An Expired Green Card Can Ruin Your Vacation.Here’s What You Need to Know

Traveling with an expired green card is always a bad idea, and Sheila Bergara just learned this the hard way.
Previously, Bergara and her husband’s plans for a vacation in the tropics came to an abrupt end at the United Airlines check-in counter. There, an airline representative informed Bergara that she could not enter Mexico from the United States on an expired green card. As a result, United Airlines denied the couple boarding a flight to Cancun.
Sheila’s husband, Paul, said the airline made a mistake in denying the couple boarding and ruined their vacation plans. He insisted that the renewal of his wife’s green card would allow her to travel abroad. But United did not agree and considered the matter closed.
Paul wants United to reopen his complaint and admits he made a mistake that cost him $3,000 to fix.
He believes the fact that the couple flew to Mexico the next day on Spirit Airlines illustrates his case. But is it?
Last spring, Paul and his wife accepted invitations to a July wedding in Mexico. However, Sheila, a conditionally permanent resident of the United States, had a problem: her green card had just expired.
Despite the fact that she applied for a new residence permit on time, the approval process took up to 12-18 months. She knew that the new green card was unlikely to arrive on time for the trip.
Veteran traveler Paul did a little research by reading a guidebook on the Mexican consulate website. Based on this information, he determined that Sheila’s expired green card would not prevent her from going to Cancun.
“While we were waiting for my wife’s new green card, she received an I-797 form. This document extended the conditional green card for another two years,” Paul explained to me. “So we didn’t expect any problems with Mexico.”
Confident that everything was in order, the couple used Expedia to book a non-stop flight from Chicago to Cancun and looked forward to a trip to Mexico. They no longer considered expired green cards.
Until the day they are ready to go on a trip to the tropics. Since then, traveling abroad with an expired green card is clearly not a good idea.
The couple planned to drink coconut rum on a Caribbean beach before lunch, arriving at the airport early that morning. Going to the United Airlines counter, they handed over all the documents and patiently waited for the boarding pass. Not expecting any trouble, they chatted while the joint agent typed on the keyboard.
When the boarding pass was not issued after some time, the couple began to wonder what was the reason for the delay.
The surly agent looked up from the computer screen to deliver the bad news: Sheila couldn’t travel to Mexico on an expired green card. Her valid Filipino passport also prevents her from going through immigration procedures in Cancun. United Airlines agents told them that she needed a Mexican visa to board the flight.
Paul tried to reason with the representative, explaining that Form I-797 retains the power of a green card.
“She told me no. Then the agent showed us an internal document that said United had been fined for taking I-797 holders to Mexico,” Paul told me. “She told us that this is not the policy of the airline, but the policy of the Mexican government.”
Paul said that he was sure that the agent was mistaken, but he realized that there was no point in arguing further. When the rep suggests that Paul and Sheila cancel their flight so they can earn United credit for future flights, he agrees.
“I think I’ll work on that later with United,” Paul told me. “First, I need to figure out how to get us to Mexico for the wedding.”
Paul was soon notified that United Airlines had canceled their booking and offered them a $1,147 future flight credit for the missed flight to Cancun. But the couple booked the trip with Expedia, which structured the trip as two one-way tickets unrelated to each other. Therefore, Frontier return tickets are non-refundable. The airline charged the couple a $458 cancellation fee and provided $1,146 as credit for future flights. Expedia also charged the couple a $99 cancellation fee.
Paul then turned his attention to Spirit Airlines, which he hopes won’t cause as much trouble as United.
“I booked Spirit’s flight for the next day so we wouldn’t miss the whole trip. Last-minute tickets cost over $2,000,” Paul said. “It’s an expensive way to fix United’s mistakes, but I have no choice.”
The next day, the couple approached the Spirit Airlines check-in counter with the same documents as the day before. Paul is confident that Sheila has what it takes to make a successful trip to Mexico.
This time it’s completely different. They handed over the documents to the Spirit Airlines staff, and the couple received their boarding passes without delay.
Hours later, Mexican immigration officials stamped Sheila’s passport, and soon the couple were finally enjoying cocktails by the sea. When the Bergaras finally made it to Mexico, their trip was uneventful and enjoyable (which, according to Paul, justified them).
When the couple returned from vacation, Paul was determined to make sure that a similar fiasco did not happen to any other green card holder.
