Maintaining Green Card Status (Even When Temporarily Living Outside the US)

by Ashley Emerson Mendoza

As an immigration attorney, it gives me great joy to tell our clients that their Green Cards (giving them permanent residency status in the US) have been approved. My husband is himself a Green Card holder so I know firsthand how important the freedom and security that permanent residency in the US provides for immigrants; at the same time, it’s also important for Green Card holders to know their rights and responsibilities as permanent residents—including how to maintain their permanent residency to ensure that they keep their Green Cards and, if they so desire, apply for citizenship down the road!  

The following dialogue is a fictional example of a conversation I often have with our clients about maintaining permanent residency.  (No Daryanani Law Group client information is used or revealed and any similarity to real people is entirely coincidental!).

ASHLEY: Hi Sophie, I understand you have some questions about your Green Card?  

SOPHIE: Hi Ashley! Yes, thank you so much for returning my call. As you know I’ve lived in the US for the past ten years pursuing my fashion styling career and four years ago you helped me get my Green Card. I was recently approached by a magazine from my hometown, Paris, to serve as its fashion editor. I’d like to move back to France to give this new position a shot. But is this going to affect my Green Card? 

ASHLEY: Yes, Sophie, this could definitely affect your status as a permanent resident—a Green Card holder. It is great that you called before taking any actions, however, because it gives us a chance to be proactive and find a solution. Tell me a little bit more about your future plans—when will you need to relocate and how long do you plan to stay abroad for?

SOPHIE: Well, assuming the details of the job offer are confirmed, I would need to relocate to Paris temporarily in about a month or two. I may end up spending most of the year there in the initial year of the job, but the US is my home and I will be coming back once I am up and running in my new position. During the time I will be in Paris, I would still take trips back to the US for some of my clients, and you know the fashion industry—it’s always changing. I may need to return to the US sooner than expected if a better opportunity presents itself, or depending on the needs of my client base.

ASHLEY: Okay, well before we take this conversation any further, I want to remind you of the basic residency requirement that all Green Card holders are subject to. First is that the United States needs to be your place of permanent residence. You must consider the US your permanent home and reside here—meaning that you must be physically present inside the US for over 180 days each year that you hold your Green Card. You should also be careful not to spend extended period of time outside of the US—for example trips of six months or more without returning to the US.

As a permanent resident of the US, you should maintain ongoing ties to the US, which may include any property ownership, a full-time job in the US, an ongoing lease for an apartment, US bank accounts, US driver’s license, US tax returns, any family or community ties, etc. Having these sorts of ties helps to preserve your permanent residency if it is ever brought into question.

You will also always need to file your US tax returns while you hold a Green Card. Further you must always claim that you are a permanent resident of the US for immigration purposes when filing US tax returns. Finally you are required to obey all laws of the US.

Depending on how you obtained your Green Card (you applied through work, I believe), you can eventually apply for citizenship after three or five years if you maintain your Green Card. How long have you had your Green Card and have you been maintaining your status?

SOPHIE: I have had the Green Card for about three and a half years and, yes, I obtained my Green Card through my work. So far I have been very careful to spend most of my time here. The US is my home and I have many of the ties you mentioned. I have also filed US tax returns every year since receiving my Green Card, so I think I’m in good shape so far. With regard to my upcoming travel plans, however, I will definitely be living in Paris full-time initially—I’m worried!

ASHLEY: Based on the information you’ve provided me so far, although you may not spend periods of six months outside of the US at a time, cumulatively you could definitely be spending over half of the year abroad while you are in this new position. So to protect your permanent resident status, it sounds like applying for a reentry permit may be the best path forward.

SOPHIE: What’s a reentry permit?

ASHLEY: It’s an application for a permit that lets Customs and Border Protection—CBP—know that you reside permanently in the US and that you are only based abroad temporarily. It is one mechanism to show you did not intend to abandon your permanent resident status and it also serves as an additional tie to the US.

SOPHIE: That sounds really good. What is involved in an application?

ASHLEY: We will prepare the relevant forms and an affidavit for you to sign. In the application, we will explain that although you’re going to be spending a lot of time abroad in the near future due to the job opportunity, that you still consider the US your permanent home, that you plan to return to live in the US, and that you are not abandoning your Green Card. You will need to gather evidence of your ongoing ties to the US, some examples of which we already discussed, as well as two passport-style photographs for the application.

SOPHIE: Okay, I will see what I can pull together. What is the timing like? Is there any period where I can’t travel? 

ASHLEY: You must be physically present in the US when US Citizenship and Immigration Services—USCIS—receives your application. About two to three weeks after we submit the application, we will receive a receipt for your case. About three to six weeks after we file, we’ll receive your biometrics appointment notice, at which point you’ll need to be available in the US to complete your biometrics. You will need to remain in the US from the time we file your application until after your biometrics are completed. All said and done, the reentry permit application normally takes anywhere from three to five months to be processed and approved. You will need to reenter the US with your Green Card and the reentry permit.

SOPHIE: How long will the reentry permit protect my Green Card for?

ASHLEY: The reentry permit will be valid for an initial period of two years. You should contact our office when its expiration is approaching to discuss your future plans. Depending on whether you plan to remain abroad short-term or permanently, or return to the US, we can discuss applying for a new reentry permit or maybe even giving up your Green Card.

SOPHIE: Are there any other considerations I should be aware of before deciding to apply for the reentry permit?

ASHLEY: You should speak to your accountant about how to file your US taxes moving forward. As I mentioned, you will always need to declare that you are a permanent resident of the US as long as you hold a Green Card. This remains true even once you have your re-entry permit. You are still a Green Card holder, so you still need to comply with any tax obligations that you may have as a Green Card holder even if you will not be physically present for many days in the US. It is important to note that if you file your US taxes as a “non-resident” it may impact your US citizenship application if you ever decide to pursue that benefit.

SOPHIE: Oh yeah, what about US citizenship?  My friend said I can get it. 

ASHLEY: Well, since you obtained your Green Card through employment, generally you would be eligible to apply for US citizenship (also called naturalization) after five years of being a Green Card holder. Since you have three and a half years of permanent residence you are at least a year and a half away from being able to apply. Keep in mind that if you move to Paris for this job, you will be spending a large chunk of time outside the US and it may impact your eligibility for citizenship, because, in addition to showing you have had a Green Card for five years, you also have to show that you have been physically present for two and a half of those five years.  Also, if you spend more than six months continuously outside the country, you risk disrupting your continuous residency. If your continuous residency is disrupted, the clock starts over and you will need to accumulate five years of continuous residency in the US all over again.

If you continue to reside in the US for another year and a half, we may be able to apply for your citizenship then. Once you have naturalized and hold a US passport, you are free to travel internationally without restriction, although there are, of course, US tax considerations as a US citizen even if you work abroad—these should be discussed with your accountant or tax attorney.   

SOPHIE: It sounds like I have a lot of thinking to do! One last question—my son also has his Green Card and he will remain in the US since he’s attending college here. Will this affect his Green Card in any way?

ASHLEY: As long as he continues to maintain his permanent residency, he will not have any issue with his Green Card. His maintenance of status is separate from yours, so your international travel will not affect his Green Card. If at any time he decides to join you in Paris, we should discuss what the appropriate action would be in his case. We may be able to apply for and obtain his citizenship before then.

SOPHIE: Okay great. I’m going to speak to the magazine in France to confirm the details of the job offer.

ASHLEY: Sounds great, Sophie. Please let me know what you decide.

SOPHIE: Thanks, Ashley!