14

As a (non) resident alien in the US, what documents (if any) does one need to carry at all times?

Different sources indicate different documents: a passport with the entry stamp, the I-94 printout, and others.

Carrying your passport with you at all times seems highly risky since it's possible to lose it or have it stolen, and it is something that people generally advise against. At the same time, some sources suggest it as an absolute requirement for "(non) resident aliens" in the US.

Would only having the printout of the I-94 without the original passport suffice?

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    When I'm in the US I carry ID in my wallet, and a scan of passport and visa on my phone. I don't carry my passport unless I need it.
    – Midavalo
    Jul 30 at 4:19
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    Small update: I appreciate everyone's answers and find them very helpful. I may get some additional feedback from a lawyer specializing in immigration law within the next couple of weeks. Based on that answer, I will mark one of the existing answers as "accepted", or relay the lawyer's response as a separate answer, and accept it, if it turns out to be strikingly different. I feel a certain degree of responsibility to "get it right" with the answer, so as not to mislead people or put them at risk of being prosecuted.
    – undercat
    Jul 30 at 20:57
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    There are two ways of thinking about this: What does the law say and what's "best practice" by whatever criteria you may select. There are plenty of laws that are dumb and stupid and that get flaunted all the time often with no consequences whatsoever. When I was living in Germany I never carried my driver's license: At the time it had a really awkward form factor and was easy to lose and damage. Yes, that's illegal but the worst that can happen is that an exceptionally cranky cop fines you $5. That happened maybe once or twice to me, but that was a lot cheaper than replacing the license.
    – Hilmar
    Jul 31 at 17:03
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    Please note regarding "Carrying your passport with you at all times seems highly risky since it's possible to lose it or have it stolen, and it is something that people generally advise against." that larceny and burglaries are significantly more common than robberies, so it's somewhat safe to say that carrying it on your person during travel is the most secure place if you're diligent enough that 'simple loss' isn't a risk. As a general rule of thumb (not specific to the US) you should always have your passport with you as a non-resident. Aug 1 at 8:19
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    Just as a curiosity. OP is not asking about driving, but in re driving. Say you're driving with your foreign driver's license. One time, in the US, in a particular state, a policeman asserted to me that if you're doing that, you're in fact required to have your passport on you as well as the foreign driver's license. I have no idea if that was accurate, but there you go.
    – Fattie
    Aug 1 at 12:29

4 Answers 4

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I ran around the US six years as a non resident and 12 years or so as a resident alien. Other than when crossing a border I never carried any documents. I never had an issue and no one ever asked for something.

My rationale here was simple: replacing a lost or stolen immigration document is a major hassle and can be very expensive. Having insufficient ID will only a minor inconvenience in almost all cases, even if someone actually wants to see it (sorry officer, I forgot it at home/hotel).

Then again, I’m white and less likely to be profiled so your mileage may vary. If the authorities want to harass you they will harass you no matter what documents you are carrying.

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    Were your activities within 100 miles of the US border? Counting Puget Sound, Lake Michigan and the Stockton Ship Canal as a US border. aclu.org/know-your-rights/border-zone Jul 31 at 0:41
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica I’m in the Puget Sound and fully agree with this answer. Yeah it’s technically a “border zone” but none of the literally hundreds of foreigners I know have ever had their documents inspected outside the border.
    – JonathanReez
    Jul 31 at 6:37
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica one frequently misunderstood element of the 100-mile zone is that some believe that immigration agents (using the term broadly) may operate only within that zone. In fact, they can operate anywhere, but they have additional powers in that zone. The duties imposed by immigration law are no different in the zone or outside of it, but the additional immigration enforcement powers (and operational patterns) mean that people are more likely to be challenged by immigration agents inside the zone (and it's even more likely near Mexico than near Canada).
    – phoog
    Jul 31 at 10:26
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    My white French wife had a minor problem when we were checked in southern Texas and all she could show was her Iowa driving licence. She might have had a major problem if she had had a different skin colour.
    – gerrit
    Aug 1 at 8:12
  • @Harper-ReinstateMonica Super quibbling, but the border doesn't run through Puget Sound proper, it is entirely in the US. Aug 1 at 15:13
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I would recommend photocopies of the main passport page and the I94.

Supreme Court has ruled that anyone on US soil has the same constitutional rights as citizens. They also ruled that one can't demand ID unless arresting for a crime. But history suggests relying on those rulings is very unwise.

Update: People have won lawsuits against cops for harassment when the cop demanded an ID that the person wasn't carrying. Does not apply to being required to have a license when driving, or to purchase alcohol/tobacco, or enter a bar.

