Secretary of State John Kerry has announced a policy change with immediate effect which allows the State Department to process visas for same-sex spouses in the same manner that it considers the application of heterosexual spouses.
Kerry made the announcement at the consular visa office of the U.S. Embassy in London on Friday.
"If you are the spouse of a U.S. citizen, your visa application will be treated equally," Kerry said. "If you are the spouse of a non-citizen, your visa application will be treated equally. If you are in a country that doesn't recognize your same-sex marriage, then your visa application will still be treated equally at every single one of our 222 visa processing centers around the world."
This means U.S. embassies around the world will consider visa applications from legally wed foreign gay couples jointly.
"One of our most important exports, by far, is our belief in equality," Kerry said. "Today, the State Department, which has always been at the forefront of equality in the federal government, I'm proud to say, is tearing down an unjust and an unfair barrier that for too long stood in the way of same-sex families being able to travel as a family to the United States."
Currently, 16 countries have legalized same-sex marriage, including the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Portugal, Denmark, Iceland, and Brazil. Laws allowing gay marriage are yet to take effect in New Zealand, Uruguay, Canada, South Africa, Argentina, and Britain.
Nepal is likely to be the first nation in Asia to make same-sex marriage legal in the coming months or years, as the country's apex court has directed the legislature to give equal rights to the LGBTI community.
"Now, as long as a marriage has been performed in a jurisdiction that recognizes it so that it is legal, then that marriage is valid under U.S. immigration laws, and every married couple will be treated exactly the same, and that is what we believe is appropriate," Kerry went on to say.
The State Department's move comes months after the Supreme Court's ruling struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which was enacted to encourage responsible procreation and child-bearing and defend traditional heterosexual marriage. It was passed by both houses of Congress by large majorities and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1966.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in July it would give equal treatment to petitions for immigration from same-sex couples.