The travel document allows someone living in the U.S. while awaiting their green card to travel abroad without nullifying their green card application.
The entire marriage-based green card process generally takes about 10-13 months for the spouse of a U.S. citizen living in the United States, from the day you mail off your application package to the day you receive your green card in the mail. For spouses of U.S. green card holders, this process can take nearly three years.
That is a long time to avoid leaving the United States, especially if you have family or business ties abroad—or if you just like to travel. But make no mistake:
Your green card application will be terminated if you leave the United States while that application is pending, unless you have a valid travel document at the time you leave the country.
Even if you don’t have any specific travel plans, it’s a good idea to apply for a travel document at the same time you first submit your marriage-based green card application. Then, if you do need to travel for a family emergency, a business opportunity, or any other reason, you won’t need to decline because of your pending green card application.
Why you need a travel document
The travel document provides someone living in the United States with “advance parole.” (This has nothing to do with the “parole” you hear about in an episode of Law & Order. In the context of immigration law, “advance parole” is just a technical way of saying “permission ahead of time to re-enter the United States.”)
If you leave the United States while your green card application is pending and you don’t have a travel document, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will consider your green card application abandoned and will deny it. At best, that means you’ll have to redo all of the paperwork and pay the fees a second time. At worst, you could find yourself unable to re-enter the United States.
When and how to apply for a travel document
The fastest, cheapest, and easiest way to apply for a travel document is as part of the original green card application package you send to USCIS, by including Form I-131 (“Application for Travel Document”) along with the main forms (I-130 and I-485).
You must attach a copy of your photo identification (such as a copy of the photo page of your passport) to the travel document application, as well as two passport-sized photos. There is no additional fee if you submit your travel document application (Form I-131) at the same time as your initial application for a green card (Form I-485, filed anytime after July 30, 2007).
If you’ve already submitted your green card application, you can still get a travel document that will allow you to leave the United States without paying an additional fee. In this case, when you file Form I-131 with USCIS, include a copy of your photo ID, two passport-sized photos, and a copy of the receipt notice showing that USCIS previously received your green card application including the full application fee.
Travel restrictions and renewing your travel document
It’s essential that you don’t leave the United States until you’ve actually received your travel document, but otherwise there are no travel restrictions for marriage-based green card applicants. You can only remain outside the United States, however, as long as you re-enter the U.S. before the expiration date printed on your travel document.
The travel document is valid for one year after it’s issued, typically within 150 days (in some cases longer) after submitting your application materials to USCIS. (Until recently, the normal processing time for a travel document was 90 days, but a growing backlog has caused additional delays. USCIS provides a database where you can check the most current processing times, updated once per month.)
If you haven’t received your green card yet and you plan to travel after that year has elapsed, it’s important to renew your travel document in a timely fashion. You can file a renewal application as early as 120 days before your current travel document expires, and it’s a good idea to submit the renewal as early as possible. The renewal travel document is usually processed within the same timeframe as that for the initial application: 150 days or longer. It’s important to plan ahead to avoid gaps in your ability to travel.
To renew your travel document, submit Form I-131 with a copy of your current travel document, a copy of the receipt notice from your green card application, and two passport-sized photos. There is no additional fee.
It is possible to get an expedited travel document if you need to travel because of an emergency. USCIS issues emergency travel documents in situations like the death or sudden illness of a family member abroad. If you find yourself in this situation, you can make an appointment with your local USCIS office. You should bring your completed I-131, two passport photos, and evidence to prove that you have an urgent need to travel. This evidence might be a death certificate, medical records, or a signed letter from your family member’s doctor. There is no additional fee for an emergency travel document.
Planning your trip
The travel document usually arrives within 150 days (sometimes longer) after submitting your application. You can’t leave the country until you have your approved travel document in hand, so you should expect to spend the 3–5 months after submitting your green card application in the United States.
Theoretically, you could be out of the United States for as long as you have a travel document (one year plus renewals). In practice, however, that’s not possible, because then you would miss your fingerprinting and green card interview appointments. If you find that you are unable to attend your fingerprinting or interview appointment, you should promptly follow the rescheduling instructions printed on the USCIS appointment notice.
In general, it’s a good idea to make arrangements to be alerted of any USCIS notices that are sent to you while you are abroad. (For example, you can ask a friend or a neighbor to inform you of any USCIS notices you receive by mail.)
Returning to the United States with a travel document
Even after you have submitted your green card application, you are still not a permanent resident of the United States. When you re-enter the United States, you’ll be considered an “arriving alien.” It’s fairly common for people with travel documents to be pulled aside for secondary inspection. Don’t be alarmed if that happens—the border agent is likely just verifying that you have a pending green card application.
Travel documents do not guarantee that the border agent will allow you back into the United States, however. If you have any reason to suspect that you might be turned away at the border, you should carefully consider whether or not you need to travel before your green card application has been approved.
For example, If you have been in the United States for any amount of time without legal immigration status, then leaving the United States under most circumstances will trigger a bar from re-entering the United States for either three or ten years, depending on how long you were in the United States without status. If you’re in this situation, it is a good idea to avoid travel until you have a green card.
In summary, there is really no downside to applying for a travel document at the same time you submit your green card application, so you should do so even if you don’t have any specific travel plans.