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Keeping your greencard and eligibility for U.S. citizenship with extended international travel

“How often do I need to come to the U.S. to keep my greencard and apply for U.S. citizenship?” I have heard this question countless times from our lawful permanent resident clients. We are able to help many of our clients keep their greencard and file for citizenship, even when they have extended trips abroad. The key is educating our clients on common myths about travel for greencard holders and careful planning.

Avoiding abandonment of your lawful permanent resident status

A common myth among lawful permanent residents is that you can simply come to the U.S. every six months and keep your greencard. This is not true. Eventually, U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) will figure out that you are visiting the U.S. rather than residing here. A U.S. lawful permanent resident should reside in the U.S., not visit. Thus, CBP will focus on the number of days you were in the in the U.S. compared to the number of days you were out of the U.S. 

Departures from the U.S. that are six months or longer will often prompt CBP questioning and requests for proof of U.S. residence (e.g. taxes, employment records, bills, leases, mortgages). Filing U.S. federal income tax returns as a non-resident is a significant problem.

Thus, the reason for the trip (and how you can prove it) often becomes as significant as the time spent abroad. If the extended foreign travel is temporary (e.g. short-term employment, caring for sick family member, advanced studies), then having the appropriate documentation to prove this will make your entries into the U.S. smoother. A Reentry Permit may be advisable for some LPR’s who need to leave the U.S. for extended periods of time.

Finally, if you are a lawful permanent resident who is absent from the U.S. for one year or longer, consider your greencard cancelled by operation of law. Some clients, however, can request a special Returning Resident visa to avoid this fate through their U.S. consulate abroad.

How long do greencard holders need to be in the U.S. to be eligible for U.S. citizenship?

Lawful permanent residents normally have to wait until their 5 year greencard anniversary to apply for U.S. citizenship, minus 90 days. The main exception is for certain marriage-based cases which permit filing by the 3 year greencard anniversary, minus 90 days. Once you figure out which wait time applies to you, then you calculate whether you have both the required physical presence and continuous residence. 

Physical presence and continuous residence sound like the same thing, but they are not. Physical presence refers to the number of days you are physically on U.S. soil. Continuous residence refers to consistently maintaining the U.S. as your home, e.g. showing you have a house, job, bills or other indications that the U.S. is your home while you are away. You have to show you were physically present in the U.S. for at least 50% of days in the 5 or 3 year period (whichever applies to you) preceding your citizenship application. You also have to show continuous residence in the U.S for 100% of that same applicable period of time.

Finally, bear in mind there are some special expedited naturalization rules for the following individuals should they meet the appropriate regulatory requirements:  

  1. U.S. military

  2. Employees or contractors with the U.S. government working abroad

  3. Employees of U.S. corporations or research institutions abroad

  4. Spouses of U.S. citizens regularly stationed abroad

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