Traveling Outside of the U.S. as a Green Card Holder

Are you a green-card holder about to leave the U.S. for travel elsewhere? Here's how to make sure you can return without problems at the border or port of entry.

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

After you have immigrated to the United States and received a green card (become a U.S. lawful permanent resident or LPR), international travel gets a lot easier. No longer do you have to worry about whether your visa will be good for another U.S. entry, or face having to renew your status every few months or years.

On the other hand, there are specific rules you must follow in order to maintain your U.S. immigration status and avoid losing your permanent residence altogether.

Keep Your Eye on International Travel Restrictions

When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began, some green card holders found themselves trapped overseas. Flights were canceled, travel for certain countries was prohibited (though returning green card members are ordinarily allowed back in regardless), and health concerns made flying inadvisable.

Both before you depart United States and while you're traveling, it will be important to monitor news of any situations that might hinder your return. If something unexpected happens, it won't necessarily derail your ability to return to the United States; but in case of long delays in returning, you might need to gather evidence showing that you didn't mean to give up your U.S. residence to show U.S. border officials upon returning, for the reasons discussed below.

Take Your Green Card and Passport With You When Traveling

That might sound obvious, but your green card is a crucial document for you to carry in order to reenter the United States after international travel.

In fact, you should make a copy of it and leave one copy in your suitcase while traveling, and another with a friend in the U.S. whom you would call in an emergency. These will help you prove your identity as a green-card holder in the event that your card gets lost or stolen. (You would, in that case, want to go to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.)

You will also need to carry the passport of your home country, since this is a required travel document and shows your country of citizenship.

Maintain Your U.S. Residence In Order to Prove Your Continued Right to a Green Card

The purpose of acquiring a green card is to establish U.S. residence and possibly work toward qualifying for U.S. citizenship. But if you leave the U.S. with the intention of making your home elsewhere, you will potentially give up your U.S. residency, even if you'd hoped to keep it. One way that this will be discovered is if you spend long periods of time outside the United States.

Contrary to popular rumor, simply coming back to the U.S. every six months or a year is not enough. You can lose your U.S. residency in a day if you leave with the intention of moving to another country. Factors that will be considered include where you maintain your home, where you work, where your car is registered, where your family lives, and so on.

What is true, however, is that if you stay away from the United States for six months or more, you will face a lot of questions upon return. And if you stay away for a year or more, your green card will become invalid for travel purposes (an airline might refuse to let you board) and you will be presumed to have abandoned your U.S. residency.

Another important thing to know is that continuous residence in the United States is a requirement for citizenship, as discussed below.

How Will They Discover I've Abandoned My Residency?

Even if you stay away for less then a year, when you return to the U.S., the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer who greets you will ask questions about how long you were away, what you were doing, where you live in the United States, and so forth.

If your answers don't sound right; for example, you've been working abroad and are back for a few weeks to stay with a friend; the officer could refer you for secondary inspection. There, another officer would question you further about your ties to the U.S., then possibly search your bags and so on.

If you clearly have given up your U.S. residency, then even if you make it as far as the U.S. port of entry, you could be turned around and sent home on the next flight. More likely, however, you will be "paroled" into the U.S., meaning allowed temporary, conditional entry for the purpose of proving that you didn't abandon your residency. If you fail to provide this proof, you will likely be deported (removed) from the United States.

Maintaining Residency in Preparation for U.S. Citizenship Application

Most people can apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship five years after becoming a lawful permanent resident. (That time period reduces to three years if you have been married to and living with a U.S. citizen the whole time.) However, half of those five or three years must have been spent physically within the United States before you can become eligible.

When you apply for citizenship, you will be asked about all your trips outside the U.S., and those time periods will be taken into account in determining whether you are yet eligible to apply.

Another important concept with regard to eligibility for citizenship is "continuity of residence." If you spend more than six months but less than one year outside the U.S., you could be found to have disrupted your continuous residence, unless you can prove otherwise. What's more, if you spend at least one year outside the U.S., you will be automatically found to have disrupted your continuous residence, and will have to wait to file your application for naturalization until four years and one day following the date of your return to the United States to resume permanent residence.

All of this sounds a lot like the principles of abandonment of residence described above, but it's a separate section of the law. You can break the continuous residence requirement without having actually abandoned your U.S. residence. (Of course, if you have abandoned your U.S. residence, which sometimes gets discovered in the course of applying for U.S. citizenship, you will have no hope of citizenship and will lose your U.S. green card.)

Getting a Reentry Permit for Long Trips Outside the U.S.

If you know in advance that you are going to remain outside the U.S. for more than one year, but less than two years, you can apply for what's known as a reentry permit before you leave. If you remain outside of the United States for longer than a year, you will not be able to use your green card for reentry, and will more than likely lose it completely.

The reentry permit creates a presumption that you are not abandoning your U.S. immigration status nor your permanent residence by being out of the country for a protracted period of time. It also allows you to apply for admission to the U.S. after traveling abroad for as long as two years, without having to obtain a returning resident visa.

As mentioned above, it is best to file this application well in advance of leaving on your trip. You do not need to have actually received the reentry permit before leaving, however. For instructions, and further information, see Reentry Permit Process for U.S. Permanent Residents.

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