Options for National of Ukraine Seeking Asylum, TPS, or Other Protection in the United States

Ukrainians looking for protection from the Russian military invasion have some possibilities in the United States, but still not enough to match the need.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law
Updated by Samantha Topper Berns, Attorney · University of Miami School of Law

The shocking, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin's Russian military forces in early 2022 led to a mass exodus of Ukrainians into other countries, particularly in Europe. While travel to the United States is less convenient, some Ukrainians have been able to enter, for example on existing tourist visas.

What are their short- and long-term prospects for coming to or remaining in the United States, particularly as this conflict drags on? Here, we will review current possibilities and others under discussion.

Where Are Ukrainian Refugees Going?

According to a data portal kept by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), almost 6.5 million Ukrainian refugees have been recorded worldwide since hostilities began. The main countries to which Ukrainians are fleeing are Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, , the U.K., Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Ireland.

Options for Citizens of Ukraine Already in the U.S.

If you're a Ukrainian who is already in the United States, whether legally or after a visa overstay, there are measures you can take to both protect your status in the short term and possibly stay for longer than originally planned, or even permanently.

Protecting Your Current U.S. Immigration Status

Although playing by the rules of your current visa is likely the last thing on your mind right now, failing to do so could jeopardize your ability to remain in the United States. Fortunately, the U.S. government is offering ways to gain some flexibility in what's expected. See its Immigration Relief page for the basics.

If, for example, you are a student whose source of family support is gone, you can ask U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to make a quick decision on your request for off-campus employment authorization, which is available to F-1 students experiencing severe economic hardship. USCIS has allowed some bending of the usual rules for students from Ukraine so that, for instance, they can reduce their course load in order to work more.

If you've overstayed a visitor or other nonimmigrant visa, and the war created a situation where you didn't apply for an extension on time, you might be allowed to apply late. (See, for more information, How to Extend Your Stay or Change Your Status While on a B Visa and Filling Out Form I-539 to Extend Nonimmigrant Status.)

Possibilities for a Long-Term Stay in the U.S.: TPS and Asylum

The United States typically offers two different types of humanitarian remedies for people who have arrived in the United States after having fled difficult situations: Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and asylum.

The Biden administration announced it was offering TPS to certain Ukrainians already present in the United States. This is not a long-term grant of immigration status, but it lets Ukrainians who were already in the U.S. on April 11, 2022 and who can meet certain other basic criteria (such as no criminal convictions) apply for a work permit and protection from deportation. (In other words, there's no point in traveling to the United States now and expecting to claim TPS; that won't work.)

Ukraine's TPS designation officially went into effect on April 19, 2022, the date it was published in the Federal Register. See the relevant page of the USCIS website for instructions for applying. The initial registration period lasted from April 19, 2022 to October 19, 2023; then was extended and redesignated through April 19, 2025. For help, also see Filling Out Form I-821 for TPS and Filling Out Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization.

Applying for asylum is also a possibility for Ukrainians already in the United States, and unlike TPS, asylum status has the potential to lead to a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence) and ultimately U.S. citizenship. Approval for asylum is based on highly individual circumstances, however; fleeing a war of conflict is not enough by itself. You would need to prove that you were selected for persecution, or fear future persecution, by a government or forces beyond the government's control; and that you have been or will be targeted based on one of five grounds: your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

If Russia were to succeed in taking over Ukraine's government, then someone who's been a known vocal opponent of Putin, for example (such as a journalist), or who was a member of Zelensky's government, would likely have a fine argument for asylum because of this key nexus between their identity and their being singled out for persecution on one of the five grounds.

If you decide you might be eligible for asylum, speak to an attorney; some offer free or low-cost services to people from Ukraine. Don't delay, there's a one-year deadline on applying for asylum (though exceptions can be made).

Options for Citizens of Ukraine Who Have Fled to Other Countries

By virtue of having fled their country during war, many Ukrainians could currently be considered refugees. Countries around Europe and beyond have been organizing to help them, with coordination by the UNHCR. For starters, that means supplying basic food, shelter, and other care.

Refugee status can lead to long-term rights to live in another country. However, to become officially recognized as a refugee, formal steps must be taken. For starters, people seeking refugee status must typically get themselves to a UNHCR office to initiate an application. The UNHCR will then help direct them to a particular country that's ready and willing to accept them. There are even special programs specifically for Ukrainians, discussed more below.

In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden Administration started a special admission program called Uniting for Ukraine (U4U). Under this program, Ukrainians displaced by the war in 2022 can come to the U.S. through a temporary legal designation known as "humanitarian parole" (a designation which was also offered to some people who had fled Afghanistan, and can be used in other special circumstances).

Eligibility for U4U Program

This program is available to Ukrainian citizens (and their immediate family) who were displaced by the war. To be eligible, an applicant must:

  • currently be outside the U.S.
  • have a valid Ukrainian passport
  • have lived in Ukraine immediately before the war – February 11, 2022
  • be able to pass biographic and biometric security checks, and
  • have a financial sponsor in the United States to file the application.