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    I have definitely been demanded my ID on my first trip to the US by a couple of armed police officers for just standing on the bridge with a camera taking a picture. Perhaps unlawfully, who knows. Some articles refer to I.N.A. Section 264(e) saying not carrying your real ID is misdemeanor. I really want this answer to be true though.
    – undercat
    Jul 30 at 5:06
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    I found that pubs and bars would require ID and for a visitor the only one available is your passport.
    – mmmmmm
    Jul 30 at 12:46
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    @WGroleau Yes people have won lawsuits, but in order to get to that payoff you have to go through the process of having your civil liberties illegally denied, the filing a lawsuit and then following through with it. While the first part is "easy" to achieve, the last two parts will be difficult for a non-resident alien as they have an expiry date as to when they have to leave the country.
    – Peter M
    Jul 30 at 23:08
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    Unless you are within 100 miles of a US border, and Lake Michigan, the Stockton Ship Canal and Puget Sound all count as "US borders". Thus the 100 mile border zone includes half of Illinois and almost reaches Reno Nevada. You might sue and win later, but that won't stop INS from arresting you. Jul 31 at 0:30
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    WGroleau: absolutely. And as Peter M notes, someone who doesn't live in the US is even less likely to be in a position to challenge improper actions of US officers. @undercat the 100-mile zone doesn't bear directly on the legal requirement to carry certain documents, only on the likelihood of encountering officers seeking to enforce the requirement. Nonetheless, I've mentioned it in my answer.
    – phoog
    Jul 31 at 15:40
11

INA 264(e) (8 USC 1304(e)) requires every alien, 18 or over, to carry at all times any certificate of alien registration or alien registration receipt card issued to them. 8 CFR 264.1(b) lists what things constitute evidence of registration. The most common types include I-94, EAD (I-766), and green card (I-551), as well as a passport with an entry stamp.

So basically, if you are a US permanent resident, you need to carry your green card or equivalent evidence of permanent residency (I-551) at all times. If you are a nonimmigrant, you can carry either an I-94 or (since I-94s from entry are electronic nowadays, and you do not normally need to print it out) a passport with an entry stamp. But if you lost or replaced your passport, or changed your status, then I would say that you should carry the latest I-94. If you have an EAD, then you can alternatively carry the EAD.

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  • So, will carrying the printout of an I-94 alone suffice for a non-permanent resident? Note that the electronic version of I-94 does not have any photo or other additional information. It's just a printout that says person so-and-so with passport number so-and-so has been lawfully admitted until MM/DD/YYYY.
    – undercat
    Jul 30 at 5:09
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    @undercat: It should. A paper I-94 doesn't have a photo or other information either. Though it would probably be a good idea to have some photo ID too, to associate you with the name.
    – user102008
    Jul 30 at 15:48
  • This is not something I recall. Are all Visa holders even registered as aliens?
    – mckenzm
    Jul 30 at 22:32
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    But border patrol routinely misrepresents or misinterprets the requirement as a requirement to carry documents to prove immigration status, therefore claiming that documents explicitly mentioned in the regulations, such as the EAD, are insufficient, and that documents not mentioned, such as the I-20, are required.
    – phoog
    Jul 31 at 9:01
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    In support of my previous comment, evidence of USBP's misrepresentation in the form of a statement (quoted by an immigration lawyer/blogger): "According to 8 USC 1304(e), all immigrants 18 years and older are required to carry immigration documents showing they are in the United States legally. Neither an EAD nor a driver’s license is considered a valid document to satisfy this law."
    – phoog
    Jul 31 at 10:18
9

As a (non) resident alien in the US, what documents (if any) does one need to carry at all times?

Unfortunately, it's not clear. At least, it's sufficiently unclear that at least one US government agency frequently misrepresents the statutory requirements in official statements.

A few years ago, for example, a Syrian man was detained despite having been granted asylum and showing the officers an employment authorization document (EAD), a document that explicitly satisfies the requirement of 8 USC 1304(e) because it is listed as such in 8 CFR 264.1(b). In response, a US Border Patrol official sent a statement to several journalists that included this incorrect statement (quoted here in a blog post by a US immigration lawyer):

According to 8 USC 1304(e), all immigrants 18 years and older are required to carry immigration documents showing they are in the United States legally. Neither an EAD nor a driver’s license is considered a valid document to satisfy this law.

