Green Cards: A Cautionary Tale

Rainer Jenss offers a cautionary tale for travelers with green cards…

greencard.jpgAs terrific as my recent visit to Brazil was, it almost didn’t happen. So I’m posting this cautionary tale in the event anyone else runs into the same predicament as I did and needs some guidance.

Because I am a German national and still hold a passport from my mother country, I do not need a visa to enter Brazil. Americans, on the other hand, do, since the United States started applying visa requirements on Brazilians as a result of post-9/11 homeland security measures. This was not always the case, but Brazil has a reciprocal visa policy, meaning they adopt the same measures towards countries that place restrictions on theirs.

Not being a U.S. citizen, however, does mean that I’m required to travel with a green card whenever I leave the country . . . especially if I want to get back in! So the story starts on the JFK Express Bus on my way to the airport.  That’s when I realized I’d accidentally left my green card at the house. Without enough time to go home and retrieve it, I had to think fast about what to do. Miss the flight and hope to get on the same one a day later? Or should I risk it and leave the country without it as long as I had it coming back? I could have my wife FedEx it to my hotel in São Paulo.  To help me decide, I frantically tried a number of different Google searches on my iPhone, but I couldn’t get a precise answer on what my options were.

When I arrived at JFK, I asked the agents at the TAM Airlines counter for assistance, but no one knew for sure what I should do. All I did know was that I could leave without a green card and since I could safely have it sent overnight, I decided to go that route. Just to make certain I’d be ok, I paid a visit to the airport security office for some additional counsel. After hearing my plan, they recommended I not leave without it in case something unforeseeable went wrong with the FedEx delivery. Losing my green card in the mail would be a worst-case scenario and should be avoided at all costs. That’s when I came up with another strategy. What if my wife comes to JFK to pick me up when I return and gets it to the proper authorities to give to me when I arrive? After some further consultation, the security officers agreed that this might be a safer play. “Good luck,” they shouted as I rushed for the gate.

Fast-forward six days. Even though it had been in the back of my mind throughout the week, I was quite confident all would work out fine. Then when I checked in for my return flight to New York, I abruptly got some official clarification that had eluded me until that point: I needed my green card in able to get on the plane back to the U.S., not just when I went through Immigration. They told me because the airlines are held accountable for travelers entering the country legally, they do not board anyone without proper documentation. Even though I explained my situation and showed them a photocopy of my green card, that wasn’t sufficient. If someone arrives in the U.S.

illegally, I soon learned, it’s the airline’s responsibility to return that person to the country of origin, and in my case, TAM did not want to assume the potential liability, even though I assured them my wife would be at the airport waiting with my proof of legal residency.

In a bit of desperation, I asked if TAM had anyone at JFK who my wife could show my green card to before the plane was scheduled to take off, which was still 2.5 hours away. Luckily, they did and even more fortunately, I got hold of my wife who hastily drove to JFK in time to show the airport manager the green card. This satisfied the officials at TAM, and I was able to get on the flight. After we landed at JFK, the TAM gate agent had the card waiting for me and I got through Passport Control without a hitch.

So take it from my experience, if you do leave the country without your green card and don’t want to rely on a mail carrier to get it to you overseas, make sure to visit the local U.S. consulate for advice. They will be able to assist you, and you won’t end up at the airport scrambling to figure out what to do like I did.

Next week, Rainer resumes his family travel beat. You can follow him on Twitter at @JenssTravel.



  1. Juan Diaz
    February 16, 2014, 10:01 am

    A little surprised with the negativ comments towards the writer. Made me wonder if I should write a comment at all. Well, Here it goes. I agree that everyone can make mistakes. I am an engineer and holder of a greencard also. I left mine at home but went with the option to go to the consulate and get a travel letter. The folks at the us embassy in London were great! They were able to address my emergency without the need of an appointment which would probably take a month. I was very grateful. That does not diminish the desperation I felt the whole time before I had the transport letters in my hand thinking I was spending valantines day away from my wife and family and having to extend my stay in London. Word of advice is to keep your documentation for travel bundled, that is always have your passport and greencard in a pouch or document wallet. I would never wish anyone of you experience what I had to go through.