After submitting his complaint to United Airlines and not receiving confirmation that she made a mistake, Paul sent his story to and asked for help. In no time, his disturbing story arrived in my inbox.
When I read Paul’s account of what happened to the couple, I felt terrible about what they had gone through.
However, I also suspect that United did nothing wrong by refusing to allow Sheila to travel to Mexico with an expired green card.
Over the years, I have handled thousands of consumer complaints. A large percentage of these cases involve travelers who are confused by transit and entry requirements at overseas destinations. This has never been more true during a pandemic. In fact, the vacations of highly skilled and experienced international travelers have been marred by the chaotic, rapidly changing travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus.
However, the pandemic is not the cause of Paul and Sheila’s situation. The failure of the holiday was caused by a misunderstanding of the complex travel rules for permanent residents of the United States.
I reviewed the current information provided by the Mexican consulate and double checked what I believe was the case.
Bad news for Paul: Mexico does not accept Form I-797 as a valid travel document. Sheila was traveling with an invalid green card and a Filipino passport without a visa.
United Airlines did the right thing by denying her boarding on a flight to Mexico.
Green card holders should not rely on an I-797 document to prove U.S. residence in a foreign country. This form is used by US Immigration officials and allows green card holders to return home. But no other government is required to accept the I-797 extension as proof of U.S. residency—they most likely won’t.
In fact, the Mexican consulate clearly stated that on Form I-797 with an expired green card, entry into the country is prohibited, and the passport and green card of a permanent resident must be unexpired:
I shared this information with Paul, pointing out that if United Airlines allows Sheila to board the plane and she is denied entry, they risk being fined. He checked the consulate’s announcement, but reminded me that neither Spirit Airlines had found a problem with Sheila’s papers nor the immigration officials in Cancun.
Immigration officials have some flexibility in deciding whether to allow visitors to enter the country. Sheila could easily have been denied, detained, and returned to the US on the next available flight. (I have reported many cases of travelers with insufficient travel documents being detained and then quickly returned to their point of departure. It was a very frustrating experience.)
I soon had the final answer that Paul was looking for, and he wanted to share it with others so they wouldn’t end up in the same situation.
The Cancun Consulate confirms: “In general, US residents traveling to the country of Mexico must have a valid passport (country of origin) and a valid LPR green card with a US visa.”
Sheila could have applied for a Mexican visa, which usually takes 10 to 14 days to get approved, and would probably have arrived without incident. But an expired I-797 green card is not mandatory for United Airlines.
For his own peace of mind, I suggest that Paul use a free personalized passport, visa, and IATA medical check and see what it says about Sheila being able to travel to Mexico without a visa.
The professional version of this tool (Timatic) is used by many airlines at check-in to make sure their passengers have the documents they need to board the plane. However, travelers can and should use the free version long before heading to the airport to make sure they don’t miss important travel documents.
When Paul added all of Sheila’s personal details, Timatic received the answer that helped the couple a few months earlier and saved them nearly $3,000: Sheila needed a visa to travel to Mexico.
Luckily for her, the immigration officer in Cancun allowed her to enter with no problems. As I have learned from the many cases I have covered, being denied boarding on a flight to your destination is frustrating. However, it is much worse to be detained overnight and deported back to your homeland without compensation and without leave.
In the end, Paul was pleased with the clear message the couple received that Sheila would likely receive an expired green card in the near future. As with all government processes during a pandemic, applicants waiting to update their documents should experience delays.
But now it’s clear to the couple that if they decide to travel abroad again while they wait, Sheila will definitely not rely on Form I-797 as her travel document.
Having an expired green card always makes it difficult to navigate the world. Travelers attempting to board an international flight with an expired green card may experience difficulties during departure and arrival.
A valid green card is one that has not expired. Expired green card holders do not automatically lose permanent residence status, but trying to travel abroad while in the state is very dangerous.
An expired Green Card is not only not a valid document for entry into most foreign countries, but also for re-entry into the United States. Green card holders should keep this in mind as their cards are about to expire.
If the cardholder’s card expires while they are abroad, they may have difficulty boarding a plane, entering or leaving the country. It is best to apply for renewal before the expiration date. Permanent residents can start the renewal process up to six months before the actual card expiration date. (Note: Conditional permanent residents have 90 days before their green card expires to begin the process.)

Post time: Jan-09-2023