Every year thousands of people apply for a green card based on their family relationship with a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. If you want to apply from inside the United States, you must prove that you entered the country lawfully. To prove that, you normally submit a copy of your I-94 Arrivals and Departure record with your Green Card application. The I-94 officially documents all the dates when you left and came into the United States through ports of entry. But what happens if you can't find your I-94 record? This article explains how to get a copy of your missing I-94 record and discusses other ways you may be able to prove lawful entry into the United States.
How do I prove legal entry into the U.S.?
When you apply for a marriage green card, child green card, or parent green card inside the United States, also known as an "adjustment of status," you must provide some supporting documents. Along with your green card application, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asks you to submit proof that an immigration official inspected you when you entered the United States. If you cannot provide evidence that you entered lawfully and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has no record of your lawful entry, USCIS will assume that you entered the country unlawfully.
In most cases, you will prove that you entered the U.S. lawfully by providing a copy of your I-94 travel record. The I-94 is a document issued by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer that inspects a foreign visitor when entering the United States through ports of entry. In addition to listing your date of entry, an I-94 record will also show your required departure date from the United States.
If you enter the United States by plane or by sea, you typically receive an electronic I-94 travel record from CBP. If you enter through a land border port of entry through Mexico, you can receive a paper I-94 record. On the other hand, if you entered the United States under ESTA or the Canadian Visa Waiver program, you would not receive an I-94 record. For more general information about the I-94 travel record, see the CBP's I-94 Fact Sheet.
What do I do if I can't find my "Form I-94"?
If you can't find your I-94 record (sometimes incorrectly called "Form I-94," an "I-94 card," or an "I-94 number"), then you're not alone. Maybe your travel documents were lost or stolen. Perhaps a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer spoke to you and then waived you through without inspecting your documents. Or maybe you came as a child on your parent's tourist visa and that document is now lost. Fortunately, there are other ways that you can prove that you entered the United States lawfully. Contact a local legal aid organization for help or read on to learn more.
Request I-94 record from CBP
If you entered the United States after I-94 automation (April 30, 2013), you are in luck. If you received an I-94 record, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) likely entered it into their computer database. So on the CBP website, you can request a copy of your most recent I-94, as well as your travel history from the past five years. This is a free, easy, and fast way of retrieving your I-94 record.
Submit Form I-102 to USCIS
If you arrived in the United States before April 20, 2013, you probably received a paper I-94 record. You won't be able to find a copy of this record online on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's website. Instead, you will need to file a paper form with USCIS to request a replacement I-94. You must fill out Form I-102 ("Application for Replacement/Initial Nonimmigrant Arrival-Departure Document") and mail it to USCIS. If USCIS has your I-94 record, you should receive a copy of it within about two and a half months. Unfortunately, filing Form I-102 is not without cost - it carries a $445 filing fee.
Submit a FOIA request
If you can't afford the expense of filing Form I-102, you could also request a copy of your I-94 through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. In a FOIA request, you are asking the U.S. government for a copy of your immigration file. You can file a FOIA request by completing a paper form or by writing a letter to USCIS.
But you will receive an answer faster if you apply online on the website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Once you submit your request online, DHS will forward it to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Hopefully, CBP will find your I-94 record and return a copy of it to you. FOIA requests are typically free. Be warned though - this process takes time. You may have to wait for up to 12 months before you receive documents from the government.
What else can I do if I can't replace my missing I-94 arrival record?
If you can't find your I-94 travel record in any of these ways, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will presume that you entered the country unlawfully. So if you still want to apply for a green card, you need to provide other documents with your application:
- A notarized written statement that clearly explains why you don't have your I-94 record. This statement, called an "affidavit," should describe your lawful entry to this country in as much detail as possible, including: 1) when, where, and how you arrived in the United States 2) what travel documents you had, if any, 3) whether you showed any travel documents to the U.S. immigration officer who inspected you, and 4) any questions the immigration officer asked you.
- Other evidence proving that you arrived in the United States lawfully. For example, perhaps you can show a plane ticket or boarding pass with your name on it. Or perhaps you can show your parents' passport admission stamp from the date of your arrival with them as a child.
If you don't have other evidence of your lawful arrival, you need to provide at least two affidavits from people who have first-hand knowledge of your lawful entry to the United States. For example, if you know who picked you up from the airport, perhaps they could sign an affidavit swearing that you arrived lawfully by plane. Those affidavits should contain the same level of detail as your own affidavit discussed above.
But USCIS believes that affidavits are less convincing than concrete evidence. So you should be cautious about applying if you don't have other evidence of your lawful arrival. If you do choose to apply, you should seek legal help from a local legal aid agency or an experienced immigration lawyer.
Proving that you entered the United States lawfully is critical if you want to apply for a green card while inside the country. In most cases, the I-94 travel record is the way to prove your legal entry. If you can't find your I-94 record, you may be able to search for it on CBP's website or obtain it by filing Form I-102 or a FOIA request. If none of those options work, you can also try proving lawful entry through affidavits and other evidence such as plane tickets.
If you need to apply for a family-based green card and you have your I-94 record, you may be able to get free help from ImmigrationHelp.org, a legal aid nonprofit. If you can't locate your I-94, you should consider having a good immigration attorney represent you.