Application for Travel Document: Form I-131 Explained
How to Apply for Advance Parole?
If you’re waiting to be issued a green card or you have an active case with immigration, USCIS doesn’t want you to leave the country without advance permission.
Form I-131, Application for Travel Document, allows people with pending cases to obtain permission to travel outside of the country temporarily. This is what you should know about how, when, and why to use form I-131.
What Is Form I-131?
Form I-131, Application for Travel Document is used to apply for an advance parole document. Advance parole allows people who are not permanent residents or U.S. citizens to leave and re-enter the United States under specific circumstances for a limited amount of time.
The word “parole” is often associated with a criminal being let out of prison before they’ve completed their term. In immigration, the term “parole” means something different. You aren’t in trouble, and you certainly aren’t regarded as a criminal. The term as used by immigration means that you’ve received special permission to travel while your application is pending and you are “paroled” into the U.S. to continue the application process.
If you are not yet a permanent resident or a citizen, you may need an approved Form I-131 before you can depart the country without jeopardizing your immigration status or ongoing applications with USCIS.
Leaving the country without obtaining a travel document could be interpreted as abandoning your USCIS case. A travel document shows intent to return to the United States.
Who Needs Form I-131?
If you have a pending application with USCIS for asylum or adjustment of status, you aren’t allowed to leave the country. This would result in your application being deemed abandoned.
If you encounter a situation where you need to briefly leave the country (like to complete the sale of your old home, visit a sick family member, or attend the wedding of a loved one), you need permission from USCIS to travel.
A travel document will give you permission to come and go before you become a permanent resident or asylee of the United States. Once you receive permanent resident status, you’ll no longer need a travel document for trips outside of the United States shorter than 12 months. If you become a citizen, you won’t need a travel document for any trips outside of the United States, regardless of their duration.
Form I-131 can also be used to apply for a re-entry permit, which can allow permanent residents to remain outside the United States for a year or more.
How Do You Use Form I-131 for a Re-Entry Permit?
USCIS wants you to file Form I-131 before you leave the country. If you’re a lawful permanent resident of the United States, they want you to travel for less than one year at a time. If you’re a permanent resident who stayed outside of the United States for one year or more without a travel document, you may need to take a few extra steps before you return.
If you’ve been gone for more than twelve months, you’ll likely be taken aside at the airport for secondary inspection by the Department of Homeland Security. Immigration officials can claim that you attempted to abandon your permanent resident status and attempt to have it revoked, which will lead to a lengthy legal battle. You may be placed into removal proceedings and ultimately returned to your country of origin if you cannot establish you did not intend to abandon your residence.
If you had a legitimate reason for staying outside of the United States for a year or more, you can apply for a returning resident visa. Consular officials will consider situations like serious illness or injury to you or a family member to be a pressing circumstance. They no longer consider COVID-related claims.
After viewing your case, the U.S. Embassy or Consulate may issue you a returning resident visa. A returning resident visa will allow you to enter the United States with minimal risk to your resident status.
The best course of action if you need to remain outside the U.S. for a year or more is to apply for a re-entry permit before departing the U.S. This shows your that you do not intend to abandon your lawful permanent residence.
What Happens If You Leave the United States Without an Approved Form I-131 Travel Document?
If you leave the United States without completing Form I-131 and receiving a travel document while you have a case pending with USCIS, they will deny your case. If you leave the United States while your case is still pending, USCIS considers your departure as abandonment of your case.
Can You Leave the United States Before You Receive Your Travel Document?
You’re technically allowed to leave the United States before you receive your travel document if your Form I-131 has been reviewed and approved. However, it is always best to have the actual advance parole document on hand before leaving the country.
Can You Get an Emergency Travel Document With Form I-131?
USCIS is willing to consider emergency processing of many documents on a case-by-case basis. If you’re dealing with an urgent situation, like the death or severe illness of a family member overseas, you can request an emergency appointment with USCIS regarding your travel paperwork.
You’ll need to arrive at your appointment with your passport and passport photos, completed I-131 travel document forms, and proof of an emergency. You can have your family member’s doctor write an official letter declaring the situation to be an emergency and present that letter as evidence.
USCIS may be able to issue you an emergency travel document that will allow you to return home right away. They won’t charge you an expedited processing fee for a legitimate emergency.
