By:  Richard Hanus, Esq.

April 4, 2023

Being issued a Green Card, aka lawful permanent resident status, can be a huge game changer and bring a sense of relief for foreign nationals.  An undocumented immigrant living in the U.S. for many years without lawful status who finally obtains a Green Card, for example, now has the freedom to travel back to their home country for the first time in perhaps decades.   A foreign national entering the U.S. for the first time on their immigrant visa (Green Card) now has access to a world of educational, professional and economic opportunities previously unavailable to them.

But no matter the path leading to Green Card issuance, two of the most common questions new Green Card holders ask me are:  When can I travel back to my home country?  How long can I stay outside the U.S. and not lose my Green Card?

When can I leave? 

A new Green Card holder can leave the U.S. as soon as they receive their Green Card, and reentry back into the U.S. following international travel should not be a problem as long as they an unexpired passport in hand.   Further, a newly arrived foreign national entering on an immigrant visa issued at a U.S. consular post abroad does not even have to wait for their card to be issued (it usually takes a month or two) as international trips are permitted for a limited period while their card is in production.

How long can I leave for?

A Green Card holder can depart and remain outside the U.S. for up to one year, and with a Reentry Permit (obtainable via Form I-131) for up to two years.   HOWEVER, there are many words of warning that are a part of this conversation, including:

1) if a Green Card holder plans on applying for U.S. citizenship, extended departures of six months or more during their qualifying residency period will likely be problematic. Further, a single departure of a year or more during an intending naturalization applicant’s eligibility period will disqualify them

2) successive departures of more than twelve or even six months at a time may present obstacles for readmission to the U.S.    That is because the antennae of Department of Homeland Security/Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors will be raised and Green Card holders may face having their card confiscated or at least put on the defensive and having to explain how they have not have abandoned their U.S. residence.

What are circumstances beyond my control?

A Green Card holder stuck overseas for an extended period due to unforeseeable circumstances beyond their control has various avenues toward forgiveness, whether in the context of an Application for Naturalization or when seeking reentry after a long absence from the U.S.  For example, the forgiveness might be in the form of a CBP inspector giving a pass to a Green Card holder stuck outside the U.S. for a year or more and without a reentry permit.  Alternatively, a Green Card holder may seek consideration prior to hopping on an airplane, in the form of a Special Immigrant, Returning Resident visa, although this option involves submitting an application at an overseas U.S. consular post as well as a lengthy review process.

Another example of available forgiveness is when a Department of Homeland Security/Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) officer reviewing an Application for Naturalization might find an absence of more than six months, but less than a year, as not disqualifying for U.S. citizenship.    As a matter of background, it seems the most common reasons Green Card holders remain outside the U.S. for extended periods (more than six or even twelve months) include:  applicant illness, the illness of an overseas family member, to complete an educational program, or to conduct business affairs –  with the latter two generally not being seen as forgivable.   As of late, the most common reason a green card holder gets stuck outside the U.S. relates to the COVID virus.  In general, COVID related circumstances have served to excuse extended absences from the U.S.

Prior to making decisions involving a version of one of the above scenarios, it is highly recommended that a Green Card holder only proceed with a carefully weighed strategy so as to avoid unintended negative consequences for their immigration status or citizenship eligibility.

PUBLISHED April 4, 2023 – “IMMIGRATION LAW FORUM” Copyright © 2023, By Law Offices of Richard Hanus, Chicago, Illinois