The Challenges of Being a Foreign National Military Spouse

Written by Poli Dimitrova

As a foreign national, I had never even come across the term “military spouse” until one day, I found myself to be one. After being in a long-distance relationship for 7 years, waiting for a fiance visa for over a year, and not seeing my fiance for more than 9 months due to the pandemic, I thought we had already overcome our biggest challenges. To some extent, I was right, but little did I know at the time what being a “military spouse” really meant and what hurdles I would overcome in the years to come.

Adapting to the new culture, the legal and immigration processes, and what seems to be the impossible emotional journey are only some of the challenges that any foreign national faces almost immediately once a military spouse. Unfortunately, the topic is not widely covered, leaving many feeling isolated, alone, and misunderstood.

In honor of Military Spouse Appreciation Day, it is vital to acknowledge and celebrate the resilience and strength of military spouses from all backgrounds. As we navigate these challenges together, I hope to offer insights and practical advice to support others in similar situations.


Overcoming Language Barriers

The language barrier might be one of the first limitations to stumble upon once you move to the USA. Surrounding yourself with English speakers and getting immersed in a new environment are the best and fastest ways to improve your language skills. A few other steps to take are:

Sign up at your local library

Try to pick out and read at least one new book per month. Even if you only have 30 minutes per day to spare, spend that time reading. After just a few weeks, you will notice an improvement in your vocabulary. Practice reading out loud if you also want to work on your pronunciation and intonation.

Start a journal

Not only does a journal serve as a self-care method to track your journey as a military spouse, but it will also reinforce better sentence structure and grammar. Writing by hand versus typing on a computer will also significantly help with punctuation.


Embracing the Culture

Integrating into the new culture and feeling a sense of belonging is a major challenge for any military spouse from another country with different customs and traditions. This is not an easy process and often takes months, if not years, to overcome. Here are a few suggestions below, but remember to be patient and give yourself grace — you are doing great!

Find a local community

Find a local community that you can integrate yourself into. Religious groups, service-based organizations, and local Facebook pages are great places to start. Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone and try to meet new people, even if they are not from the same culture. Making friends can take time, but it is the best way to start feeling a sense of belonging when in a new environment.

Explore the outdoors

Spend a lot of time outside – go for walks or hiking and explore the new area you live in. Make a small list of places that interest you: museums, parks, shops, or, if you have children, playgrounds and play centers. Try visiting at least one or two per week. You can make this a fun date idea over the weekend for yourself and your significant other, too. This is one of my favorite ways to start feeling like a local.

Share your culture with others

Do not completely leave your culture and traditions behind! The only thing better than having one thing to celebrate is having two! For example, in my family, we love celebrating Easter twice and combining different customs. As a proud Bulgarian, I also love sharing and exposing our friends and my husband’s family to our unusual traditions and cuisine.


Addressing Legal and Immigration Issues

The immigration process and visa requirements seem to be a never-ending process for the foreign national military spouse. For example, just as I was finally starting to settle and feel more comfortable, a calendar notification popped up on my phone, reminding me that I needed to file the documents and renew my green card. And, of course, I was immediately stressing out about the timelines and requirements. A few useful tips to navigate all of the administrative and legal issues are:

Keep track of deadlines

Try to stay informed and up-to-date with any upcoming changes to your residency status. Add the timelines to your Google calendar to ensure you do not miss any deadlines and jeopardize your visa or green card.

Collect the paperwork

Make sure to collect all of the paperwork! Put aside a big box and add all documents you receive throughout the year to it. This really helps with having everything ready to go instead of having to sit down and search for evidence at the last moment.

Check the USCIS website

Pin the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) website to your favorites and check it regularly. Sometimes, they publish upcoming changes to visa requirements in advance, which helps when planning out any moves and document submissions.

💡Pro Tip: Foreign national military spouses tend to have multiple passports, driving licenses, and IDs from different countries, and it is sometimes difficult to track when each one expires. Spend a day researching the renewal processes for each one.

Use your Google Calendar and add a task for yourself starting on the first possible day when you can apply and ending a few days before the final deadline. Add any information regarding the renewal process in the description as well. It is a time-consuming process. However, you will quickly find how useful it is, as you will never find yourself with an expired document!


Confronting Employment Difficulties

Unfortunately, many military spouses struggle with finding employment due to the frequent moves and relocations. Visa restrictions and lack of certifications make entering the US job market even more challenging for foreign nationals.

Here are ways you can get started:

Apply for documents

Applying for an SSN and employment authorization are the first steps for those who have just moved to the USA from another country. Patience and persistence will be your best friends in the next few months as these are lengthy and slow processes – do not lose hope, though!


Keep yourself busy by volunteering while you are waiting for your documents. Building a strong skillset and networking will significantly improve your job search once you have the required paperwork. Also, the Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA) has various volunteer opportunities, which will help you meet new people and feel part of the community.

Take classes

This is the perfect time to take classes or obtain certification. Waste no time — research your field of interest and find out how to improve your resume now. Besides receiving your spouse’s GI Bill and their educational benefits, there are multiple resources offering courses for free for military spouses, including an annual symposium from ASYMCA.


Coping with the Emotional Journey

Personally, I found the emotional journey to becoming a military spouse the most difficult to overcome. Even now, two and a half years later, I have days when I struggle to keep up high spirits. The 6,000-mile distance and 10-hour time difference make it extremely hard to still feel connected and close to my family and friends living back in my home country.

Separation is not a novelty for the foreign national military spouse as many have gone through months and months of long-distance relationships or patiently waiting for months for visas. Once far apart from their significant other, they are now facing the reality of being isolated from their other family. For many, “home” is way too far, and flight tickets are unreasonably expensive, making it impossible to go back home on a regular basis. The United States also has extremely strict visa restrictions and family and friends might not be able to visit often either.

Here are some tips to help you get through this:

Build your own support network

When you do not have a support network, your best bet is to build your own. It requires a lot of time and effort, as well as continuously getting outside of your comfort zone. At the same time, though, finding a community you can integrate into is the best way to navigate the emotional challenges of being a foreign military spouse. Going back to my previous point, use any organizations, services, and groups you can find in your local area.

Keep in touch with distant family

Prioritize talking to your distant family and friends at least once or twice per week. Sometimes, this could be a challenge due to the time difference, but you will always find peace and comfort in talking to a close one. They may not always understand what you are going through, but they will always make you feel heard and not so lonely and isolated.


Celebrating and Supporting Foreign National Military Spouses

Foreign national military spouses face a range of unique challenges that require resilience and adaptability. As we honor their contributions on Military Spouse Appreciation Day, it is essential to recognize the supportive role of organizations like ASYMCA. By connecting with ASYMCA, military spouses can access valuable resources and a network of support to thrive in their roles. Learn more about ASYMCA’s supportive services for military spouses and families to see how you can benefit from or contribute to their efforts.


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Additional support for foreign national military spouses: