Civil Unions and International Travel

Civil Unions and International Travel

By: M. Scott Gordon

Since 2011, same-sex couples in Chicago have been able to enter into civil unions under the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act (750 ILCS 75/). While the law makes clear that parties who enter into a civil union are “entitled to the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits as are afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses,” couples in civil unions nonetheless might encounter certain difficulties when traveling abroad. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in United States v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), same-sex marriages not only must be recognized throughout our country regardless of the state in which they were performed, but they also must be accessible to citizens of each state.

The civil rights that were clarified in these Supreme Court cases, however, do not apply outside the United States. As such, it is important to have a clear understanding about the laws within the country where you are planning to travel, and to be certain that your civil union will be recognized abroad in the event of an emergency.

History of the Recognition of Civil Unions Outside Illinois

When civil unions first became legal for same-sex couples in Illinois, the state did not recognize the right to same-sex marriage. As such, many same-sex couples in the Chicago area sought civil unions in order to enter into a legal relationship with a partner. Since June 1, 2014, same-sex couples throughout the state have been able to enter into marriages just like heterosexual couples. For one year after same-sex marriages became legal, couples in civil unions could apply to convert their civil unions to marriages. After one year, however, any couple in a civil union (including currently) would have to apply for a marriage license and go through the process as if there was no prior legal relationship.

Prior to the decision in United States v. Windsor, even if a same-sex couple currently living in Chicago or anywhere in Illinois (at that time) had gotten married in another state, federal law permitted Illinois and other states to refuse to recognize the marriage through the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In other words, even if, for instance, the state of Massachusetts would have recognized your marriage as legal, other states were not required to do so. As you might imagine, the rights afforded to those in a same-sex civil union were not necessarily rights that same-sex couples could enjoy in states refusing to recognize gay marriage.

Countries That May Not Recognize Your Civil Union

Following the Supreme Court decisions in Windsor and Obergefell, many same-sex couples in Chicago and Illinois who had previously entered into civil unions did not see the necessity in converting their civil unions into marriages. However, if you opt for a civil union instead of marriage, you may put yourself in a complicated position when traveling overseas.

If you are taking a trip abroad or considering a move to another country, it is important to consider whether your civil union will be recognized. According to a fact sheet from, a number of European countries do recognize civil unions, or what often are described as “registered partnerships.” However, even in Europe, there are a number of countries that do not recognize registered partnerships or the rights that accompany civil unions, including Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

There are many other countries outside of Europe, as well, that do not recognize the legal status of your relationship. You should speak with an experienced civil union lawyer in Chicago if you have questions. Contact Gordon & Perlut, LLC to learn more about how we can help.