If you're a lawful permanent resident or nonimmigrant visa holder, you know that you need to be mindful of how travel outside of the United States may affect your return to this country. But even if you aren't leaving the United States, it's a good idea to be aware of documents for travel within the United States you should carry with you. Even native U.S. citizens have to carry identification when traveling, at least by air, and naturalized citizens and non-citizens should be certain to have the right documentation, too.
If you are a lawful permanent resident, or green card holder, you are required by U.S. immigration law to keep your green card with you at all times, especially when traveling. Even if you are traveling by car and do not need to present identification at the airport, you should always have your green card within reach. If you should be stopped by police while driving or under any other circumstance, you will be glad that you are readily able to prove your legal immigration status.
If you have a green card, it's not necessary to carry a passport with you for domestic travel within the United States. That said, it's never a bad idea to have plenty of documentation, and if you have a passport, you may wish to keep that with you throughout your domestic travel as well.
If you are flying, it's highly recommended that you have your passport with you as a form of photo ID. Many states are in the process of changing their laws about what is acceptable in terms of photo identification for flying. A passport is the "gold standard" for photo ID when traveling, so if you have one, carry it.
It is possible that you would be permitted to board your airplane even without your photo ID. You might be required to provide airport personnel with sufficient personal information to allow them to match you with information in public or government databases. However, you should not count on being able to do this. If your identity cannot be confirmed in this way, you will be out of luck and unable to get on your plane. The moral of the story: if you have a passport, carry it.
Unsurprisingly, nonimmigrant visa holders have an even greater need to have their paperwork with them as they travel throughout the United States. If you are a nonimmigrant, keep your visa documents with you whether traveling by car, bus, train or plane. You also need to have your passport from your home country with you at all times.
If you have an international driver's license, you should have this on your person as well—obviously if you are driving, but even if traveling by other means.
As a naturalized citizen, you have the same freedom to travel within the United States as a citizen who was born here. But even citizens, no matter where they were born, need to have photo ID on them when traveling. If you don't yet have a U.S. passport, you will want to get one, even if you don't intend to travel outside the country in the foreseeable future. A passport is one of the preferred methods of identification for domestic air travel. It can take several weeks to process a passport, but a U.S. passport for an adult is valid for ten years, so don't wait until you have travel plans to apply for one.
Other acceptable forms of identification include a driver's license, state-issued identification card (if you don't drive), or a military ID. Some form of photo ID is required for air travel, and is often necessary when renting a vehicle or checking in to a hotel.
Some general travel tips: never put your identification or immigration documents in checked luggage when traveling; keep it on your person at all times. Before you leave home, make copies of all of your documents and, if possible, leave them with a trustworthy person who will keep them safe and can transmit them to you if needed. You may also wish to photograph your original documents and keep those images on your smartphone in the event the originals get lost. Officials may not accept the photographed documents as proof of your status, but having these digital copies can help you when you need to seek replacements for your original documentation.
If you have questions about domestic travel within the U.S., we invite you to contact our law office.