What Are Travel Documents?

travel document is a form of identification that governments give to citizens or visitors so they can cross international borders. The U.S. government issues many different types of travel documents. The type of travel document you need depends on your immigration status and the purpose of your trip.

Travel documents are essentially your permits for world travel. Without the necessary ID, your venture abroad can become a nightmare. You always want to ensure you are carrying the correct travel documents pertaining to your specific trip to avoid disastrous consequences.

happy tourists sightseeing with map
A group of happy tourists sightseeing with a map. The right travel documents will allow you to move freely on an international scale.

Types of Travel Documents

The most basic forms of travel documents are passports, passport cards, and arrival/departure records. These required documents allow U.S. citizens to travel abroad and re-enter the country legally upon return. Arrival/Departure records are used for non-citizens entering the country temporarily.


The U.S. Department of State (DOS) gives passports to U.S. citizens. A U.S. passport lets you reenter the U.S. after traveling abroad. U.S. passports act as identification and proof of U.S. citizenship. They are accepted as valid forms of identification in most countries.

Passport Cards

A passport card lets U.S. citizens travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda at land border crossings or seaports of entry. The DOS introduced passport cards in the summer of 2008 as a cheaper alternative to traditional passports. Any U.S. citizen can apply for a passport card. They are the size of a traditional driver’s license or credit card.

Form I-94 and Arrival/Departure Records

Form I-94, Arrival-Departure Record, is used to record when and where foreign citizens enter and exit the U.S. The form is for people who are visiting the U.S. temporarily and aren’t U.S. citizens or permanent residents (green card holders). Form I-94 documents the date the traveler entered the country and the date the traveler is required to leave.

As of 2013, Form I-94s are created electronically by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and are not given to travelers. If a traveler wants a copy of their Form I-94, they can get one through the CBP Arrival/Departure Record page.


Citizens of a foreign country usually need a visa to travel in the U.S. You can apply for a U.S. visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate in the country where you live. The type of visa you would need depends on why you want to travel to the U.S.

Once you are approved for a visa, the consular officer at the U.S. embassy or consulate will place a visa into your passport. A visa is usually a stamp or loose piece of paper that shows the purpose of your travel and how long your visa is valid. Your visa validity is shown with an “expiration date”—you cannot enter the U.S. after this date. 

At your U.S. port of entry, the Department of Homeland Security will determine the length of time you are allowed to stay in the U.S. They will enter your “departure date” on your Form I-94. This is the date when you are required to leave the U.S. It is the date when your immigration status expires.

Travel Documents Under Special Circumstances

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issues three types of travel documents for special circumstances. These travel documents allow people to reenter the country without getting a visa. However, a person might need a passport in addition to a travel document in order to reenter the U.S. 

You can file Form I-131, Application for Travel Document, to apply for:

  • An advance parole document
  • A refugee travel document
  • A reentry permit

People who were in the U.S. illegally might not be allowed to reenter the U.S. even if they have a travel document. People who are classified as asylees and applied for asylum on or after April 1, 1997, can lose their asylum status if they return to the country that they sought asylum from.

Advance Parole

An advance parole document allows people who are in the process of adjusting their status, refugees, and asylum seekers who are applying for an immigrant visa to reenter the U.S. These people could be prevented from reentering the U.S. if they didn’t get advance parole before they left. Also, their applications could be denied.

Airlines can accept an advance parole document instead of a visa, but people with an advance parole document will still need a passport to reenter the U.S. You must apply for and receive advance parole before leaving the U.S. To apply for advance parole, file Form I-131.

Adjustment of status applicants might be eligible for a special card that shows they can travel and work. Eligible people can receive this card when they file Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, and Form I-131 at the same time (concurrently). You can file them with your Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, or after.

Advance parole status doesn’t guarantee that you will be allowed to reenter the U.S. The decision is left to the CBP officials who inspect you at your U.S. port of entry.

Refugee Travel Documents

The USCIS gives refugee travel documents to people who are classified as refugees or asylees or to green card holders who have refugee or asylee status.

You must have a refugee travel document to return to the U.S. if you hold refugee or asylee status and are not a permanent resident. Your family members who are classified as derivative asylees or refugees will also need refugee travel documents to reenter the U.S. 

Failing to get a refugee travel document before leaving the U.S. could cause a person to be denied reentry into or deported from the U.S.

Reentry Permits

A reentry permit allows a permanent resident or conditional resident to apply for reentry after they were outside of the U.S. for one year or more. People who get a reentry permit don’t have to apply for a returning resident visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate.

Emergency Travel

The USCIS might process an application for a travel document faster in the case of an emergency. The USCIS considers the following situations to be emergencies:

  • Not leaving could cause severe financial loss to you or the company you work for.
  • You’re in a life-threatening situation.
  • You need to leave the country because of a humanitarian situation, such as a natural catastrophe or other extreme situation abroad that requires your assistance.
  • A nonprofit organization has requested that you leave the U.S. to participate in a cultural or social program abroad that’s in the U.S.’s interest.
  • The U.S. government has requested you leave the country to participate in a situation abroad that concerns the U.S.’s interests. (This request must come from an official U.S. government agency and say that a delay would harm the U.S. government.)
  • USCIS committed an error with your paperwork.
  • Your departure from the country is in the interest of the USCIS.

Business trips, weddings, holiday parties, and other planned events would usually not be considered emergency situations.

To request faster processing of your Form I-131 application, call the USCIS’s National Customer Service Center at 1-800-375-5283. You can also include a written request and documents that support your request with your Form I-131 application. Or you can go to your local USCIS office and request faster processing.

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