Your green card is evidence that you are a lawful permanent resident of the United States, but more may be needed to maintain your status, travel outside the United States without inconvenience, or become a naturalized U.S. citizen in the future. If you leave the United States for a prolonged period of time, you may jeopardize your permanent resident status and your future ability to naturalize.
It is important to note that maintaining permanent residence status is different from maintaining U.S. residence for naturalization purposes; some requirements overlap, but there are important differences that must be considered carefully.
Maintaining residence during lengthy absences. 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; and
- 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 U.S. for less than six continuous months, you should not 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.
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 while you are physically in the United States. Additionally, the USCIS requires that applicants who are between the ages of 14 and 79 provide biometrics (i.e., fingerprints and photographs) at an Application Support Center before departing the United States. The USCIS will schedule your biometrics appointment shortly after receiving the application. Travel arrangements should be made accordingly to allow time for completion of the biometrics process. 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 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.
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