Not only is the statement about the EAD incorrect, but so is the characterization of 8 USC 1304(e). First, it is not limited to immigrants, but applies to aliens generally, therefore including nonimmigrants. Second, it does not require them generally to have documents to prove their status but only to have an "alien registration receipt card" (which is further specified by regulation at 8 CFR 264.1). Third, it only requires them to have such a document if it has been issued to them, so it does not apply to people who crossed the border without inspection.

The blog post linked above also links to a law review article that describes the incoherent state of alien registration in the United States. The provisions of alien registration and documentation are applied differently to different classes of aliens.

Consider, for example, a tourist. One with a visa has been registered when the visa was issued (8 USC 1201(b)), but the official registration receipt provided in the regulations is the I-94 form. Most nonimmigrants, however, are no longer issued an actual form; instead, there are some definitions at 8 CFR 1.4 that are supposed to support the existence of the I-94 as a virtual "form" that arises from the creation of a database record. To prevent such people from being in violation before they print their own I-94 from the government's web site (which most probably don't know is possible, much less why they might want to do so), the regulations also allow that a passport stamp is a valid registration receipt for nonimmigrants.

The best answer to this question, therefore, is probably that aliens in the US should assess the risks of carrying or not carrying various documents in light of their individual immigration status, likelihood of being subject to immigration enforcement, and tolerance for risk.

A tourist in New York City, for example, faces a much higher likelihood of loss or theft of a passport than of encountering immigration enforcement, since the probability of immigration enforcement is effectively zero. It simply makes no sense to advise such a person to carry their passport at all times without some other reason. Should tourists in New York be advised to print a copy of the I-94 so they can legally leave their passports in a safe place? The likelihood of enforcement is so non-existent that even going to the trouble of doing that does not seem to be justified by the non-existent benefit.

A tourist traveling by intercity bus near the Canadian or (especially) Mexican border is very likely to encounter US Border Patrol and ought to be prepared to meet their demands. Strictly speaking, an I-94 printout is sufficient by itself, but USBP will surely want a secure identification document, so having the passport would be helpful. Without it, there is a greater chance of being taken to the station for identity verification.

I say "near the border" because US Border Patrol largely operates within the zone where immigration officers have greater warrantless enforcement powers, within 100 miles of the country's external border. In practice, the only place I'm aware of these powers being used that wasn't within 100 miles of the Mexican or Canadian border is Florida. Yes, the east and west coasts may be entirely within this zone as it is legally defined, but practically speaking US immigration enforcement does not exercise these powers between Massachusetts and Georgia nor between say Los Angeles and the southern Washington coast.

Someone traveling in Border Patrol's operational area who does not live in the US (or who has no appetite for legal action) should most likely avoid conflict by taking the US Border Patrol's (mis-)characterization of the law at face value, but someone who is prepared to go to court may be inclined to ignore it, provided that they comply with the law's actual requirements. The Syrian man mentioned at the beginning of this answer reached a $35,000 settlement with the US government.

Students and nonimmigrants in similar status are sometimes advised to carry their I-20 forms or similar. This requirement makes no sense whatsoever given the statute's focus on registration documents, but it does make sense under US Border Patrol's misinterpretation of the statute as requiring aliens to be able to prove their immigration status. So someone with an I-20 is left with a choice: do you comply with the Border Patrol's misinterpretation of alien registration law, or do you comply with the regulation pertaining explicitly to I-20 forms that calls on students to "safekeep" them? As with other cases, this is going to be a personal decision based on your probability of encountering Border Patrol and your personal tendency to lose things. If I were a student likely to encounter Border Patrol, I would most likely carry a photocopy of the I-20 and of 8 USC 214.2(f)(2), the regulation saying that students are "expected to safekeep" the form.

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    "an I-94 printout is sufficient by itself, but USBP will surely want a secure identification document" - The CBP now have an app for I-94 and can easily pull up the I-94 (and other) details, and can include a photo of your passport. I wonder if this would also be sufficient in this situation
    – Midavalo
    Jul 31 at 16:19
  • @Midavalo I figured as much, but are they guaranteed to have access to that app? What if it's not working? It's still safer to have the documents on hand, even if only marginally safer. Whether it's sufficient probably depends on the mood of the officer and on his or her specific task at the moment. I've softened "pretty high" chance to "greater chance."
    – phoog
    Jul 31 at 16:22
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    This is the best, most practical, answer. I’d also add that if you’re visiting someone you should ask them about when you’ll need documents on you. For example, the US has interior checkpoints on certain roads near the Mexican border, where you’re definitely going to want to err on the side of having more documentation. Jul 31 at 16:35

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