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An expired green card could ruin your vacation. Here's what you need to know

Dec. 16, 2022
15 min read
Her travel documents are in order
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Traveling with an expired green card is always a bad idea, and Sheilla Bergara just found that out for herself the hard way.

Earlier, Bergara and her husband's plans for a tropical vacation ended abruptly at the United Airlines check-in counter. That's where an airline representative informed Bergara that she could not enter Mexico from the U.S. with her expired green card. As a result, United Airlines refused to allow the couple to board their flight to Cancun.

Sheilla's husband, Paul, says the airline made a mistake denying the couple boarding and ruined their vacation plans. He maintains that his wife's green card extension allows her to travel internationally. But United Airlines disagrees and considers the matter closed.

Paul wants United Airlines to reopen his complaint and admit to making an error that cost him $3,000 to fix.

He believes the fact that the couple flew to Mexico the next day on Spirit Airlines with the same expired green card proves his case. But does it?

That's what TPG wants to find out for our readers and this couple.

Planning an international getaway — with some green card complications

GERARD PUIGMAL/GETTY IMAGES

Last spring, Paul and his wife accepted an invitation to a July wedding in Mexico. Sheilla, a conditional permanent resident of the United States, had one problem, however: Her green card had just expired.

Although she had applied for her new permanent residency card within the required time frame, the approval process takes up to 12-18 months. She knew that there was no way that her replacement green card would arrive in time for the trip.

Paul, an experienced traveler, did some research, reading through the guidance on the Mexican Consulate's website. Based on that information, he determined that Sheilla's expired green card wouldn't prevent her from traveling to Cancun.

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"While we're waiting for my wife's new green card, she was granted an I-797. This document extends the conditional green card for an additional two years," Paul explained to me. "So we didn't anticipate any problems traveling to Mexico."

Feeling confident that all was in order, the couple used Expedia to book their nonstop flight from Chicago to Cancun and looked forward to the Mexican getaway. They didn't give the expired green card another thought.

Until the day they were set to leave for their tropical trip, that is. That's when it became clear that traveling internationally with an expired green card was a bad idea.

United Airlines: You can't enter Mexico with an expired green card

NICOLAS ECONOMOU/NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

On the day they expected to be sipping pina coladas on a Caribbean beach by lunchtime, the couple arrived early at the airport. Stepping up to the United Airlines counter, they handed over all of their documents and waited patiently to receive their boarding passes. Not expecting any problems, the two made small talk while the United agent typed away at her keyboard.

When the boarding passes did not materialize after some time, the couple began to wonder what was causing the delay.

The somber-looking agent looked up from her computer screen and gave the two the bad news: Sheilla could not travel to Mexico with an expired green card. Nor would her valid passport from the Philippines allow her to clear immigration in Cancun. To be allowed on the flight, she needed a Mexican visa, the United Airlines agent told them.

Paul tried to reason with the representative, explaining that the I-797 made the green card still valid.

"She told me no. Then the agent showed us an internal document that said United Airlines had been fined for flying I-797 extension holders to Mexico," Paul told me. "She told us this wasn't an airline policy but a Mexican government policy."

Paul says he was confident the agent was wrong, but he realized arguing further was serving no purpose. When the representative recommended that Paul and Sheilla cancel their flight so that they could receive a United Airlines future flight credit, he agreed.

The bewildered couple gathered their luggage and headed back to their car.

"I figured I would correct this problem with United Airlines later," Paul told me. "First, I needed to find a way to get us to Mexico for the wedding."

And that's exactly what he did.

Will Spirit Airlines take this couple to Mexico?

SPIRIT AIRLINES/FACEBOOK

Soon Paul received a notification that United Airlines had canceled their reservation and given them $1,147 in future flight credits for the missed flight to Cancun. But the couple had booked their itinerary using Expedia, which built the trip as two one-way, unrelated tickets. As a result, the return flight on Frontier was not refundable. That airline charged the couple $458 to cancel and also issued a $1,146 future flight credit. Expedia also charged the couple a $99 cancellation fee.

Paul then turned his sights to Spirit Airlines, which he hoped would not raise a similar issue as United.

