We know that navigating and applying for all the various USCIS travel documents can be a little confusing and overwhelming. Thus, the aim of this article is to explain the various travel documents in a simple and easy to understand way, so that you will know exactly what you may need.
Have you applied for Adjustment of Status to have Permanent Residency, you haven’t yet heard back, but you need to travel abroad?
Generally, if you leave the United States while your Adjustment of Status application is pending, you will “abandon” your application for Permanent Residency. Thus, typically, in order to avoid abandoning your Permanent Residency application, you’ll need to apply for something called Advance Parole.
When you come into the United States lawfully as a nonimmigrant, or as someone with an immigrant visa, you typically have your visa in your passport and you talk with a Customs and Border Protection officer at the Port of Entry (think the airport or at the road border crossings from Mexico and Canada). This talk with the official is really an “inspection,” and assuming there are no problems, then you are typically “admitted” into the United States with the visa status that you applied for. When traveling abroad and returning to the United States with “Advance Parole,” you aren’t actually legally speaking, “admitted” into the United States. You instead hold a document that allows you to be granted “parole” into the United States, and you come in as a “parolee.” It is a subtle distinction between a parolee and someone lawfully admitted, but an important one. Why? Because applying for “Advance Parole” before you leave the country, does not guarantee you will be able to enter as a parolee. It only makes you eligible for parole. Thus, if you had fallen out of status by accruing unlawful presence while in the United States on your visa, or did something else that would make you ineligible to be admitted, then you may be denied entrance as a parolee if you try to come back into the United States with Advance Parole.
In the vast majority of cases, there won’t be any problem traveling abroad with Advance Parole and reentering as a parolee, if you didn’t accrue unlawful presence or do something otherwise to make you inadmissible to the U.S. However, if you have immigration violations that potentially make you inadmissible (but not necessarily deportable), you will probably want to speak with an attorney about your options. It may be much better for you to wait until your I-485 Application is decided, if at all possible, before traveling.
How does one apply for Advance Parole?
You apply for Advance Parole before you leave the country by filing a Form I-131. Typically, filing this will be free assuming you file it concurrently with, or after you file an I-485 Application to Adjust Status. If you file it after filing an I-485; and not concurrently, you will probably want to include a cover letter that specifies that the fee is not included as part of your I-131 application; because it is associated with a previously filed Adjustment of Status petition. Assuming you file it concurrently with your Adjustment of Status petition, and concurrently with an Employment Authorization Document (I-765), then you should receive both your Employment Authorization and your Advance Parole on one plastic card. The card will typically be valid for two years, though USCIS has the authority to issue validity periods that are shorter or longer than that.
Also, there are some categories of aliens that do not need Advance Parole:
Aliens who have valid H, L, K, or V nonimmigrant visas, do not typically need to apply for Advance Parole. If you have one of these unexpired statuses, and otherwise continue to be admissible to the United States, you can just come back into the United States after traveling abroad and present your valid visa to the official.
***One more very important note about Advance Parole, before we get into the other travel documents***
Although unlikely, the Department of Homeland Security, has the authority to revoke or terminate your Advance Parole Document at any time; even if you are outside the United States. This means that in the unlikely event that this happens (perhaps for National Security reasons), you may not be able to return to the U.S. without having a valid visa or other travel document that permits you to seek admission in the U.S.
Are you already a Conditional Permanent Resident or a Lawful Permanent Resident, and do you need to travel abroad?
Well if so, the first question is, how long are you going to be gone? If you’re going to be gone less than a year, you don’t need to do anything special, technically. You can simply travel abroad as a Conditional Permanent Resident or a Lawful Permanent Resident, and you can come in using your Permanent Residency Card (Form I-551). However, if you have been a “resident” abroad, or if DHS thinks so, even if you’ve been gone for less than a year, you could be found to have “abandoned” your Permanent Resident Status. There is no set-in-stone rule for this, but if you’re going to be abroad for an extended period of time, but less than a year, you may still want to think of applying for a Reentry Permit.
If you are going to be abroad for a year or more however, you are definitely going to need to apply for a Reentry Permit, prior to traveling. What the Reentry Permit does, is it shows that you did not intend to abandon your status. It is typically valid for two years and allows you to stay on trips abroad for up to two years without having to obtain a Returning Resident visa. If you stay outside the United States for one year or more without a Reentry Permit, then you will be thought to have abandoned your Permanent Residency status. If you are abroad in this situation, you’ll need to speak with an attorney and/or the U.S. Consulate abroad and pursue a Returning Resident Visa.
