If you are a refugee or asylee in the U.S. who wants to travel abroad, you will need a passport, both for entering other countries and (in most cases) to reenter the United States. Yet, having fled your home country, it's possible you don't have a valid passport from there. A refugee travel document is basically the equivalent of a U.S. passport for asylees and refugees who need to travel outside the U.S. temporarily. (See 8 C.F.R. Part 223.)
If you are a U.S. asylee or refugee, and you want to preserve your right to stay in the U.S. after traveling temporarily abroad, you must apply for a refugee travel document before leaving the United States. You can also obtain a refugee travel document if you are a lawful permanent resident (LPR) (you have a green card) as a result of having been an asylee or a refugee.
CAUTION: Always remember that you should never travel to the country from which you claimed persecution in your asylum or refugee application, as explained below.
Here you will find guidance on eligibility requirements and the application process to obtain a refugee travel document.
You can apply for a refugee travel document if you are physically present in the U.S., and you are either:
In urgent circumstances, you may also apply for this document while you are outside the United States. However, you will have to show that you were not able to apply before leaving the U.S. because you had to travel abroad in an emergency, and you will have to apply within one year of departing.
You do not need a refugee travel document if you have a passport from your home country and a valid green card and you want to return to the U.S. after temporary travel abroad (of less than one year). However, because most refugees and asylees escaped persecution from the country that issues their passport, many choose not to travel as a national of that country. In addition, having a refugee travel document might make your travels easier.
Some countries require you to have a visa if you are traveling using the passport from your home country, but they do not require it if you have a U.S. passport or travel document. In addition, having a U.S. travel document will make it easier to travel on some airlines.
But if you plan to stay outside the U.S. for more than one year, you should obtain a travel document before leaving. (Although it is called a "reentry permit," you use Form I-131 as if you were applying for a refugee travel document.)
In order to apply for a refugee travel document, you must file Form I-131, Application for Travel Document with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Go to the Form I-131 page of www.uscis.gov to download the most recent Form I-131 for free.
In addition to filling out the Form I-131, you must submit the following with your application:
If planning to travel abroad with your family members who are derivative refugees or asylees (or have green cards because of their derivative asylee or refugee status), you must file a separate Form I-131 (and provide the supporting documents listed above) for each of them.
Some weeks after filing (if you're in the U.S. at the time), you will receive a written notice of when to go to your local USCIS office for your biometrics appointment, where you will be fingerprinted and photographed. (See What to Expect at a USCIS Biometrics Appointment.)
USCIS might also send you a written notice asking for additional information about your application or eligibility for a travel document. You must comply with this and also go to any appointments and interviews required by USCIS. Otherwise, your application might be denied.
It might take several months for you to receive your travel document. Check for the latest averages at the USCIS Case Processing Times page, then do your best to apply in good time, well before you plan to leave the United States.
As mentioned above, you are expected to be in the U.S. when you file your Form I-131 application (unless you are outside of the United States because of an emergency). However, you may leave the U.S. before you receive your travel document. Just make sure that you had your biometrics done before you leave. You may request on Form I-131 for your travel document to be sent to a U.S. embassy, consulate, or Department of Homeland Security office abroad.
Keep in mind that leaving the U.S. without a valid refugee travel document is risky. If you are outside the U.S., and your I-131 application is denied, you might not be allowed to reenter the United States.
Your travel document will expire one year from the date when it is issued (unless your refugee or asylee status ends or you are deported or removed before then). Travel documents cannot be extended. So, when planning your travels, make sure that your travel document will not expire before you try to reenter the United States.
Remember that you must not travel back to the country from which you claimed persecution in your asylum or refugee application. Even if you have a valid refugee travel document, you might be denied reentry to the U.S. if you travel to this country. USCIS or the State Department or other immigration agencies might decide that you are no longer afraid to return there, so you no longer need the protection of the United States.
If you successfully obtained your green card after one year of living in the U.S. as an asylee or refugee, you could also lose your green card if you return to the country from which you claimed you needed protection.
In fact, Form I-131 asks questions about whether you plan to or have returned to the country from which you are a refugee or asylee as well as questions about whether you had obtained any benefits (for example, a passport, health care, or legal status) from that country or any other countries since you have been in the United States.
Make sure to answer all questions honestly on Form I-131, and explain in detail why you still need your asylee or refugee status in the U.S. even if you had obtained benefits from other countries or if you had (or plan to) travel to your home country. If this applies to you, you should consult an experienced immigration attorney.
Traveling outside the U.S. always carries some risk that you might not be allowed to reenter. It is safer to delay travel abroad until after you have received your green card. To learn more about applying for U.S. permanent residence after one year of asylee or refugee status, see How to Apply for Permanent Residence as an Asylee.
Even if you travel outside the U.S. after obtaining a valid travel document, you might be denied reentry. Every time you arrive at the U.S. border, your right to be in the U.S. is reevaluated. You must continue to be "admissible" to the United States. The "inadmissibility" grounds include certain types of contagious diseases, criminal convictions, prior immigration law violations, and involvement in terrorism. (For more information, see Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.)