"I booked a flight on Spirit Airlines for the next day so we wouldn't miss our entire trip. That last-minute ticket cost over $2,000," said Paul. "It was an expensive way to correct United Airlines' mistake, but I had no other choice."

The next day, the couple walked up to the Spirit Airlines check-in counter with the same documents as the day before. Paul was certain that Sheilla had everything she needed to travel to Mexico successfully.

This time, things went very differently. They handed their documents to the Spirit Airlines agent, and without delay, the couple had their boarding passes.

Within hours, Mexican immigration officers stamped Sheilla's passport, and soon the couple was finally enjoying those beachside cocktails. The Bergaras had an uneventful and enjoyable (and vindicating, according to Paul) trip once they finally reached Mexico.

Warning others about this green card fiasco

When the couple returned home from their vacation, Paul was determined to make sure this type of fiasco wouldn't happen to any other green card holder.

After sending his complaint to United Airlines and receiving no acknowledgment that it had made an error, Paul sent his story to tips@thepointsguy.com and asked for help. Soon, his troubling tale landed in my inbox.

An excerpt from Paul's letter to TPG:

I wanted to share this to make sure it doesn't happen to other passengers and make United update its policy regarding this.
Mexico does accept expired Green Cards with I-797 extension letters, and United Airlines should not deny passengers boarding. Our vacation was ruined, but we tried to make the best of it at a cost.

When I read through Paul's narrative about what had happened to the couple, I felt terrible about their experience.

However, I also suspected that United Airlines had not made a mistake in refusing to allow Sheilla to travel to Mexico with her expired green card.

I've handled thousands of consumer complaints over the years. A significant portion of those cases involve travelers who get tripped up by the transit and entry requirements of foreign destinations. This has never been more true than during the pandemic. In fact, highly competent, experienced international travelers have had vacations ruined by the confusing, quickly changing travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus.

However, the pandemic was not the cause of Paul and Sheilla's situation. This vacation debacle resulted from a misunderstanding of the complicated rules of travel for a permanent resident of the United States.

I reviewed the current information provided by the Mexican Consulate and doubled-checked what I believed to be the case.

There was bad news for Paul: Mexico does not accept the I-797 as a valid document for travel. Sheilla was traveling with an invalid green card, a passport from the Philippines and no visa.

United Airlines had made the correct decision by rejecting her boarding of the flight bound for Mexico.

US green card holders should not attempt to travel internationally

Green card holders should never rely on an I-797 document to provide proof of U.S. residency in a foreign country. That form is for U.S. immigration officers and will allow a green card holder to return home. But no other government is obligated to accept the I-797 extension as proof of U.S. residency – and they likely will not.

In fact, the Mexican Consulate indicates explicitly that the I-797 with an expired green card is not acceptable for entry and that the permanent resident’s passport and green card must be unexpired:

If you are a Permanent Resident of ... the United States ... you do not need a visa to enter Mexico for tourism, business or transit purposes. All individuals in this category are required to present their valid and unexpired Resident Card along with their passports. Both documents must be valid during your entire stay in Mexico.

I shared this information with Paul, pointing out that United Airlines risked being fined if they had allowed Sheilla to board the plane and she had been rejected for entry. He reviewed the blurb from the consulate but reminded me that Spirit Airlines hadn't found Sheilla's documents problematic – nor had the immigration officers in Cancun.

While that was true, it doesn't prove that United Airlines was wrong.

Immigration officers have some flexibility when deciding whether to allow a visitor entry. Sheilla could have just as easily been rejected, detained and returned to the United States on the next available flight. (I have reported many cases in which a traveler's insufficient entry documents ended with a trip to a holding cell and a rapid return back to where they started. It's quite an unpleasant experience.)

As Paul wasn't entirely convinced, I contacted the U.S. Consulate in Cancun for clarity.

Soon I had the definitive answer that Paul was looking for — and one that he wants to share with others so they don't end up in the same situation.

Visitors must have a valid passport and valid green card

GRACE CARY/GETTY IMAGES

The consulate in Cancun confirmed that: "In general, a U.S. resident who travels into the country of Mexico must have a valid passport (country of origin) and valid U.S. visa LPR Green Card."

