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How to Keep Your Green Card

Once you've received your green card, it's important to play by the rules in order to keep it. There are two primary ways that green card holders can get in trouble. They are:

  • By leaving the U.S. for extended periods of time
  • By violating the law

In order to keep your green card, it pays to know the rules.

Leaving the United States: General Guidelines

The first way that green card holders can lose their green card is by leaving the U.S. for extended periods of time. If a green card holder leaves the U.S. with the intention of making some other country his or her permanent home, then the green card holder's U.S. residency is lost. The rule is relatively simple, but determining what someone's intent is can be difficult. Consequently, border officials are trained to look for signals that your true residence is outside the U.S.

You may have heard the rule that to avoid this, you need to reenter the U.S. once a year. There is no hard rule, so don't plan on using this strategy to keep your green card. It is definitely true, however, that if you are absent for more than a year, you will likely find that it is difficult to reenter the U.S.

Unfortunately, there is no single rule for how long you can or cannot leave the U.S. However, if you keep in mind that your goal is to demonstrate to a border official that your permanent residence is in the U.S., here are some general guidelines:

  • Entering the U.S. within six months of leaving will usually avoid any problems
  • Avoid leaving the U.S. for more than a year
  • If you do plan on being outside of the U.S. for a year or more, apply for a reentry permit

Get a Reentry Permit if You Will be Outside the U.S. for One Year or More

If you know in advance that you will be leaving the U.S. for more than a year, apply to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a reentry permit. A reentry permit will allow you to stay outside of the U.S. for up to two years, and the reentry permit serves as an entry document once you return. You should apply before you leave, and you will likely need to fill out a Form I-131 which is available on the USCIS website.

If you fail to get a reentry permit, you must apply at a U.S. consulate abroad for a special immigrant visa as a returning resident. This will require you to demonstrate that you were away from the U.S. longer than a year due to unforeseeable circumstances (e.g., due to illness).

Prove Your Intent to Live in the U.S. by Applying for Citizenship

Finally, it's worth noting that one of the easiest ways to demonstrate that the U.S. is your intended permanent residence is to apply for citizenship. Applying for citizenship makes it very clear in almost all circumstances that you intend to live permanently in the U.S. Bear in mind that there is a waiting period once you've received your green card before you can apply, which is typically five years (four years for political asylum and three years if you're married to a U.S. citizen).

Violating the Law: General Guidelines

The second way green card holders can lose their green card is by violating the law. There is no specific list of exactly which laws qualify you for deportation, so if you do get arrested or charged with violating the law, contact an immigration attorney right away. It's important to contact an immigration attorney, because criminal attorneys may not fully understand the consequences of the charges to your immigration status.

In addition, violating the law isn't limited to criminal offenses. You may be deported even for civil offenses that require no jail time. Generally, any law that has a "moral" element to it (fraud, theft, sex offenses, etc) is grounds for deportation, criminal or civil.

Notify USCIS within Ten Days of Moving

As a green card holder, you are required to advise the USCIS of a change of address within ten days of moving. Accordingly, one of the easiest ways to violate the law, even if it seems overly technical, is to fail to update your address with the USCIS. If you don't update your address, this may be grounds in of itself to deport you, so always keep your address up to date with the USCIS. The USCIS provides an online service to update your address.

Register with Selective Service if You Qualify 

All male lawful permanent residents (green card holders) between the ages of 18 and 25 must register with the Selective Service System (SSS), which tracks those eligible for U.S. military service in the event of a sudden need of troops (or draft). This requirement does not apply to those who are in the U.S. on a temporary visa; who entered the U.S. after their 26th birthday; or if you didn't actively maintain your green card status by residing in the U.S. 

Failure to register with the Secret Service, which also is required of male U.S. citizens, could jeopardize your application for naturalization or your ability to lawfully remain in the U.S.  

Next Steps
Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help
you with visa procedures.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)