Is It Safe To Travel With a Pending Immigration Case?
USCIS would prefer that you didn’t leave the country while your immigration case is pending, even if your application for a travel document was approved. If you miss vital communication with USCIS, like an interview appointment or a request for more information, your immigration case can be denied.
If you intend to travel while your immigration case is still in progress, it’s vital to check the USCIS website for updates on your case frequently. Ask someone you trust to check your mail for you every day and inform you of correspondences relating to your immigration case. If the phone number you have on file with USCIS can’t be used to reach you while you’re away, update your contact information before you leave. Be prepared to return if USCIS needs you to come back.
When Should You Complete and File Form I-131 to Request Advance Parole?
It’s important to apply for a travel document a few months before you’ll need it. You aren’t allowed to leave the country on advance parole until you’ve been approved and received your travel document. If you leave without an approved travel document, you may not be able to re-enter the United States.
USCIS estimates the wait time for a travel document to be approximately 90 days, but USCIS perpetually manages a large backlog of cases. It often takes them a while longer to process documents that aren’t considered to be emergency cases. It may take them up to 150 days to issue you a travel document, so you should plan accordingly. You should apply for a travel document even if there’s a chance that your green card may be approved by the time you need to leave the country.
Life can be unpredictable. You have no way of knowing if an emergency may pull you back home before you’ve received your green card. If you have any strong ties to a country other than the United States, you can file form I-131 at the same time you file the forms for your green card. It’s better to have a travel document and not need it than it is to need a travel document and not have it. You’ll be able to leave at a moment’s notice if you have a valid travel document.
How Long Does a Travel Document Last?
Travel documents may be issued for up to five years from the issue date. You need to return to the United States before the expiration date on your advance parole docuement. You’re allowed to return to the United States and leave again as long as you return before your travel document expires.
If you believe you’ll need to stay outside the United States for longer than the validity, you must return and request another travel document. Your green card will likely be issued before your travel document expires. If that’s the case, return to the United States temporarily to retrieve your official green card. Once you have your green card, you’re free to travel outside of the United States for a maximum of one continuous year.
If you intend to apply for citizenship, keep in mind that the residency requirement states that you must live primarily in the United States for at least five continuous years before applying or three continuous years if you received your green card through marriage.
Traveling too frequently or spending too much time outside of the United States may interfere with your ability to apply for citizenship. It’s okay to visit your family back home for a few weeks every year, but be mindful of lengthy visits.
Can You File for a Travel Document Extension?
There is no process for extending a travel document that already exists. If you have a travel document that’s about to expire and need more time, you must return to the United States and file a new Form I-131. Processing times and fees aren’t different if you’re filing for a new travel document.
The process will work the same exact way as it did the first time, and the waiting period will depend on USCIS’s current caseload. You’ll want to plan accordingly if you think you’ll need to be out of the country after your travel document’s expiration date. Because the waiting period can be several months long, it’s better to cautiously return to the United States and reapply for a travel document before your current travel document expires.
Can Filing a Form I-131 Prevent You From Being Detained When You Return?
CBP may detain people with pending immigration cases when they re-enter the country, as well as lawful permanent residents who have been outside of the United States for a long period of time.
Filing Form I-131 won’t prevent you from being pulled aside when you arrive in the United States. Border protection officers want to verify your travel documents and your pending case with immigration before allowing you to pass. It may be an intimidating situation, but there’s typically no reason to worry. If you’ve attended every immigration appointment and responded every time they contacted you, you’ll typically be allowed to re-enter the United States.
If you missed important calls, letters, or appointments while you were gone, you may not be allowed to re-enter. You’re expected to manage your side of your immigration case even if you’re traveling with a valid travel document. Always be mindful of important dates and letters USCIS may send. Ask a trusted person to check your mail in the United States while you’re away.
Do You Need Legal Assistance With Form I-131?
Knowing how and when to file Form I-131 and understanding the rules around traveling with an active green card application is crucial for immigrants who need to leave the United States. The experienced team of immigration attorneys at Cohen, Tucker + Ades may be able to help you navigate the situation.
Contact us for a consultation to review the details of your immigration case. We’ll be able to advise you of your options.