Sheilla could have applied for a Mexican visa — which typically takes 10-14 days to approve — and likely could have traveled without incident. But the expired green card with the I-797 was not something that United Airlines was required to accept.

For his own peace of mind, I recommended that Paul use the International Air Transport Association's free personalized passport, visa and health checker to see what it said about Sheilla's ability to travel to Mexico without a visa.

The professional version of this tool (Timatic) is what many airlines use at check-in to be sure their passengers have the paperwork needed to board their flights. However, travelers can and should use the free version long before they head to the airport to ensure they aren't missing any critical documents necessary for their journey.

When Paul added all of Sheilla's personalized data, Timatic had the answer that would have been helpful to the couple months ago – and would have saved them nearly $3,000: Sheilla needed a visa to travel to Mexico.

She was fortunate that the immigration officer in Cancun allowed her entry without problems. As I know from many cases I've covered, being denied boarding for a flight to a destination is pretty deflating. Getting detained overnight and deported back to your home country with no refund and no vacation included is much worse, however.

In the end, Paul is happy with the clarity the couple has received since Sheilla will likely be holding that expired green card for the near future. As with all government processes during the pandemic, applicants waiting for renewed documents should expect delays.

But now the couple is clear — should they decide to travel internationally again during their wait, Sheilla will be sure not to rely on that I-797 as her travel document.

What you need to know about traveling internationally with a green card

Holding an expired green card will always make navigating the world more difficult. Travelers who attempt to fly internationally with an expired green card may encounter challenges on both the outbound and inbound portion of their journey.

An expired green card is not proof of permanent residency

A valid green card is one that is not expired. The holder of an expired green card doesn't automatically lose their permanent residency status, but it's quite precarious to attempt international travel with the document in that state.

Not only is an expired green card not a valid document to enter most foreign countries, but it is also not a valid document to reenter the United States. Green card holders should keep that in mind as they're nearing their card's expiration.

Should the card expire while the holder is abroad, they may encounter difficulties boarding their return flight or at immigration. It's always best to apply for renewal well before the expiration date. Permanent residents may begin the renewal process up to six months before the actual expiration date of the card. (Note: Conditional permanent residents can't start the process until 90 days before their green card expires.)

Keep your passport current

While traveling abroad, green card holders must also present a valid passport from their country of origin (or refugee papers). So keeping that passport current is also critical.

A passenger attempting to travel internationally with an expired green card may be able to use their valid passport as a stand-alone entry document depending on the destination. Unfortunately for Sheilla, her passport is from the Philippines, and Mexico requires a visa for those passport holders as well.

Check with the US State Department and Consulate

The U.S. State Department provides destination information — including entry requirements and consulate contact details for nearly every country worldwide. This is an excellent resource for all travelers, especially those with complicated citizenship. The consulate of your intended destination can answer your questions and confirm whether you'll need additional documents for entry — long before you show up at the check-in counter.

Use Timatic

Another fantastic resource for international travelers is the IATA's personalized passport, visa and health checker. The professional version of this tool, called Timatic, is what most airlines use to determine if a passenger has the required documentation for travel.

This is a highly reliable indicator of whether or not you have what you'll need to board your flight and pass through immigration at your destination. In fact, during the pandemic, this database was updated many times each day to keep up with the ever-changing entry requirements around the world. If you use this tool correctly, you will significantly reduce the chances of any kind of documentation problems at the airport or upon landing at your transit or final destination.

Don't rely on paper extensions to travel

Always remember that extension papers issued by the United States for green card holders are primarily so that the resident can reenter the country. No immigration officers abroad are required to accept that paper extension. Even if an airline will allow a passenger to fly to a foreign land with an expired green card and extension, it's not a good idea. That traveler is risking being detained and returned home on the next flight with no refund, and no vacation included — a true travel nightmare.

The bottom line

Navigating the globe with a complicated citizenship is hard. Make sure to do your due diligence before your next adventure, and you will greatly reduce any chance that you'll find yourself rejected at the check-in counter.

If you do encounter a problem on your next adventure and you can't solve the problem on your own, send your request for help to tips@thepointsguy.com, and I will be happy to investigate your complaint, too.

Featured image by PEOPLEIMAGES/GETTY IMAGES
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.