Do I Really Need to Carry My Green Card With Me?

Risks of walking around the U.S. without evidence of lawful permanent residence.

By , Attorney Temple University School of Law
Updated 2/20/2024

If you are a U.S. lawful permanent resident (LPR), the photo identity document that proves your status is called a "green card" also called a "permanent resident card," "alien registration receipt card," or "Form I-551." Perhaps you have yours already. Or, if you've recently entered the United States on an immigrant visa or been granted adjustment of status while living in the U.S., you should expect the green card to arrive by mail within a few weeks. Because the green card is an important document, you might be tempted to leave it in a safe place at home instead of carrying it around with you. This article will explain why that's a bad idea.

U.S. Law Requires Lawful Permanent Residents to Carry Their Green Card

Immigrants who are 18 or older are required by law to carry their green card with them at all times. (See Section 264(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.).) It is considered official evidence of your LPR status, which you might need to show to U.S. immigration authorities.

If you, for example, decide to carry a copy of your green card instead of the original because you want to keep the original safe, you will be violating the law.

What If You Haven't Yet Received Your Green Card?

In some situations, people do not yet have their green card, but are already LPRs. For example, when somebody first arrives in the U.S. with an immigrant visa, they first receive an "I-551 stamp" in their passport. Weeks later, they receive the actual green card in the mail. In the time before receiving the green card in the mail, the LPR would have to carry the passport "at all times" in order to avoid breaking the law.

Penalties When Immigrants Fail to Carry Their Green Cards

Failing to have your green card with you is a criminal misdemeanor. If you are found guilty you can be fined up to $100 and put in jail for up to 30 days. (I.N.A. Section 264(e), 8 U.S.C. Section 1304.) A copy of your green card is not good enough, because the law does not use the word "copy" or refer to "other evidence" of LPR status.

Will you actually be stopped by U.S. immigration authorities, prosecuted and fined or jailed for not having your original green card with you? It's unlikely. Like any other government agency, immigration authorities have limited resources and cannot spend precious government time and money on prosecuting people for not carrying their green card "at all times."

But there have been cases where LPRs are detained or arrested during workplace enforcement actions for not having their green card on them. So to be on the safe side, and obey the law, you should actually carry your green card with you everywhere you go. And if you will be traveling internationally, you should take your original green card with you to board a plane or boat back to the U.S. and to reenter the U.S. as an LPR. (But definitely leave a copy at home, in a safe place.)

Getting Legal Help

If your green card doesn't arrive when it should, check with USCIS's Contact Center (and be prepared to spend a long time navigating their phone tree, then waiting for a return call). For more serious immigration issues, contact an experienced immigration attorney.

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