Immigration NZ will expand its definition of “culturally arranged” marriages to include weddings that weren’t arranged by parents, reports Dileepa Fonseka
A government announcement last week – of a partnership visa fix for a large number of couples who had their partnership applications rejected – was almost immediately criticised by immigration lawyers as only applying to a small number of strict “culturally arranged” marriages where partners had no say in who they married.
On Thursday, Immigration NZ’s national visa manager Peter Elms said the department’s previously narrow definition of “culturally arranged” marriage would be expanded to include marriages where parents hadn’t picked the bride and groom but people could prove the wedding ceremony had taken place according to some cultural tradition.

Elms said the most “influential change” was one that would allow partners of people on work and study visas to live with their partners in New Zealand. 

New guidance would go out to immigration officers to allow them to grant visitor visas to people in “culturally arranged” marriages.

A stricter interpretation of immigration instructions in May stopped those partners from getting a visitor visa, because their primary reason to travel to New Zealand was to live with their partners rather than visit, and they didn’t have a strong enough incentive to return to their own country after their visa required. 

“So long as they’ve been engaged in a cultural arranged marriage, should they wish to come to New Zealand to be with their partner, or live with their partner, then for the purpose of a visitor visa that is a permissible reason to be granted a visitor visa.”

Immigration officers to look at “cultural arrangements”

A “culturally arranged” marriage visa has always existed but it applied only to foreigners who wanted to get married in New Zealand. 

But even then only a handful of marriages met its stringent requirements, which required a strict adherence to long-established customs.

More modern “arranged” marriages where the bride and groom had a say on who their partner might be were generally excluded.

Information released under the Official Information Act showed that 27 applications under this visa category were made to INZ’s Mumbai office between December 2018 and August of this year and only one application was successful. 

Elms said INZ’s new expanded definition would focus on the “cultural arrangements surrounding the wedding” rather than the selection of the bride and groom.

That would encompass a lot more cases when it came to partnership applications from the husbands and wives of New Zealand residents and New Zealand citizens. 

“The definition has been expanded following consultation with the Indian community to say a third party needs to be involved in facilitating the whole process.”

And that third party need only have played a “peripheral role” in the wedding, Elms said.

“A third party is a peripheral role, it’s not the primary role of selecting the bride and groom.

“It doesn’t have to include the introduction of the bridge and the groom and it certainly doesn’t have to include the selection of the bride or the groom.

“The definition has been amended to broaden the scope of involvement of the third party to try and reflect more modern circumstances that have evolved over time.” 

Elms said applicants would need to provide evidence that a wedding ceremony happened and that it followed “a traditional cultural practice”. 

“Our staff will assess the circumstances of each particular wedding, of each ceremony to satisfy themselves that the particular wedding ceremony has been done in accordance with the particular cultural expectations of that particular region.”


Elms said partners of New Zealand citizens and residents whose applications had been turned down were easy to identify and would be asked to re-apply over the next two weeks – free of charge. 

But partners of people on work and study visas were harder to identify because many had applied under a number of different categories – so they would need to pay the fee, re-apply, and would be refunded their fee if their application proved successful. 

Elms said dedicated teams at INZ offices in Mumbai, Hamilton and Beijing would manage the reviews separate from INZ’s “day-to-day” work.

“What we aim to do is get through these decisions as quickly as we can.”

 Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said he had asked Immigration New Zealand to work with the Indian community to ensure the department’s understanding of culturally arranged marriage was “up to date”.
Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont said it was “a very significant change” to the way INZ operated that would fix many of the issues people in the Indian community had faced.
He also noted the change could be largely achieved within the immigration department itself, without a need to go to Cabinet.
“This would seem to be the way they’ve got around Winston Peters, and if that’s the case then I applaud them for their cunningness.”

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