How do you apply for a Reentry Permit?
To apply for a Reentry Permit you will use the same, Form I-131, as you would to apply for Advance Parole. You simply have to check another box, and as with Advance Parole, you must apply while in the United States. You should apply at least 60 days before you intend to go abroad, but you don’t actually have to stay put in the United States while you wait to receive your Reentry Permit. You can actually proceed abroad after applying, if you specify on your application that you would like to pick up your Reentry Permit at a U.S. embassy, consulate, or DHS office abroad. However, for this to be an option, you will need to make sure you do your Biometrics (fingerprinting, photographs, and a signature sample) with USCIS before going abroad.
One important added benefit to the Reentry Permit:
Very often you can use a Reentry Permit instead of a passport from your home country, for purposes of traveling abroad. Many countries accept Reentry Permits as passport substitutes. They will simply place whatever visas and entry/exit stamps are necessary inside of the permit. Thus, you’ll have to check with each country before you visit to make sure they will accept it, but this can be a great option if you don’t wish to pursue a passport from your home country while on Permanent Resident status.
Are you someone with valid Refugee or Asylee Status, or a Permanent Resident who attained their Green Card from their Refugee or Asylee status?
If you have applied for asylum and you have been granted asylee status (but you aren’t a Permanent Resident yet), you will need to apply for something called a Refugee Travel Document before traveling abroad, unless you have applied for and received Advance Parole, already. Typically, applying for a Refugee Travel Document will be a better bet than Advance Parole, since it is a cheaper application to file by itself (only $220 dollars for most adults with Biometrics included vs. $575 dollars for Advance Parole when filed alone). If you are someone with Refugee status, you are required to apply for Green Card status after a year of being in valid refugee or asylee status anyway, so you can apply for Advance Parole for free when you apply to Adjust your Status (see concurrent filing of Advance Parole discussed above). If you are in Asylee status, although not required to apply for Permanent Residency after a year, doing so can benefit you.
You can also take advantage of the concurrent filing discussed for Refugees to get Advance Parole for free. Thus, you should ideally only need the Refugee Travel Document until you become a Permanent Resident and this is fine, since the Refugee Travel Document only has a validity period of one year. Also, much like a Reentry Permit, you may typically use your Refugee Travel Document instead of a passport. You’ll have to check with the country you plan on visiting, but typically you may do this.
How to apply for a Refugee Travel Document: As with the other USCIS travel documents we have described, you use a Form I-131 and check the appropriate box, to apply for the Refugee Travel Document. Also you’ll have to submit the appropriate filing fee which is $220 dollars for most adults (as compared with $575 dollars for Advance Parole).
One highly important note for Asylee and Refugee status holders: If you travel back to the country where you faced the harm or persecution that made you eligible for your Asylee/Refugee status in the first place, you may lose your Asylee/Refugee status if you are found to have availed yourself of the protection of that country. Although it is best to not travel back to the country of past persecution, if you feel you need to do that out of necessity or a family emergency, you should consult with an experienced Immigration Attorney before doing so.
If you are a Permanent Resident and your Permanent Resident Status is based on you having been a Refugee/Asylee, then you are also eligible for a Refugee Travel Document. This could also be a good option for you (if you don’t want to pay for the more expensive Reentry Permit). As with a Reentry Permit, you use Form I-131 to apply for this, you do your biometrics if required while in the United States, and you can then immediately go abroad; electing on the application (Form I-131) to pick up your Refugee Travel Document abroad. It is cheaper than a Reentry Permit ($220 dollars with Biometrics for most adults vs. $575), but the downside is that it is only valid for a year. Thus, this could be a good option for you if you want the Refugee Travel Document as a substitute for a passport (that maybe you don’t have from your home country), and you don’t want to pay for the more expensive Reentry Permit. If this is the case, it will be important to verify that the country you plan on traveling to will accept a Refugee Travel Document (and many will), instead of a passport.
In Conclusion: We hope that this article has been helpful for you to understand the various USCIS travel documents, and the options that are available to you. Although we have tried to distill this process down into easy to understand terms, if you have any questions do not hesitate to contact an experienced Immigration Attorney. As with any immigration matter, pursuing these travel documents is a complicated legal process. An attorney can help you get this process right, and give you added peace of mind as you proceed on your trip abroad.