U.S. Travel Documents Requirements: Traveling to and from the USA

If you are planning a trip to or outside the U.S., the first thing you need to make sure is that your travel documents are in order. A travel document is a form of identification issued by a government to ease the movement of individuals across international borders. Before you leave for the airport, you need to make sure that your travel document is valid, and that you have all the necessary extra documentation, including any required visas. There are different types of travel documents that are issued based on immigration status and purpose for the trip. U.S. law requires that every individual, regardless of citizenship, age or destination, needs to hold a valid travel document(s) to travel outside of the United States. Of course, the requirements for crossing international boundaries vary depending on the country of destination. It is paramount when traveling either domestically or internationally to make sure you have the necessary travel documents, required visas, for entering or departing the United States.

Main Travel Documents

It is important to keep in mind that the travel document requirements for traveling outside of the U.S. may not be the same required to enter another country. The main travel documents issued by the U.S. government are passports, U.S. permanent resident card (Green Card), Refugee or Stateless travel document, Re-Entry Permit, and emergency travel document issued by an embassy or consulate. But what are the differences between them?


The passport is perhaps the most common travel document there is. It is usually issued in a booklet format. It has a biometrics page with the holder’s information and also blank pages for entry and departure stamps and visas. It acts as a form of identification and proof of citizenship. Most countries require that a passport is valid for at least 6 months at the time of arrival.

The governmental entity responsible for issuing passports in the U.S. is the Department of State (DOS). U.S. passports act as proof of U.S. citizenship and allow their holder entry into a total of 156 countries visa-free.

Passport Cards

Both apassport and passport card are considered U.S. passports. They both serve as proof of your U.S. citizenship and identity. The passport card is a wallet-sized travel document that can only be used by U.S. citizens to re-enter the United States at land border-crossings or ports-of-entry by sea from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. This card is a smaller, more convenient, and less expensive alternative to the traditional passport, especially for those who frequently travel to these destinations. The passport card, like the passport book, is valid for 10 years for an adult, and five years for children age 16 and younger. If you already have a passport book, then you may apply for the passport card at a reduced price.

USA Travel Documents

Form I-94 and Arrival/Departure Records

Form I-94, Arrival-Departure Record, is used to record traveler's’ arrival/departure information to the United States. However, CBP now gathers this information automatically from their electronic travel records. All those arriving in the U.S. via air or sea are no longer required to complete Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record. However, if they need the information from their Form I-94 admission record to prove their legal-visitor status, they can access their arrival/departure record information online. Because CBP only collects this information automatically for air and sea travelers, CBP will still issue a paper form I-94 at land border ports of entry.


To travel to and enter the United States, travelers need a visa. The type of visa you will need to apply for depends on the reason for your visit. You can apply for a visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate in your country of residence. Your approved visa will be placed on directly in your passport. A visa usually comes in either a stamp or loose piece of paper format and shows the purpose of your trip as well as its validity. You cannot enter the U.S. after your visa’s expiration date. At the port of entry, the DHS officer will enter the date when you are required to leave the U.S in your I-94 form. You have an obligation to leave the United States by this date since it is when your immigration status expires, or face not being allowed to re.-enter the U.S. even if you have a valid travel document.

In addition to the traditional visas, the USCIS also issues three types of travel documents for exceptional circumstances. These special travel documents allow their holders to re-enter the U.S. country without having to apply for a visa. To apply for these travel documents, individuals need to complete and file Form I-131, Application for Travel Document and choose which document they want to apply for:

  • An advance parole document
  • A refugee travel document
  • A re-entry permit

All those who applied for asylum or were considered asylees on or after April 1, 1997, can lose their status should they return to the country for which they sought asylum.

Advance Parole

Individuals who are in the process of adjusting their status or applying for an immigrant visa (refugees and asylees) are required to apply for advance parole document. Failure to do so can lead to severe consequences upon returning and trying to enter the United States, as these individuals may be found inadmissible, their applications may be denied, or both. It is paramount for non-U.S. citizens to obtain the proper documentation before leaving the United States. However, there are three exceptions to the requirement for nonimmigrant visa holders to apply for advance parole: H1B, L and K3/4 holders as well as their dependents. Those who hold a K1/2 visa and who have married a U.S. citizen must apply for legal permanent resident (Green Card holder) status and advance parole before leaving the United States, by filing Form I-131.

Non-immigrant visa holders must obtain Advance Parole, before departure, to re-enter the United States if they have:

  • Filed an application for adjustment of status but have not received a decision from the USCIS;
  • Hold refugee or asylee status and intend to depart temporarily to apply for a U.S. immigrant visa in Canada; and/or
  • An emergency or personal reason to travel temporarily abroad.

Refugee Travel Documents

The USCIS grants refugee travel documents to individuals with refugee or asylum status and to lawful permanent residents who obtained their Green Cards based on their refugee or asylee status. If you want to travel abroad, you will need a passport. A refugee travel document is the equivalent of a passport for asylees and refugees who need to travel outside the U.S. temporarily. Before traveling abroad, those who were granted asylum or refugee status must apply for a refugee travel document. Family members who are classified as derivative asylees or refugees must also apply and obtain a refugee travel document before traveling outside of the United States. Failing to get a refugee travel document before leaving the U.S. could have serious consequences like being denied re-entry into the U.S. or even being deported. It is also important to keep in mind that both asylees and refugees you should never travel to the country from which they claimed persecution.

Re-entry Permits

A reentry permit allows a permanent resident (Green Card holder) or conditional resident to apply for re-entry after having spent at least a year outside of the United States. Those who are granted a re-entry permit are not required to apply for a returning resident visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate.

If you are a U.S. lawful permanent resident (green card holder), and you need to spend a year or more outside the United States, you are required to get a re-entry permit to maintain your status. While Green Card holders are allowed to travel, they cannot spend more than an allotted time outside the U.S. running the risk that immigration authorities may consider the act an intent to abandon U.S. residence status. A re-entry permit helps prove that you did not mean to give up your status. A re-entry permit is also useful for when you cannot, or do not wish to, get a passport from your home country. The permit (which looks like a passport) can be used in its place. Remember that you cannot extend the time on your re-entry permit. If it expires, and you want to renew it, you will need to return to the U.S. and apply for a new one.

Emergency Travel

In the case of emergency, and before leaving the United States, the USCIS might process an application for a travel document faster. If you are experiencing an extremely urgent situation, you may visit your local office to request an emergency travel document. You will be required to submit any additional documentation required, including proof of your emergency situation, e.g.; medical documents, death certificates, travel records, etc. It is important to understand that business trips, weddings, holiday parties and other planned events are usually not considered emergency situations. USCIS considers emergency situations to be, life-threatening conditions, a humanitarian situation like a natural catastrophe. Your requested assistance to attend a cultural or social program which would benefit the United States, etc.

So if you are a foreign national planning a trip outside of the U.S., please make sure you have all the appropriate travel documents in order or risk losing their rights and benefits given to you by the U.S. government. Failing to do so may result in being found inadmissible upon your return, or your applications may be denied, or both. That is why it is paramount that the proper documentation is obtained before leaving the United States.

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