Travel Documents for Non-US Citizens and Refugees

US Travel Documents can be used like passports.

The passport woes recently faced by NBA star Enes Kanter have put a spotlight on US Travel Documents. Kanter, who plays center position for the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, is a Turkish citizen and a legal resident of the United States.  He’s lived in the US for six years, playing for the Thunder and the Utah Jazz. Earlier this month, he ran into major passport problems while traveling in Europe.

Today, we’ll take a look at what happened to Enes Kanter, and learn more about the travel documents available to non-US citizens who live in the US.

What Happened to Enes Kanter?

On Saturday, May 20, Enes Kanter was traveling on an international tour on behalf of his non-profit foundation. He arrived in Bucharest, Romania on a flight from Germany, and was stopped by Romanian officials. The officials told him that his Turkish passport had been canceled by Turkish authorities. Kanter, who has been an outspoken critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, believes his passport was canceled for political reasons.

Enes Kanter's Turkish passport was cancelled while he traveled.Because his passport was no longer valid, Kanter was not able to enter Romania. He remained in the airport until he was able to board a flight to London. He arrived back in New York on Sunday, May 21. It doesn’t hurt to be a well-known NBA player — Kanter was able to get help from inside the Department of Homeland Security so he could return to the US even though he doesn’t have a valid passport.

Enes Kanter is a legal resident of the United States, holding Permanent Resident status. (This is commonly known as having a “green card.”) He’s said that he’s interested in becoming a US citizen. But it can take up to five years for a permanent resident to become a citizen and get a US passport.  Since Kanter no longer has a passport from his home country, what will he do if he needs to travel internationally?

US Travel Documents for Non-Citizens Without Passports

Enes Kanter’s situation made the news because he’s a star athlete, not because it’s a unique scenario! There are a lot of non-US citizens who legally live in the US but don’t have passports from their country of citizenship. Some don’t have passports because they fled their home country and came to the US as refugees. Others, like Kanter, have had their passports revoked because of political issues. There are even people who can’t get their passport renewed simply because of administrative issues, like the closure of a consulate.

Luckily, the US government provides options to legal residents, so they can still travel internationally and return to the United States. Legal residents like Kanter are able to apply for a US travel document. US travel documents for non-citizens look like passport books, with a lighter, slightly greener cover. Unlike US passports issued to citizens, which are issued by the Department of State, travel documents are issued by the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

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Types of Travel Documents

Prior to 2003, there were two different types of US travel document book. The two types of travel document, the Permit to Reenter the United States and the Refugee Travel Document, were issued as passport-style books. Reentry Permits had a white cover, while Refugee Travel Documents had a blue cover. (It was a lighter blue than the navy covers of US passports, so it could easily be distinguished from a citizen’s passport.) Both types of travel document were issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was part of the Department of Justice.

In 2003, the INS was dissolved, and immigration services were moved over to the new Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), part of the new Department of Homeland Security. BCIS streamlined the application procedure for travel documents and began issuing both types of the document as a single style of book. This new book had a green cover, and was simply labeled “Travel Document.”

Although the BCIS is now known as the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and the Travel Document’s Cover is now more blue than green, the rules surrounding travel documents remain the same. All of the travel documents discussed below can be applied for using government form I-131.

Reentry Permit

Reentry Permits are formally known as Form I-327, Permit to Reenter the United States. They are issued to people living in the United States as permanent residents or conditional permanent residents. Once issued, the Reentry Permit is valid for two years. It can’t be renewed, but you can apply for a new one when it expires.

For people like Enes Kanter, who are not able to get a passport from their home country, a Reentry Permit can be used just like a passport for international travel purposes. You can even use it to get visas!

Reentry Permits can also be issued to people who do have valid passports for their home country. If you are a lawful permanent resident of the US, and you need to travel outside the US for an extended period of time, you may want to get a Reentry Permit. Otherwise, if you are out of the US for a long period of time (usually a year or more), you might lose your permanent resident status.

Refugee Travel Document

People who have come to the United States as refugees seeking asylum are especially unlikely to be able to get passport services from their home country. Perhaps your country does not have diplomatic relations with the United States and thus doesn’t have an Embassy here where you can apply for a passport. Maybe your country doesn’t have a functional government due to civil war or other events. Perhaps your country would refuse to issue you a passport because you are a political dissident. Refugee Travel Documents (Form I-571) are the answer to all these situations.

Refugees in the US can apply for a Refugee Travel Document.

Like Reentry Permits, Refugee Travel Documents can be used just like a passport. They are only valid for one year, though, and are only issued to people who have refugee or asylee status, or who have become permanent residents after entering the US as a refugee.

Although Enes Kanter has had his passport canceled due to his political activity, he would not qualify for a Refugee Travel Document. This is because he was already a permanent resident of the US, and he didn’t come here as a refugee — he came here to play basketball!

Advance Parole Document

The final type of travel document issued to non-US citizens is not a passport-style document at all. Form I-131 is also used for applications for Advance Parole. Advance Parole documents are issued to non-US citizens who are not permanent residents, but who are seeking to adjust their status to become a permanent resident. In order to apply for Advance Parole, you need to have a valid passport from your country of citizenship. Advance Parole is used if you are in the US, waiting to gain “green card” status, but you want to travel internationally. The Advance Parole document gives you permission to travel outside the US without giving up your request to become a permanent resident.


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