What is a Sham Marriage?

G. Wiesen

A sham marriage is a marriage entered into for reasons other than romantic love. Such marriages can be formed out of a desire to hide unpopular personal lifestyles, to gain citizenship into a country, or in a traditional political marriage to unite disputing or disparate factions. This last type of sham marriage was especially popular in the Middle Ages when marriages between different royal families and nations could form stronger bonds and power centers throughout Europe. In many countries, sham marriages entered into for one person to gain citizenship in the country is illegal and can result in fines or deportation.

Sham marriages take place for reasons other than love.
Sham marriages take place for reasons other than love.

Though marriages among royal factions or bloodlines are rarer today than in the past, some forms of sham marriage have still remained in use. A sham marriage between a man and a woman, where one or both of them are homosexual, is often referred to as a lavender marriage. This type of marriage has been entered into by celebrities and actors, especially during the 20th century, to maintain a particular public image or imposed sense of decency. Since public regard toward homosexuality has often been negative and those who were openly homosexual have often been chastised or assaulted, some people who worked in the public eye had to hide their true orientation. American actor Rock Hudson is one of the most famous examples of a lavender marriage, when he married a woman at the insistence of the film studio he worked for.

Sham marriages are based on factors other than love, such as the desire to obtain U.S. citizenship or hide an unpopular lifestyle.
Sham marriages are based on factors other than love, such as the desire to obtain U.S. citizenship or hide an unpopular lifestyle.

A sham marriage can also sometimes be entered into to help an immigrant on temporary citizenship status remain in a country indefinitely. As these types of marriages became increasingly common, many countries around the world passed laws to prevent such practices or punish those who entered into them. In the United States (US), the Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments of 1986 imposed a 90-day review period following any marriage involving a person who is not a permanent US citizen.

Homosexual men have entered into sham marriages to hide their true sexual orientation.
Homosexual men have entered into sham marriages to hide their true sexual orientation.

For the first two years of a marriage that includes a non-citizen, the person only has conditional immigrant status in the US, and the married couple must prove the validity of their marriage to ensure full citizenship status for the person. In a sham marriage for citizenship, if the marriage is determined by the government to be invalid, the conditional immigrant status can be revoked and the person may be deported. Other countries have similar laws and penalties in place to try to ensure that marriage is not used as a loophole to gain citizenship.

Sham marriages typically benefit one or both of the parties involved.
Sham marriages typically benefit one or both of the parties involved.

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Discussion Comments


There was no such thing as marriage, much less sham marriage, in the Bible or in Europe until the romantic era. To this day, many (if not most) world marriages are not entered into for love, but instead for family or financial considerations.

If a marriage is indeed a sham, the couple should logically be barred from social benefits, whether inheritance, hospital visitation or income tax.

The whole idea of "sham marriage" is a sham, since love, sex, companionship, procreation, child-rearing, financial security, friendship and so on are individually independent of each other and of marriage, since all, any or none have always been present in legitimate marriages.


@AnswerMan, I don't mind hearing stories about sham marriages if they end up in a real marriage like your friend's. I just don't like hearing about people who take advantage of our laws in order to get things they haven't earned, like citizenship or a green card. Sham marriages for whatever reason are a mockery of real marriage. That's just what I think.


@RocketLanch8- I also knew someone who became a citizen by marriage, but all of us knew it was a fake marriage for her green card. Her husband was actually in on it, because he knew she wasn't doing well in her home country and really wanted to start a new life in the United States. They liked each other well enough, but I wouldn't say they were in love.

Everything was going well until they got called in for a marriage based green card interview. They spent weeks trying to learn everything about each other, like favorite colors and allergies and least favorite foods. If they didn't convince the interviewer it was a legitimate marriage, she would have been deported within a few days. They got to know each other very quickly.

Fortunately, the green card through marriage interview was short and to the point. The interviewer did grill both of them separately about each other's habits and interests and other intimate details, but all that preparation paid off. The marriage was declared legitimate, and she eventually got her green card.


I knew a woman from Germany who met an American soldier while he was stationed in Hamburg. When he found out he was going to be shipped back to the US, they got married in a civil ceremony in Germany. This made her eligible to travel with him to a base in Texas. I suspect it was a sham marriage from her point of view, because they got divorced a year later and she moved out of state. What she really wanted was a legal way into the United States, and a sham marriage to a US citizen was a common practice around Army bases overseas.

She managed to live under the radar for a long time, but she decided she wanted to visit her young daughter in Texas. The husband's parents had custodial rights, and they alerted the immigration office to her whereabouts. She was arrested, placed in an immigration holding cell and eventually deported to Germany. Once she became legally divorced, she was no longer considered a citizen in good standing.

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