Knowing Your Obligations

Due to world events, the U.S. government has implemented heightened security procedures at its consulates, embassies and ports of entry, which may have a significant effect on your entry to the United States. This document provides guidance on procedures, including visa issuance at U.S. consulates and embassies, security screening, and the immigration obligations of foreign nationals traveling to the United States. In addition, this memorandum provides guidance on important obligations and procedures for foreign nationals in the United States.

Though it is not possible to detail every immigration procedure in the content of this document, foreign nationals who will travel outside the United States should be aware of some general travel guidelines, each of which is discussed in more detail below:

  • All foreign nationals should ensure that they and their family members possess the required documentation for travel and re-entry to the United States, including valid passports and visas (including passports that are machine-readable and, where necessary, contain digital photographs and/or e-chips for Visa Waiver Program travelers), and advance permission to travel (i.e., advance parole) where necessary.
  • All foreign nationals should expect complex and sometimes lengthy visa application procedures at the U.S. consulates and embassies, including biometrics collection procedures, mandatory personal interviews for most visa applicants and verification of visa eligibility through government databases.
  • All foreign nationals should expect comprehensive questioning by immigration officials when reentering the United States.
  • Most non-immigrants entering the United States will be subject to the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology (US-VISIT) system, a “check-in” mechanism that collects biometric identifiers.
  • Certain individuals who are nationals or citizens of designated countries will be subject to more stringent security screening and may be required to be registered in the Department of Homeland Security’s National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). Foreign nationals who are registered in NSEERS must be aware of and comply with departure control rules.
  • Foreign students and exchange visitors must make sure that their enrollment or program information has been entered into Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and that required SEVIS registration fees have been paid.
Maintaining Permanent Residence during Lengthy Absences; Obtaining a Reentry Permit

If you plan to be outside the United States for one continuous year or more – for instance, if you are assigned to a new position that is located abroad and will not be traveling back to the United States during the foreign assignment – maintaining status is important so that you may continue to enter the United States as a resident. Permanent resident status is not always automatically lost by a lengthy absence abroad, but such an absence will be taken into account by USCIS in determining whether you intend to maintain or abandon your status. In order to maintain status for this purpose, you must preserve sufficient ties to the United States to indicate that you consider the U.S. to be your permanent home. To determine your intentions, the USCIS will look at several factors, including:

  • The length of your absence
  • The reason you are traveling
  • Whether you have a fixed date to return to the United States
  • Whether you have continued to file tax returns as a resident alien
  • Whether you have maintained bank accounts, property and a driver’s license
  • The location of your family
  • The location of your employment

Trips outside the United States for less than six months do not usually pose a problem; if you stay outside the United States for less than six continuous months, you should not ordinarily have any difficulty re-entering. Trips outside the United States of between six continuous months and one continuous year in duration may raise a red flag with an immigration officer upon your return. You may need to explain your absence, but you should be readmitted to the U.S. based upon your green card, without further documentation.

Reentry permits

If you travel abroad for a continuous year or more, you will be required to obtain a reentry permit in order to be readmitted to the United States. You must apply for the permit in the United States and attend a biometrics appointment so that your fingerprints and photographs can be collected before your departure. You may depart the United States once your application is filed, but must return for your biometrics appointment. Failure to appear for a biometrics appointment may cause your application to be deemed abandoned. If you have urgent travel plans, it is possible to request expedited processing of the reentry permit application.

Once your permit is granted, you may collect it at a U.S. consular post or overseas U.S. immigration office, or you may have it mailed to a U.S. address. The permit is typically valid for two years and is not extendable, though your may apply for a new one. When you return to the United States, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) may still investigate whether you have abandoned your permanent residency and may ask about the factors listed above; the permit simply prevents the CBP from relying solely on your absence as a basis for determining whether you have abandoned your permanent resident status. Note that trips outside of the United States for one continuous year or more may raise issues in connection with any future application for naturalization to U.S. citizenship. This issue is discussed below.

Preserving Permanent Residence for Naturalization Purposes

In order to become a naturalized citizen of the United States, you must fulfill several criteria, including requirements concerning your residence and physical presence in the United States. To qualify, you must continuously reside in the United States for five years after attaining lawful permanent residence (or three years if you are the spouse of a U.S. citizen); you must also be physically present in the United States for at least half of that period (two and one-half years for most aliens, one and one-half years for spouses of U.S. citizens). For naturalization purposes, lengthy trips outside the U.S. may serve to “break” the continuity of your residence period. These breaks have serious consequences and may stop the naturalization clock, requiring you to start at the beginning to re-accumulate the necessary years of residence.

In general, an absence of less than six months will not interrupt your continuous residence. An absence of six months to one year will break continuous residence unless you can give a reasonable explanation for the absence, such as an overseas assignment with your U.S. employer or a lengthy trip to care for an ailing relative. If you are absent from the U.S. for one year or more, your continuity of residence will be automatically broken for naturalization purposes unless you take specific steps to preserve continuity.

If you plan to remain outside of the United States for a year or more, you may apply to the USCIS for special benefits that will preserve the continuity of your residence during the extended absence. To qualify for extended absence benefits, you must have been physically present and residing in the U.S. as a permanent resident for one year – with no absence from the U.S. whatsoever – prior to the absence. During the absence, you must be employed abroad by the U.S. government, a U.S. research institute, a U.S. corporation or subsidiary that is engaged in the development of foreign trade or commerce, or an international organization of which the U.S. is a member (provided that you were not employed by the international organization before becoming a permanent resident). You must request the extended benefits before you have been absent for one year, and you must also show that your absence is in furtherance of your overseas employment.

Physical presence in the United States is calculated differently from residence for purposes of naturalization. As noted above, you must be physically present in the U.S. for at least two and one-half years (one and one-half years if you are the spouse of a U.S. citizen). However, unlike your residency period, your period of physical presence need not be continuous as long as you meet or exceed the minimum time requirement. The following example demonstrates how both continuous residence and physical presence are counted: You live in the United States for one year after becoming a permanent resident; you are then assigned abroad for two years, having obtained the necessary extended absence benefits. After the assignment is completed, you return to the United States and remain there for two years. In this case, you have met the requirement of five years of continuous residence. You have also met the requirement of two and one-half years of physical presence, since you were physically present for a total of three years, six months longer than necessary.

Lost or Expired Green Cards

Form I-551 Permanent Residence Cards are typically valid for ten years. Only the card expires in ten years, not your permanent resident status. You must apply for a new card before your current card expires. To do so, you must file a Form I-90 application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for a new card. If you lose your green card, you may apply to replace it by submitting an I-90 application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.