Abandonment of Residence by U.S. Green Card Holders

A U.S. permanent resident can be considered to have "abandoned residence" after not only a long trip outside the United States, but any trip in which the person took steps to make a home elsewhere.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

If a green card holder (lawful permanent or conditional resident) leaves the United States with hopes of returning, they'll need to make sure the trip is for a temporary visit, not a trip to visit their "real" home outside the United States. Making your home in another country can lead to the conclusion that you have "abandoned" (given up) your U.S. residence.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers have the power to decide whether returning green card holders are actually living outside the United States. If they believe you are, they will take steps to have your green card revoked (cancelled).

When Is Permanent Residence Considered Abandoned?

You might have heard rumors that you must enter the United States once a year in order to keep your green card, or spend a certain amount of time in the United States each year. Those rumors are largely false, or have no actual basis in U.S. law.

They probably arose due to the fact that being away from the U.S. for longer than six months (180 days) will raise suspicion and questions regarding abandonment of residence, and being away for more than a year guarantees that your green card is invalidated as a travel document. (See I.N.A. § 101(a)(13)(C)(ii), 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(13)(C)(ii).)

If this is your situation, you might be barred from boarding a U.S. plane or other form of transport or, if you are allowed onto the plane, be told by the officials who let you into the United States that you'll be expected to attend an Immigration Court hearing before you can reclaim your U.S. residence and green card.

The bottom line is that that if you ever leave the United States with the intention of making some other country your permanent home, you give up your U.S. residency when you go.

How Will CBP Decide Whether I Abandoned My U.S. Residence?

Upon your return to the United States after foreign travel, the CBP officer is likely to ask you various questions such as when you left the United States, what you were doing while you were away, and where you make your home. Before deciding whether you have abandoned your residency, the CBP officer will look at other factors, such as whether you:

  • pay U.S. taxes
  • own a home or apartment or have a long-term lease in the United States
  • were employed in the foreign country
  • took your family with you to the foreign country
  • are returning to the U.S. with a one-way ticket or a round-trip ticket back to the foreign country, and
  • maintained any other ties with the United States.

If you are coming back after a trip of several months, you can make your entry to the United States easier by bringing copies of documents that show that your home base is still in the United States. These documents could include your U.S. tax returns, home lease, evidence of employment, or other relevant materials, preferably from official, unbiased sources.

Be warned, however: Even if you're let in at the U.S. border or port of entry, if you later apply for U.S. citizenship (naturalization), U.S. immigration authorities can review the question of whether you abandoned your U.S. residence. They might decide that not only do you not qualify for U.S. citizenship, but that you must face deportation proceedings and prove to an immigration judge that you didn't give up your lawful residence and right to a green card.

Exception to Abandonment of Residence Rules for Border Commuters

There is an exception for green card holders who commute to work in the United States from Canada or Mexico on a daily or seasonal basis. They may keep their green cards even while actually living outside the United States. USCIS will grant you commuter status if, when you get a green card, you explain your intention to live in Canada or Mexico but commute back and forth.

If you currently live in the United States with a green card but later move to another side of the border, you will be granted commuter status when you notify USCIS of your new address.

What If You Must Make a Trip That Lasts Over One Year?

If you know ahead of time that you are going to have to spend more than a year outside the United States, you can apply for a reentry permit. Use Form I-131, Application for Travel Document, available at www.uscis.gov. You will want to check Box a in Part 2 for reentry permits.

You will have to explain to USCIS the purpose of your trip and how much time you've already spent outside the United States. You can't apply for this after leaving the United States.

If you stay outside the United States for more than one year and did not get a reentry permit before leaving, then in order to come back again, you must apply at a U.S. consulate abroad for an SB-1 immigrant visa as a returning resident. To get this visa, you will have to convince the U.S. consular officer that your absence from the United States has been temporary and you never planned to abandon your U.S. residence. You will want to show evidence that you were kept away longer than one year due to unforeseen circumstances. Such evidence might be a letter from a doctor showing that you or a family member had a serious medical problem, or a death certificate showing that a family member passed away and you needed to plan or attend the funeral and help tie up their affairs. This is a discretionary determination; the consular official has no obligation to grant it unless convinced you deserve it.

If you do not have a very good reason for failing to return within one year, there is a strong chance you will lose your U.S. green card. Consult an attorney for a full personal analysis as well as assistance in preparing your arguments to U.S. immigration authorities.

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