In short, traveling to certain U.S. territories is, for purposes of U.S. immigration law, considered travel within the United States. Specifically, travel to Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands does not carry the risk of abandoning one’s status as a lawful permanent resident. In contrast, American Samoa and Swains Island are not considered to be part of the United States for immigration purposes.
What does it mean to abandon one’s lawful permanent resident status?
Those who are lawful permanent residents (LPR) of the United States — meaning they have a green card — can travel outside the U.S. However, if they do so, they must be careful not to remain outside the U.S. for too long, which can cause their LPR status to be “abandoned.” This can have severe consequences, including deportation from the United States. Extended stays outside the United States can also compromise one’s eligibility to naturalize and become a U.S. citizen.
For a thorough overview of the topic of abandoning one’s LPR status, and how to avoid doing so when traveling, see our blog post here.
What does it mean to travel “outside the United States”?
As explained in our blog post here, it is not necessarily simple or straightforward to determine what areas are considered to be inside the United States. The United States clearly includes the 48 contiguous states, as well as Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia.
In addition, for those territories outside the 50 states, specific laws determine how they are treated for immigration purposes. For example, all but two U.S. territories provide U.S. citizenship to individuals born on their soil (called “birthright citizenship”). The same U.S. territories that provide citizenship to those born on their soil are also considered to be inside the United States for purposes of abandonment of LPR status.
Specifically, Immigration and Nationality Act section 101(a)(38) clearly defines the “United States” for immigration purposes. The provision, in full, states: “The term ‘United States,’ except as otherwise specifically herein provided, when used in a geographical sense, means the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands of the United States, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.”
Therefore, travel to these areas is not considered travel outside the U.S., meaning that travel to them does not carry the risk that one might abandon their LPR status.
What about American Samoa and Swains Island? Can individuals born there as U.S. nationals satisfy the residence and physical presence requirements for naturalization in American Samoa?
The two U.S. territories mentioned above that do not provide U.S. citizenship to individuals born on their soil are American Samoa and Swains Island. American Samoa and Swains Island are unlike other U.S. territories in that they are the only “outlying possessions” under U.S. immigration law. Individuals born on their soil are “non-citizen U.S. nationals.” Also, American Samoa and Swains Island are not considered to be part of the United States for immigration purposes. As a result, travel to these areas for an extended period of time by a green card holder may constitute abandonment of their LPR status.
However, the Immigration and Nationality Act makes a specific exception for non-citizen U.S. nationals who are applying for naturalization in order to become U.S. citizens. The exception states that, for these U.S. nationals, “residence and physical presence within the United States … shall include residence and physical presence within any of the outlying possessions of the United States.” (INA section 325).
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