Can I Stay More Than 6 Months Outside the U.S. with a Green Card?

Posted by Frank Gogol
Updated on April 27, 2022

There are many reasons why you, as a lawful permanent resident (LPR), could need to travel outside of the U.S. for an extended time. You might also find yourself stuck outside of the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic, unable to return for whatever reasons. 

Of course, you’re wondering, “can I stay more than 6 months outside the U.S. with a green card?”. The good news is, yes, you can. But you’ll need to plan well. Depending on your situation, there may also be consequences for your return or your pending naturalization application. We explore these in more detail below. 

How Long Can a Green Card Holder Stay Outside the United States?

You can stay outside of the U.S. for as long as you want. What you need to avoid, however, is being regarded as having abandoned your lawful permanent resident status

Staying Outside of the U.S. Too Long

If you stay outside of the U.S. too long, the Customs and Border Protection Officer (CBP officer) at the port of entry (for example, the airport) could question whether you have abandoned (i.e., given up) your lawful permanent resident status. The CBP officer has access to records showing your previous entries and exits to the U.S. They might ask you questions such as where have you been, how long have you been gone, what did you do there, and what ties you kept in the U.S. while you were away. 

Requirements for Re-entry

When you arrive at the port of entry, there are two requirements you have to meet to avoid scrutiny from the CBP officer. If you meet both these requirements, then you will be allowed back into the U.S. without any trouble. If one of them is lacking, then you might come under the CBP officer’s scrutiny. These two requirements are:

  1. You must have been outside of the U.S. for under 180 days (6 months), and
  2. You must not have abandoned your LPR status by making a trip abroad that wasn’t temporary (i.e., all your visits outside of the U.S. must be temporary).

The best way to avoid abandoning your LPR status is to make sure the U.S. is your primary home and leave the U.S. for temporary visits. Essentially you need to make sure you are in the U.S. for more days in a year than you are outside of the U.S. All your trips must also have a temporary purpose (for example visiting your family or going on a business trip). 

Let’s take a look at these two requirements in more detail. 

What is the 6-Month Rule? 

As we explained above, the 6-month rule is one of the elements to show you have not abandoned your LPR status. If you are outside of the U.S. for more than 180 days (6 months) in a year, you could be regarded as having abandoned your LPR status. 

It isn’t only consecutive days that count towards the 6-month rule. The 6-month rule counts the total days (consecutive or not) in which you were outside of the U.S. This total must be less than 180 days if you want to avoid scrutiny.

But remember, just being outside of the U.S. for less than 180 days in a year doesn’t automatically mean the CBP official won’t scrutinize your travels. If the CBP official believes your stay outside of the U.S. was not temporary, they can still conclude that you’ve abandoned your LPR status. 

How “Temporary” is Defined

Now you know your visit outside of the U.S. must have been temporary. But how is “temporary” defined precisely, and how will you know when your trip will be regarded as not being temporary? 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific time limit that the judicial courts regard as being temporary. Whether your trip was a temporary visit abroad has a lot to do with the purpose you traveled for and the intention you had when traveling, and not necessarily the actual time you were away. 

Legal Definition of Temporary

You can read more about how the court has tried to define “temporary” here. Unfortunately, their definition is still very vague. 

Basically, you need to show the purpose of your travels was temporary. Visiting your family, going on vacation, or traveling for work would be regarded as temporary. Showing your ties in the U.S. such as owning or renting a property, having a U.S. bank account, and filing taxes in the U.S. will also help show you intended to return to the U.S. permanently after your temporary travels. 

Do You Have to Return Every 6 Months?

The short answer is no, you don’t have to. If you will be traveling for an extended time, you just need to make sure you have the correct documents. Returning every 6 months will help your LPR status not coming under scrutiny or possibly being regarded as being abandoned. But there is no requirement that you have to return to the U.S. every 6 months. 

How to Return to the U.S. After Travel

If you know you will be traveling extensively or you will be outside of the U.S. for an extended amount of time, it is essential to plan ahead and get the right documents. This will help show you haven’t abandoned your LPR status and will prevent you from being denied entry back into the U.S.

Gaining Re-entry is a two-step process:

  1. Having valid entry documents
  2. Applying for a Re-entry permit

Read on to learn about each of these steps.

Valid Entry Documents

As a green card holder, you need to show certain documents before you will be allowed back into the U.S.

If you are outside of the U.S. for less than 1 year, you will only need your green card (I-551) or a returning resident visa to re-enter the U.S.

If you will, however, be outside of the U.S. for longer than 1 year, you will need to apply for a re-entry-entry permit. 

Applying for a Re-entry Permit

If you plan to stay outside of the U.S. for longer than 1 year, you will have to apply for a re-entry permit. Otherwise, you will not be allowed back in. You have to apply for the re-entry permit (also known as the Form I-131, Application for Travel Document) with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services before you leave on your trip. You can’t apply for one when you are outside of the U.S., so make sure to apply before you leave. 

Remember that your re-entry permit will only be valid for 2 years from the date it was issued. This period cannot be extended. If you stay outside of the U.S. past your re-entry permit’s “expiration date”, you may be denied entry back into the U.S. Note if you are a conditional permanent resident, your re-entry permit will expire on the same day your conditional permanent residency expires. 

You can find more information on applying for a re-entry permit here.

Can Permanent Residents Leave the U.S. Multiple Times and Return?

As an LPR, you can leave the U.S. any number of times you want and return as long as you don’t abandon your LPR status, and you have the correct documents to re-enter.

Keep in mind that even though you will be able to come back to the U.S., staying outside of the U.S. for more than one year could mean your waiting periods for naturalization will have to start over from scratch. To prevent this from happening, you can file a Form N-470, Application to Preserve Residence. You can read more about Form N-470 here.

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Final Thoughts

Now you know the answer to “can I stay more than 6 months outside the U.S. with a green card?”. Yes, you can, as long as you only travel for a temporary purpose. Otherwise, you might be regarded as having abandoned your LPR status. Don’t be caught off guard when returning from your travels. Plan well and know the facts. Remember, if you will be away for more than a year, make sure you apply for your re-entry permit before leaving.

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