What Is a Refugee Travel Document?

Updated on April 10, 2024

At a Glance

  • The U.S. offers a refugee travel document for refugees and asylees needing to travel abroad.
  • Serves as a substitute for a passport, allowing entry to over 145 countries.
  • Apply by submitting Form I-131 along with supporting documents, but it’s crucial to apply in advance due to processing times of up to six months.
  • Travel to the country of persecution or extended stays outside the U.S. may impact refugee or asylee status, with reentry subject to evaluation and admissibility criteria.

Refugees and asylees in the United States may feel the need to travel outside of the country. For this, they’ll need a passport. But refugees are often not in possession of a passport issued by their home country. In such cases, a refugee travel document becomes essential. If you want to learn more about the refugee travel document, this article is for you.

Refugee Travel Document

The United States has always been at the forefront of international humanitarian programs. It has accepted people of all nationalities who are vulnerable in their own country as refugees or asylees. The U.S. accepts about 30,000 refugees every year, although this may decrease to 18,000 in the future.

Refugees and asylees staying in the U.S. might have to travel abroad because for personal or official purposes. But since they do not have a proper passport, they will not be able to enter and exit other countries.

To help them, the U.S. government is offering something known as a refugee travel document. If you hold refugee status, this will allow you to travel abroad and preserve your right to enter the U.S. once your return.

Consider the travel document the equivalent of the U.S. passport for refugees and asylees.

More than 145 countries recognize the refugee travel document issued by the U.S. government. These countries are members of the Convention Relating to the States of Refugees. If the country you’re going to travel to is a part of the Convention, then you can use this document instead of a passport.

When Are You Eligible for a Refugee Travel Document?

There is a set group of people who can apply for a refugee travel document. Those are:

  • Refugees and asylee status holders
  • A legal permanent resident who obtained their green card due to their refugee/asylee status

You must be physically present in the United States when applying for this document. But there will be circumstances where you can get it from outside the U.S. at a consulate. If you traveled abroad because of an emergency, then this will be an accepted cause.

LPRs need not apply for a refugee travel document. The green card is more than enough to return to the U.S. after overseas travel. But since most of them have fled their native country, they choose not to use that country’s passport. Moreover, using a refugee travel document makes the traveling process much easier.

Documents Required to Apply for a Refugee Travel Document

Applicants for refugee travel documents are required to submit certain documents to be considered. This is required for Form I-131, which you’ll be filling out as part of the application process.

Here are the documents you’re required to submit:

  • Evidence that you hold refugee or asylee status (photocopies of signed orders by an immigration judge would do)
  • An official photo ID that contains your name and date of birth
  • Two passport-sized photographs that meet all the requirements
  • Filing fee receipts

If your ID cards are issued in a foreign language — anything other than English — you’re required to submit an English copy of them. Along with that, you must submit a certificate of translation.

There might be other documents that you must submit as directed by officials.

How to Apply for a Refugee Travel Document

To apply for a refugee travel document, you must complete and submit Form I-131, Application for Travel Document. It is a 5-page form that’s available for download. Here’s a brief overview of the form:

Part 1: Information About You

The first section of the form will ask you about your personal information. You will submit details like your name, physical address, country of birth, Social Security number, and A-number.

Part 2: Application Type

This is the most important part. Here, you must specify the type of application. You must select 1.b from the option: “I now hold U.S. refugee or asylee status and I am applying for a Refugee Travel Document.” People applying for parole and an advance parole document also submit this form. Hence, it’s important to categorize yourself accordingly.

Part 3: Processing Information

In this part, you will specify details like the date of intended departure, expected length of the trip, if you’ve ever been issued a reentry permit, and questions along those lines.

Part 4: Information About Your Proposed Travel

This is where you have to specify the details about your proposed travel. Where you’re going, for what exact reasons, where you’re planning to stay, the people you’re going to meet, and anything else the officials should know.

If you’re planning on a multi-country trip, specify the number of countries.

Part 5: Complete Only if Applying for a Reentry Permit

Only complete this part of the form if you also need a reentry permit. Usually, if you’re going to be away for more than one year, you’d need a reentry permit to enter the U.S.

Once you’ve submitted the form, you might be asked to attend a biometric interview.

The USCIS might take somewhere between two to six months to issue the refugee travel document, so you should apply months in advance.

