend to travel. The custody case will tack on several months into the process. 

In situations, whether you cannot find the father for personal service, you will have to publish a notice to him in the newspaper. This adds on several additional weeks or months. 

Do I Need Father’s Permission to Take the Child Abroad?

If a single mother wants to take her child out of the country, but the father does not consent, she can expect one of two things. First, if they already have custody orders, the father can file a request for a court order to prohibit the travel. Second, if there is no custody case, the father can file one to try to prevent the trip. 

Both of these scenarios put the pressure to act on the father rather than the mother. Keep in mind that the wording of your specific court order may require specific action from the parent who wants to travel. 

The court can also issue orders that place the onus to act on the parent who wants to do something outside of the constraints of the order. This type of clause is most often seen in high-conflict parental relationships.  

Each parent has the ability to travel freely with the child if there are no custody orders to the contrary. The exception to this is when the travel is done to prevent the other parent from exercising parenting time with the child. This is discussed in more detail below.

What Happens If the Other Parent Refuses to Consent?

A parent may take a child abroad without the other parent’s permission if the traveling parent has:

1) the court’s authorization for the travel, or

2) the court grants the traveling parent sole decision-making authority regarding travel.

Taking a child out of the country with the intent to obstruct the other parent’s parenting time is a federal crime. Any parent who does so may be prosecuted under the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act of 1993.

Then, via a series of uniform state laws, federal laws, and international treaties, either parent can enforce custody orders throughout the country and even the world. 

How to Prevent Unauthorized International Travel?

Anyone concerned about their child being taken on unauthorized international travel does have some options. 

First, sign up for the Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program. The State Department will attempt to contact you if anyone submits a passport application for your child after you enroll in this program.

Second, state courts can also issue abduction prevention orders. Abduction prevention orders make findings that the child is at risk of being kidnapped by the other parent.

The court then place restrictions on that other parent to ensure the child remains in the state or country. File an abduction prevention request in the court that issued or has jurisdiction to issue a custody order for your child

According to the Uniform Child Abduction Prevention Act, some signs that a parent may be preparing to abduct their child include:

  • Quitting their job;
  • Selling or liquidating assets;
  • Purchasing one-way plane tickets;
  • Threatening abduction; and
  • Previous abductions or attempted abductions.

What Happens if Both Parents Cannot Agree About Travel?

The court settles the issue for the parents if they cannot reach a consensus about international travel. The court gets involved when either parent files a motion asking the court to do something about the proposed travel. 

When determining what to do, the court will consider several factors, including:

  • Does the proposed travel interfere with the other parent’s scheduled time?
  • Is the travel time-sensitive, such as for a family event?
  • Are there concerns about the parent failing to return the child?
  • Is the trip safe for the child?

When making decisions like this, the court also applies the ‘best interests of the child’ standard.

Final Words

The web of state, federal, and international laws provide protections to children and the parents from whom they may be taken. Single parents can take their children on well-intentioned trips providing they have the court’s or other parent’s permission.