  2. Travelling Green
    September 28, 2010, 4:43 am

    This is a very useful article for my cousin who is in Canada. Will definitely recommend your article to her.

  3. Isabellaa
    August 27, 2010, 6:59 am

    You wonderfully narrated your experience and this is really useful for others.Thanks for sharing here.I can understand the situation you faced.Really nice of you..

  4. Frank Calenda
    August 10, 2010, 5:14 pm

    It never ceases to amaze me at the rude and crude comments made by some people like Fred Moglia and Ms Alex. These, I’m sure, are made by people that either never make mistakes or won’t admit that they have. For those people who clearly understand the English lanuage and can pass a simple test on literaty comprehension, this article is clearly meant to benefit those travelers who may find themselves in a similar situation. My wife and I are thoroughly well traveled and would be the first to admit that we’ve had to improvise when we’ve made a mistake. I would much rather see Moglia take advantage of his “sell by” date and Ms Alex can relish her list of “unlikable idots”. I sure her list is a long one. As for me and my wife, thanks Rainer for passing on these hints. You may have very well made it easier on the true travelers.

  5. varicose vein surgery
    July 28, 2010, 12:41 am

    Well worth the read.I found it very informative as I have been researching a lot lately on practical matters such as you talk about… Thanks for sharing this post with us. Keep blogging. Looking forward to reading your next post.

  6. Stefan Caiafa
    July 27, 2010, 12:26 pm

    Rainer, I’m with you. Critics, do get off your moral high horses as this happens despite our best travel intentions.
    I, too, am a seasoned traveller (see the previous post on this blog where I’m mentioned), but still managed to find myself in document trouble. With Brazil, specifically, as well.
    I was in Bolivia and didn’t have my yellow fever vaccination card to enter Brazil. The airline (I think it was TAM) refused to let me board, even though I’m also a Brazilian national (!), until I had secured the elusive piece of paper. They simply do not want to risk paying for the expenses incurred, but they also face hefty fines if their lax monitoring is discovered.
    The reason I did not have my card was faulty research: From Bolivia to the U.S., where I was living, there was no requirement for that document. And that swayed me into thinking it wasn’t needed all around, but I discovered the hard way it was mandatory for the Bolivia-Brazil segment of my trip. A silly mistake, but not uncommon in the oft-hectic run up to any trip…hardly an arrogant stance. So: Not only valid travel documents should be remembered, but valid HEALTH documents that could make or break your trip.
    Point is: The fact that one has a lot of miles under one’s belt makes these lessons no less important. An expert’s loss is the public’s gain, however, as we are able to recount based on personal experiences how to improve traveller behaviour the world over. We are not perfect, admittedly, but we do hope our ill adventures mean your travels will be.

  7. Rainer
    July 27, 2010, 10:35 am

    This post was intentionally meant to point out that even seasoned travelers can make “rookie mistakes”. I’ll be the first to admit that I was foolish for not being better prepared for my trip and that this never should have happened. However, at no point did I expect or demand special treatment. I simply did not have all the proper information necessary to make a smart decision in this circumstance. That’s why I wanted to share my story . . . in the unfortunate event someone else finds themselves in a similar situation. After all, although avoidable, accidents happen.

  8. Ms Alex
    July 27, 2010, 6:01 am

    I treat the documentation that allows me to travel with the respect it deserves. An arrogant fool who makes money out of travelling but casually forgets his documents is a PITA for everyone at the airport, his wife and the boarding team. Unlikeable idiot.

  9. Fred Moglia
    July 26, 2010, 7:49 pm

    The much vaunted world traveller doesn’t bring the proper documents, i.e., green card to the airport and then expects special treatment?
    Drop this guy like a bad habit from the list of “expert” travellers. He has gone well past his sell-by-date.