Refugee travel document and travel rights

A refugee travel document helps refugees travel outside the US. Photo copyright World Relief Spokane, CC.
Photo copyright World Relief Spokane, CC.

A person with refugee or asylum status who wishes to travel outside of the United States needs a Refugee Travel Document. Without this document, you may not be eligible to re-enter the United States and you could be placed in immigration court. As a refugee, you need to understand that until you are a US Citizen, there is some risk to traveling outside of the US because you could lose your status. The RCO understands that you may have a very good reason to travel outside of the US. However, we want you to understand the potential immigration challenges involved.

In most cases, a refugee or asylee may use the Refugee Travel Document for travel instead of a passport.

How do I apply for a Refugee Travel Document?

To apply for a Refugee Travel Document, you need to file Form I-131, Application for Travel Document. In order to file the form, please carefully follow the instructions on the form. More information, instructions and forms are available at www.uscis.gov. Completing legal forms can be very confusing, even for people born in the US. If you need to complete a legal form, it is a good idea to get help from your resettlement agency.

I-131: Refugee Travel Document Form

Instructions to Complete Form I-131

Depending on where you live, you will have to mail the form to a different address. Make sure you mail the form to the correct address. This USCIS site lists the different mailing addresses for your Refugee Travel Document.

Does it cost money to file a travel document?

Yes. Depending on your age, you may have to pay a fee for both the form and for your biometrics (fingerprinting and photographs). You may be able to apply for a fee waiver if you can show financial hardship. Please see USCISC form I-192 to learn how to apply for a fee waiver.

Can I file a Form I-131 for a Refugee Travel Document after I leave the United States?

You should file a Form I-131 for a Refugee Travel Document before you leave the United States. If you do not file for a Refugee Travel Document before you leave the United States, you could lose your status as a refugee or have a hard time coming back to the US. You may only apply if you have been outside the United States for less than 1 year at the time of turning in your application. However, you cannot assume that an overseas office will accept your application if it is evident you could have filed your Form I-131 before you left the United States.

If I file Form I-131 to get a Refugee Travel Document while I am in the United States, will USCIS deny the Form I-131 if I leave the United States while the form is still  pending?

Although USCIS recommends that you file Form I-131 while you are in the United  States, you are not required to be present in the United States for an approval and an issue of a Refugee Travel Document if you have submitted your biometrics (photograph, fingerprints).

Can I travel back to the country where I experienced past persecution or claim a fear of future persecution?

In some specific situations, you can return to the country you fled. For example, if a close family member is ill or has died, you may be eligible to return to your country of origin. But if you are an asylee and return to the place you claimed asylum from, you can sometimes lose your asylum status. If you need to return to the country you left, the RCO recommends you first talk to your resettlement agency or a lawyer.

For more details about the Refugee Travel Document and Form I-131, read this USCIS handout or visit http://www.uscis.gov/i-131.

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The RCO does not provide legal advice, nor are any of our materials intended to be taken as legal advice. If you are looking for free or low-cost lawyer or legal help, please visit Lawhelp.org or email us for a referral at info@therefugeecenter.org.

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