What is a Refugee Travel Document (Form I-131)?
A Refugee Travel Document is official travel documentation, similar to a passport, issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to refugees or asylees. It allows them to travel abroad and return to the United States. Green card holders who obtained permanent residency as a result of refugee or asylee status must also apply for it to travel abroad. While the green card itself grants the holder the right to enter the United States (as long as they have been outside the country for less than 1 year), a Refugee Travel Document is generally required to enter other countries instead of a passport.
Asylum seekers (i.e., individuals who have filed Form I-589) cannot obtain a Refugee Travel Document and instead must apply for an Advance Parole Document, which allows them to return to the U.S. without a visa after traveling abroad.
Individuals with refugee or asylee status and asylum seekers traveling outside the U.S. without such a document or an Advance Parole Document risk being denied reentry to the U.S. and may even be subject to removal proceedings before an immigration judge.
How do I apply for a Refugee Travel Document (Form I-131)?
Lawful permanent residents in the U.S. generally do not need a Refugee Travel Document to travel internationally, as their green cards allow them to return to the U.S. after a trip abroad, provided they have been outside the country for less than 1 year. However, most refugees or asylees who have obtained green cards cannot apply for passports from their home countries or may choose not to travel as nationals of those countries. This document allows these individuals to travel abroad, essentially serving as a passport.
To apply for a Refugee Travel Document, you must file Form I-131, Application for Travel Document, with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The following documents must be included with the application:
- Proof of your refugee or asylee status.
- A copy of an official photo identification with the applicant’s name and date of birth (such as a valid driver’s license or foreign passport).
- The required filing fee (and an additional biometrics fee if the applicant is between 14 and 79 years old).
- Foreign-language identification documents must include a complete English translation and a translation certificate.
Additional family members with derivative refugee or asylee status (or who obtained green cards based on refugee/asylee status) must also file separate Form I-131 applications and provide all necessary supporting documents.
A few weeks after submitting the form, applicants will receive a written notice to visit their local USCIS office for a biometrics appointment, where fingerprints will be taken, and they will be photographed. The applicant may also receive a USCIS notice requesting additional information or documentation.
How long does it take to process a Refugee Travel Document (Form I-131) application? How long are they valid?
A Refugee Travel Document application can take two to six months. It makes sense to apply several months before planning to travel outside the United States.
Applicants must be physically in the U.S. when filing the Form I-131 application. However, they can leave the U.S. before receiving the travel document (as long as they complete their biometrics appointment before leaving). Form I-131 has a provision to request the document to be sent to an embassy, consulate, or U.S. Department of Homeland Security office abroad.
It is not recommended to travel abroad for individuals who have filed Form I-131 applications but have not yet received a valid travel document. Although nothing prevents them from traveling abroad, they risk being denied reentry to the U.S. if their Form I-131 application is denied by USCIS and they have not obtained a travel document. A Refugee Travel Document expires one year after the date it is issued and cannot be extended. When planning a trip abroad, the holder of the Refugee Travel Document should ensure it does not expire before attempting to reenter the U.S.
Do not travel to the country of persecution
Individuals with refugee/asylee status in the U.S. should not travel back to the country where they claimed persecution in their refugee/asylee application. Even if they have a valid Refugee Travel Document, they may be denied reentry to the U.S. if they have traveled to this country. In such cases, USCIS, the Department of State, or other immigration agencies may decide that the person no longer faces a risk of persecution in their home country. They may no longer need protection from the United States. Lawful permanent residents who obtained their status as refugees or asylees may also risk losing their green card if they return to the country they claimed they needed protection from.
Do you need to apply for Form I-131, Application for Travel Document? Mistakes in the application can cause delays and rejections. Contact an experienced immigration lawyer to properly prepare and submit the documents, so you get the best possible outcome.