Permanent residence is not always as permanent as the name implies. For example, after a foreign national becomes a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. (a green card holder) the person might decide to no longer live in the U.S., and abandon (give up) the green card and other immigration benefits.
Or, U.S. immigration authorities could be the ones to determine that a person abandoned their residence, most likely after having remained outside the U.S. for an extended amount of time, typically more than one year. That's the subject of this article.
As a green card holder, if you are overseas and wish to return to the U.S, and realize that you are likely to have a problem with apparently having abandoned your residence, you can potentially apply for what's called a returning resident (SB-1) visa.
To obtain one, you will be required to demonstrate that you still qualify for the green card and that you:
If you were outside the U.S. for more than one year, the application process involves filing State Department Form DS-117, available at the DOS website, at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate and paying the filing fee. The State Department recommends doing this well in advance of your intended return trip. You will also need to present:
Check the website of the U.S. embassy or consulate where you will apply for details about how to schedule an interview, what documentation is required, and how to submit your application.
After submitting your application, you will be contacted for an interview with a consular officer and might be given instructions on where to take a medical exam (although some locations will instruct applicants to wait to take the medical exam until after the interview.)
At the interview, the U.S. consular officer will determine whether you qualify as a returning resident. The officer will review the documentation you submitted with your application and ask for details about your original plans when you left the U.S. and why your stay abroad was extended.
If the officer determines that you did not intend to abandon your U.S. residency and that your stay abroad was extended for reasons beyond your control, your returning resident application will be approved. Then, you can proceed with the application for the SB-1 returning resident visa.
After your returning resident application is approved, you still need to obtain a new visa for U.S. entry and pay the immigrant visa fee. At some locations, the DS-117 application and the SB-1 returning resident visa are processed at the same time, while other locations process the SB-1 at a later date.
To qualify for the SB-1 visa, you must have an approved returning resident application and meet all the other eligibility requirements of the visa. This means the officer will double-check that you remain eligible for a U.S. green card in the first place.
If you have become inadmissible to the United States; for example, due to having developed a medical condition that presents a hazard to others as revealed on the medical exam, or having a criminal conviction on record, this could create hurdles to the reentry process. For more on inadmissibility, see this discussion of who can't get into the United States.
Once your SB-1 visa is approved, you must enter the U.S. before the visa expires. If you do not, it will be difficult to qualify for another returning resident visa. Upon arriving in the U.S. with your returning resident visa, you will be sent to a secondary inspection area for immigrant processing, just like the first time you arrived in the U.S. as an immigrant, so be sure to allow plenty of time between connecting flights.
If for some reason you do not qualify for the returning resident visa, but you still qualify for a green card on the same basis as your previous one, you can potentially resubmit the same type of immigrant visa application.
If your circumstances have changed, look into whether you qualify for another type of immigrant visa (green card). For example, if you qualified for your previous green card as the spouse of a U.S. citizen, but your spouse is now deceased or you divorced, you would no longer qualify on that basis, so will need to look at your other options. For example, you might now qualify as the parent of an adult U.S. citizen, if your children are U.S. citizens age 21 or over. Learn more about getting a green card.