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Q: I just received my US permanent resident card (“green card”) in the mail from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). I was thinking of putting it in a safe deposit box at my bank to make sure I don’t lose it. Is this a good idea?

A: Actually, the law requires that you keep your original green card with you at all times. So you should not store it in a safe deposit box or at home. Instead you should make a clear, legible color photocopy of the front and back of the green card and store that in a safe place in case the original ever is lost or stolen. Permanent residents should likewise keep the original of their home-country passport in a safe place when not traveling. The same goes for US passports for US citizens. When traveling, everyone should make a photocopy of passports and other necessary immigration-related documents and take them on the trip along with the originals (but packed in a separate place). Copies also should be left with your emergency contact person in the United States. This will make replacement easier if the documents are lost or stolen.

We often receive inquiries about what to do with other documents from USCIS and other authorities. Here is a summary:

People who are not US citizens or permanent US residents should store the original of their passport in a secure place such as a hotel safe or bank safe deposit box. They should make copies of the pages of their passports showing their photograph and identity data, the page with the US entry stamp, and any current visa; thus, they would have evidence of their immigration status if they are required to show it to US immigration authorities. In cases where someone needs to present the original of a passport, such as in cashing traveler’s checks, great care should be taken not to lose the document.

Permanent residents and others, including naturalized citizens, should retain copies of each and every document ever sent to or received from immigration authorities. Even for cases that are closed, it is always possible that a situation will arise in the future that requires that a copy of a document be produced (when a naturalized US citizen is petitioning for permanent residence for a relative, for example). These records should be kept wherever other important family documents – birth and marriage certificates, insurance policies, deeds, mortgages, tax records, etc. – are kept. A bank safe deposit box is the best place; a fireproof safe at home would be the next best.

Some of our clients have indicated that they carry their Social Security cards with them. That is not a good idea. You should never carry the card, or any other piece of paper showing your Social Security number, on your person. If your wallet or purse is stolen, a thief could use the number to commit identity theft. The same goes for items such as bank account PIN numbers or any other passwords. (Be careful, by the way, of giving out such information unless you are absolutely sure of the identity of the person requesting it and the legitimate reason for doing so. For example, never give it to anyone who calls you on the telephone, no matter what government agency, bank, etc. they may claim to represent.)

With regard to USCIS documents establishing your immigration status, it is not just inconvenient if you should lose them. There are substantial fees and long waiting periods for applications to replace lost green cards, work authorization documents, and so on. So guard the originals carefully.

If you have questions about your documents or any other immigration issue, visit one of our legal clinics advertised weekly in the Emigrant for a free, confidential consultation.

Disclaimer: These articles are published to inform generally, not to advise in individual cases. US Citizenship and Immigration Services and the US Department of State frequently amend regulations and alter processing and filing procedures. For legal advice seek the assistance of IIIC immigration legal staff.

Irish International Immigrant Center

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