Note: Do Not Travel to the Country You Are Feeling Persecution From

Although not strictly prohibited, you shouldn’t travel back to the country that is persecuting you. This is because traveling to that country would allow USCIS officials to reconsider your asylee status. Since you’re traveling to the country, it might indicate that you’re no longer unsafe in that country. So the USCIS may revoke your refugee status and deny you reentry into the U.S.

Green card holders who obtained LPR status after successfully completing one year of living in the U.S. could lose their green card if they return to their previous country.

But all these things are at the discretion of the USCIS.

Form I-131 asks you questions about your plans to return to the country you’re feeling persecution from and if you’ve received or are receiving any benefits from that country.

You must answer these questions honestly to avoid problems later on.

Reentering the U.S. After Travel

Traveling outside the U.S. when you’re on refugee or asylee status is considered risky in general. Therefore, if possible, you should wait until you get your green card.

Even if you’ve traveled outside with valid documents, you might be denied entry into the U.S. after travel. Your right to reenter the U.S. is reevaluated for your eligibility to be “admissible” to the U.S. Inadmissible grounds range from immigration law violation to disease infection.

Read More


If you’re considering traveling outside the U.S. with a refugee travel document, you should consult with an experienced attorney to be on the safe side.

Refugee Travel Document FAQ

What is a Refugee Travel Document (RTD)?

A Refugee Travel Document (RTD) is a travel document issued by the U.S. government to individuals who have been granted refugee or asylum status in the United States or are lawful permanent residents (Green Card holders) based on asylum or refugee status. It allows them to travel internationally and reenter the U.S. after temporary travel abroad.

Who is eligible to apply for an RTD?

Eligibility for an RTD includes:

  1. Refugees and Asylees: Individuals granted refugee or asylum status in the United States.
  2. Lawful Permanent Residents (Green Card Holders): Those who obtained Green Cards based on refugee or asylee status.
  3. Conditional Permanent Residents: Individuals with conditional permanent resident status based on refugee or asylee status.

Why do refugees and asylees need an RTD?

Refugees and asylees may need an RTD for reasons such as:

  • International Travel: To travel outside the U.S. and return.
  • Consular Processing: When applying for a visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy abroad.
  • Identification: As an official identification document and proof of immigration status.

How do you apply for an RTD?

To apply for an RTD:

  1. Complete Form I-131: Fill out Form I-131, Application for Travel Document, available on the USCIS website.
  2. Gather Required Documents: Collect supporting documents, including your Green Card (if applicable), passport photos, and evidence of your refugee or asylee status.
  3. Pay the Fee: Pay the filing fee for Form I-131, although fee waivers may be available for eligible individuals.
  4. Submit the Application: Mail your completed Form I-131, supporting documents, and fee payment to the specified address.
  5. Attend Biometrics Appointment: USCIS schedules a biometrics appointment for fingerprinting and photography.
  6. Attend an Interview (if required): USCIS may require an interview in some cases.
  7. Receive the RTD: If approved, USCIS issues the RTD, including your photo and travel information.

How long does it take to receive an RTD?

Processing times vary, but it generally takes several months. Apply well in advance of your travel plans to ensure timely issuance.

How long is an RTD valid?

RTD validity depends on individual circumstances:

  • Refugees and Asylees: Typically valid for up to one year.
  • Green Card Holders: Up to two years if based on refugee or asylee status.
  • Conditional Permanent Residents: Generally valid for two years.

Can you renew an RTD?

Yes, you can renew an RTD by filing a new Form I-131 application before the current RTD expires. Start the renewal process early to avoid travel disruptions.

Can you use an RTD for multiple trips?

Yes, an RTD is valid for multiple trips during its validity period. Ensure you return to the U.S. before the RTD expires to maintain your status.

Can an RTD replace a passport?

An RTD is not a passport substitute. It does not confer citizenship or nationality. Always check entry requirements for countries you plan to visit, as some may have specific requirements for refugees and asylees.

Can you travel to your home country with an RTD?

Travel to your home country with an RTD can impact your refugee or asylee status. Seek legal advice and guidance from immigration authorities before such travel.

What if your RTD is lost or stolen?

Report a lost or stolen RTD to authorities promptly and apply for a replacement RTD if necessary.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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