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How to Keep Your Green Card and Maintain Eligibility for U.S. Citizenship
Nisha K. Karnani
Monday, February 10, 2014
"How often do I need to come to the U.S. to keep my green card and apply for U.S. citizenship?"I have heard this question countless times from lawful permanent residents. Below are the most important considerations for lawful permanent residents with frequent or extended trips abroad.

Avoiding abandonment of your lawful permanent resident status

A common myth among lawful permanent residents is that you can simply come to the U.S. every six months and keep your green card. This is not true. Eventually, U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) will figure out that you are visiting the U.S. rather than residing here. A U.S. lawful permanent resident should reside in the U.S., not visit. Thus, CBP will focus on the number of days you were in the in the U.S. compared to the number of days you were out of the U.S.

Being absent from the U.S. for six months or longer will often prompt CBP questioning and requests for proof of U.S. residence (e.g. taxes, employment records, bills, leases, mortgages). Filing U.S. federal income tax returns as a non-resident is a significant problem.
The reason for the trip (and how you can prove it) often becomes as significant as the actual time spent abroad. If the extended foreign travel is temporary (e.g. short-term employment, caring for sick family member, advanced studies), then having the appropriate documentation to prove this will make your entries into the U.S. smoother. A Reentry Permit may be advisable for some LPR's who need to leave the U.S. for extended periods of time.

Finally, if you are a lawful permanent resident who remains outside the U.S. for one year or longer, consider your green card cancelled by operation of law. Some lawful permanent residents, however, can request a special Returning Resident visa to avoid this fate through their U.S. consulate abroad.

How long do green card holders need to be in the U.S. to be eligible for U.S. citizenship?

Once you have figured out how to keep your green card, you may wish to apply for U.S. citizenship. Lawful permanent residents normally have to wait until their 5 year green card anniversary to apply for U.S. citizenship, minus 90 days. The main exception is for certain marriage-based cases which permit filing by the 3 year green card anniversary, minus 90 days. Once you figure out which wait time applies to you, then you calculate whether you have both the required physical presence and the required continuous residence.

Physical presence and continuous residence sound like the same thing, but they are not. Physical presence refers to the number of days you are physically on U.S. soil. Continuous residence refers to consistently maintaining the U.S. as your home. This involves showing you have a house, job, bills or other indications that the U.S. is your home while you are away. You have to show you were physically present in the U.S. for at least 50 percent of days in the 5 or 3 year period (whichever applies to you) immediately preceding your citizenship application. You also have to show continuous residence in the U.S for 100 percent of that same period of time. It's a good practice to keep a record of all your U.S. entries and exits.

Finally, bear in mind there are some special expedited naturalization rules for the following individuals, should they meet the appropriate regulatory requirements:

U.S. military; Employees or contractors with the U.S. government working abroad; Employees of U.S. corporations or research institutions abroad; Spouses of U.S. citizens regularly stationed abroad.

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