If you have either applied for or been granted U nonimmigrant status, you may wonder whether you can travel outside the United States. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to do so without jeopardizing your U application or status, and you should travel abroad only if you absolutely have to.
Keep reading for more information about why traveling outside the U.S. in U status is not a good idea. For more general information about other U visa topics, see Nolo’s section, “U Visas for Crime Victims Assisting Law Enforcement.”
Leaving Before Approval Risks Missing Important USCIS Mailings
All people who apply for an immigration benefit with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) must provide an address where they can be reached. If you filed your application in the U.S. and you travel extensively while a decision is pending, you might not get important mailings from USCIS.
Missing a scheduled appointment or a deadline to submit requested evidence may lead USCIS to believe that you have abandoned your application or give them reason to consider your application less favorably.
U Applicants May Be Stuck Outside the U.S. If They Leave
A pending application for U status does not provide you with any reentry privileges. Let’s say you submitted your Form I-918, Application for U Nonimmigrant Status from within the U.S. and you travel abroad before you get a decision from USCIS. Unless you have another valid visa that allows you to travel in and out of the U.S. (such as a student visa), you will be stuck outside the U.S. until USCIS is done adjudicating your application and transfers it to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for what is known as “consular processing.”
Some consulates are busier than others, so this can add additional months of wait time before you obtain your visa and can return to the United States. If your U application is denied, you will not be able to return to the U.S. without first applying for a different visa.
Unfortunately, there is no opportunity for U applicants to obtain what is known as “advance parole” for a short trip outside of the U.S. (available to people with pending applications for some other immigration benefits). Therefore, applicants should not travel outside the U.S. unless there is an emergency situation that requires it.
Traveling Abroad May Show That You Are No Longer Eligible for a U Visa
Another one of the main eligibility requirements for a U visa is that you are actively providing helpful information to law enforcement officials to assist them in investigating and prosecuting the criminals who victimized you. Even after you are granted U status, you must continue to cooperate with police officers, prosecutors, and other government officials.
If you travel outside the U.S. while your application is pending or even after you receive approval, you might jeopardize your status because USCIS might determine that you are unable to adequately help law enforcement if you are abroad for an extended amount of time.
Additionally, all U applicants must also prove to USCIS that they suffered “substantial physical or mental abuse” as a result of being the victim of a serious crime. While many abuse victims are able to travel, USCIS might question the extent of your injuries if you are traveling long distances or to countries without adequate medical care, or if you are going on a trip for pleasure. For example, if you are claiming that you suffer from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of a kidnapping crime and you decide to take a cruise vacation with friends, the USCIS officer adjudicating your case may question whether you truly have “substantial” psychological injuries resulting from the crime.
If You Leave the U.S. in U Status, You Must Obtain a Visa for Return
After being approved by USCIS, you will receive U “status,” which authorizes you to remain in the U.S.—but you will not receive an actual U “visa.” A visa is a document in your passport that enables you travel in and out of the United States. Technically, you can obtain a visa only from a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. All that USCIS can issue you as proof of your lawful presence in the U.S. is a Form I-797C, Notice of Action, showing that you were granted U nonimmigrant status and the date that status expires, and an Employment Authorization Document allowing you to work.
So, if you leave the U.S. while in U status, you will need to go to a U.S. embassy or consulate to get an actual visa before you can return. As explained above, this could mean you are stuck in consular processing for an extended period of time.
The only exception to this is if you have a pending Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status (a green card application filed with USCIS). In this case, you should apply to USCIS for advance parole using Form I-131, Application for Travel Document. This will enable you to reenter the U.S. while your adjustment application is pending. If you do not apply for advance parole, USCIS will consider your adjustment application to be abandoned. For more on applying for a green card based on your time in the U.S. in U status, see “Will a U Visa Ever Lead to a Green Card?”
Leaving the U.S. May Trigger Inadmissibility for Unlawful Presence
Traveling abroad can also be problematic because leaving the U.S. can trigger inadmissibility grounds that you did not have to address in your initial U status application.
For example, let’s say you overstayed your tourist visa by nine months when you applied for U status. You may not have needed to apply for a waiver of inadmissibility at that time because you had not yet “triggered” the unlawful presence ground by leaving the United States. For more on the grounds that might make you inadmissible to the U.S. see “Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.”
So unless you are faced with an emergency situation that requires you to leave, it is not advisable to travel outside the U.S. while in U status. If you do need to travel and you need to apply for a waiver of inadmissibility, you will need to file Form I-192, Application for Advance Permission to Enter as a Nonimmigrant with USCIS and this waiver must be approved before you can undergo consular processing as described above. Even if you previously submitted a Form I-192 for other grounds of inadmissibility, you will need to submit a new one after you leave the United States. It can take several months to receive a decision and for the U.S. embassy or consulate to schedule an interview and process your visa.
Lengthy Absences Might Make You Ineligible to Adjust to Permanent Resident
If you are in U status, you should consult an experienced immigration attorney to help you before you leave the United States, because you may also have an issue eventually applying for a green card if you are outside the U.S. for too long.
You are eligible to apply for permanent residence after three years in U status if you have been physically present in the U.S. for a continuous period of three years. USCIS will determine that you have not met this requirement if you are outside the U.S. for longer than 90 days or 180 days in total.
So if you are stuck outside the U.S. waiting for a consulate to process your visa or for USCIS to make a decision on Form I-192 for longer than 90 days, you may not be able to ever get a green card.