Maintaining your green card is pretty straight forward if you truly want to live and work in America permanently and have made a choice to become American and not go back to your home country. However, there are people who simply cannot disconnect from their birth country and culture and find themselves thinking immigrating was a mistake. It could be due to family, money or simply the goods and services that are available in their home country that are difficult or expensive to get in America. Often, after spending thousands of dollars to get the green card, they move back home or take extended vacation in their home country. Rather than giving up on the green card, these permanent residents know that US citizenship is a mere 5 year away (3 for people who married a US citizen). Instead of letting USCIS know that they intend on residing in their home country, they try to come back to America every few months to “maintain” their permanent residency. This simply does not work. Upon return, these green card holders will get detained at the airport, questioned for hours why they spent so much time abroad and often given a choice to renounce the green card or face more questioning and USCIS procedures. This post is to help guide permanent residents on how long they can actually go back to their home country and still return without any problems at the USCIS Custom and Border Protection checkpoint.
On the USCIS website for maintaining permanent residency, it clearly says that any length of time outside the USA can be used as evidence that the green card holder intends on abandoning their green card:
You may be found to have abandoned your permanent resident status if you:
- Remain outside of the United States for more than 1 year without obtaining a reentry permit or returning resident visa. However, in determining whether your status has been abandoned, any length of absence from the United States may be considered, even if less than 1 year
- Remain outside of the United States for more than 2 years after issuance of a reentry permit without obtaining a returning resident visa. However, in determining whether your status has been abandoned any length of absence from the United States may be considered, even if less than 1 year
Any absence from America for more than 1 year without a Re-Entry permit that you have applied BEFORE leaving America will automatically make your green card invalid. There is a rumor that you may have heard from friends or family that as long as you return every 12 months, you can “revalidate” your green card and stay in active status. This is absolutely FALSE! In fact, if you go back to your home country and only come back to America for a month every 1 year, USCIS will have a record of this pattern and will detain you at the airport to ask you to surrender your green card. Same goes with a pattern of coming back to America every 3,4,5 months in an attempt to show you still want your green card. Normal US permanent residents are likely to be residing in America for most of the year. Only celebrities or international businessmen would travel that way. Therefore, the bottom line is that there is no safe or guaranteed amount of time that you can spend in your home country and still be able to come back with a valid green card without any issues at the airport. The best way to maintain green card status is to simply live in America for most of the year and take 1-2 months trips abroad to your home country. Any other methods will simply flag your green card and potentially cause you to lose your permanent residency.
However, the USCIS knows that there are times due to family issues such as a family member being very ill or at the last stages of their lives and the green card holder wants to spend as much time as possible with them before they die. In this kind of circumstances, before leaving America, the green card holder must file an I-131 Re-Entry permit. You should apply for the re-entry permit if you intend on leaving America for more than 3 months. The re-entry permit is usually approved for 2 years. The permit is easy to apply and you must supply a very valid reason why you need this permit. Also you should prepare evidence that you still do intent on residing in America permanently by demonstrating your ties to America. The following documents are some examples of what you should include with your I-131 application:
- Home purchase in America
- Car purchase in America
- Bank account in America
- Insurance accounts in America
- Tax returns in America
- Maintained an active driver’s license in America
- Storage rentals in America
- Own a business in America
- Will attend school upon return in America
Remember, you must wait until you get an approved re-entry permit before you leave the country. If you leave America before getting your approved re-entry permit, then the I-131 is considered abandoned and you will likely be detained at the airport upon your return!
Another more unfortunate situation is that the US green card holder had no time to file for a re-entry permit and left America. In this case, you need to apply for a SB-1 Retuning Resident Visa at the local US embassy or consulate. The Consular Officers will make a determination on your case and see if you could not have time to file for a re-entry permit and the situation is beyond your control. If you can demonstrate to the Consular Officers that you have every intention of returning to America permanently, they will reinstate your green card and allow you to return. Keep in mind this is a very last resort option. Consular Officers are not likely to reinstate your green card easily if your situation was not extreme.
The takeaway for this post is that don’t try to think you can get away with living in your home country while maintaining your green card. The USCIS CBP has every record of your departure and days spent outside America. They know exactly when you entered and left the country. If you are trying to sneakily maintain your green card while you have no intensions of residing in America permanently, you will probably lose your green card. You spent thousands of dollars and a lot of time and effort in getting the green card, use it correctly, stay in America permanently. In cases where you do have to be aboard for more than 3 months, make sure you file your I-131 re-entry permit before leaving. It will help you maintain your green card and assure no hassles upon your return.