The Ukrainian passport requirement applies only to the primary Ukrainian applicant. An applicant's non-Ukrainian immediate family member, such as a spouse or underage (21 or under), may also be eligible. Children under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

You cannot initiate an application for U4U without first finding a source of financial sponsorship. This can be a private source, such as a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or any other person with legal U.S. immigration status who can demonstrate they have the financial ability to support you as well as their household.

Sponsors will fill out an online-only form called I-134A, Affidavit of Support. You'll find more relevant guidance in our article for filling out similar form known as Form I-134 (without the letter "A")— the information about being a financial sponsor is the same for U4U financial sponsors.

Parolees age six months and older will also need to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. You will also need to be screened for tuberculosis (TB) when you arrive in the United States.

What Approval for U4U Program Brings

An approved entry via humanitarian parole comes with limited benefits, including a two-year U.S. stay and permission to work. This work permission is automatic ("incident to status") for the first 90 days of the parolees' stay, so long as they can show employers an I-94 record with either a "UHP" of "DT" class of admission.

After that, they will need to apply to USCIS for a work permit (employment authorization document or EAD) using Form I-765, but the fee will be waived for the first one.

Parolee status does NOT directly lead to any permanent U.S. immigration status. (See What Is Humanitarian Parole?.) In fact, it is already running out for many applicants; though as of February 2024, it is possible to apply for renewal (re-parole). USCIS recommends submitting your re-parole application no later than 60 days before your initial parole period expires.

Also, Ukrainian parolees can, if eligible, apply for asylum or other immigration benefits (such as a family- or employment-based green card) once they're in the United States.

For more information directly from the U.S. Department of State, visit https://www.dhs.gov/ukraine; and from USCIS, see https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/uniting-for-ukraine/.

Can I Apply for Regular Refugee Status as a Ukrainian?

There is no method of applying directly to the United States for general refugee status, nor any guarantee of which country you'd be assigned to if approved by the UNHCR. (For detailed information on the application process, see How to Prepare and Submit a Refugee Application to the U.S.)

However, there is a specific refugee program for former Soviet Union countries, including Ukraine, called the Lautenberg Program. It allows qualifying family members in the U.S. who are citizens or lawful permanent residents to sponsor a Ukrainian refugee. This program is specifically for religious minority groups, including: Jews, Evangelical Christians, Ukrainian Catholics, and members of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and Greek Orthodox Church. Over 14,000 Ukrainians have settled in the U.S. through the Lautenberg program since 2018.

The program might be a good option for someone who wants to live permanently in the United States. On the other hand, applications typically take several years to process, and there is currently no plan to expedite processing due to the war. If you want to come to the U.S. soon, you might want to apply under U4U instead.

Also realize that U4U parolees cannot apply to be refugees (because you must be outside the U.S. to apply for refugee status), and a parolee is by definition someone who has been admitted to the United States. However, asylum is available to people who have already entered the U.S., so long as they apply for it within one year of entering.

Options for Citizens of Ukraine Still Seeking to Leave Their Country

The U.S. embassy in Kyiv has been closed, for security reasons. Applying for a new visa or entry document is therefore not an option there. The U.S. government has taken this into account; for example, although applicants for the Lautenberg refugee program must usually apply within their home country, an exception has been made for Ukrainian applicants.

If you can get yourself to some neighboring country, the U.S. government has stated that U.S. embassies there might be able to accommodate applicants for U.S. visas, particularly nonimmigrant ones. However, you might not meet the normal criteria for, say, a B-2 tourist visa or any of the various other nonimmigrant visas (such as for study or work). Those require proving an intention to return home at the end of your U.S. stay, which is a difficult matter if one has fled one's home. U.S. officials are not bending the rules on this point.

With regard to family-based immigrant visas (for example, if you are the spouse or child of a U.S. citizen), the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt has been designated to handle these, while the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland will be handling adoption cases.

If and when you visit a U.S. embassy or consulate, bring any and all personal identification documents you might have, ideally including a passport. Nevertheless, U.S. embassy staff will understand and do their best to help if you've left such documents behind. For example, even though a Ukrainian passport is required for humanitarian parole, you might be able to argue that a Ukrainian birth certificate serves as a substitute. If you're missing important documents, a good lawyer should be able to help make your case anyway.

How Can People in the U.S. Help Ukrainian Refugees?

As much as one might wish to join the fighting or try to personally rescue a Ukrainian family, it will ultimately be more effective to support the various agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are expert at and equipped to help in such situations.

Your favorite charity might already be helping in some specialized way; for example, World Central Kitchen (founded by famed chef José Andrés) has set up facilities to feed people fleeing the war; the Humane Society International is helping save lost or abandoned pets there; and OutRight International, a global LGBTQ+ human rights organization, is accepting donations on behalf of local Ukrainian organizations that are assisting LGBTQ+ people in search of shelter, safety, and security.

Or you might choose to support one of the primary organizations providing broader sorts of assistance in Ukraine, such as:

Of course, if you have direct contact with anyone in Ukraine, it obviously makes sense to try to get in touch and offer support, whether financial or by directing them to authoritative sources of information. You might also find useful information on the Department of State's United With Ukraine page.