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Does USCIS require original documents, or are copies okay?

When you are preparing an application for US Citizenship and Immigration Services do you need to provide original documents? The short answer is generally no – under current rules you are allowed to provide copies with your initial packet. If you provide copies with your original packet, however, you may be required to bring the original to your in-person interview.

If the document was specifically prepared for USCIS then the original document should be filed.

As a general rule, if the document was prepared specifically for your USCIS case then you are required to file the original. Common examples include the following:

  • Form I-20 issued by a Designated School Official to a foreign student.
  • Form I-693 Medical Examination issued by a authorized civil surgeon. Historically the rule has been that you had to file your original medical exam at the time you filed your I-485 Application to Adjust Status. However, this rule was revised and USCIS now allows you to wait until your interview to file the medical exam. This can make it much easier to get your adjustment application filed quickly. You are allowed to file the I-485, then get the medical exam completed at your convenience before the interview. If you choose not to file the medical exam until the interview USCIS will send you a reminder notice that the medical exam is required. But that notice does not slow down the processing of your case.
  • Vaccination Sign-off Supplement to Medical Examination Certificate.
  • Affidavits describing the unavailability of documents. Sometimes applicants are unable to obtain certain documents that are required for this case. A relatively common example is where a birth certificate is unavailable and cannot be obtained from the relevant local authority. In such cases you are required to get an official explanation that the document cannot be obtained. This official notice needs to be filed in paper original.
  • Translations of documents. USCIS claims that it requires paper originals of document translations. In practice people often submit copies of translations without issue. The safest practice is to follow USCIS guidance and submit a paper original of translations. But it is also the case that many people get away with filing copies.

For other documents, copies may be used but USCIS may request the original.

For all documents other than those listed above, USCIS allows applicants to file copies rather than originals. With that being said, USCIS reserves the right to ask for the original. This can be done either at an interview (such as for adjustment of status) or by USCIS issuing a notice by mail. Here are some categories of documents where USCIS often wants to see the original:

  • PassportsDo not send your original passport with a USCIS application! On the other hand, you can be sure that the USCIS officer will ask to see your passport at the time of your interview. You should always (always, always) bring your passport with you at the time of your USCIS interview. Note that the passport needs at least 6 months of validity at the time of the interview. If your passport does not meet that requirement you will need to seek a renewal at your country’s consulate.
  • Birth certificates. You are not required to file an original birth certificate, but USCIS officers sometimes request to see the original at the time of your USCIS interview. If you have only one original, certified copy of your birth certificate it is generally a good idea not to file it. Instead, file a copy and bring the original with you at the time of your interview. On the other hand, if it is relatively easy for you to obtain a certified original, go ahead and file this at the time of your original packet. In practice, our firm almost always files copies.
  • Criminal/arrest records. If you have ever been arrested or convicted – anywhere it the world – you will almost certainly have to provide these records at the time of your USCIS application. This is an area where USCIS often requests to see originals. If the records are from the US we typically file certified originals at the time of our initial filing. The reason is that we have to file at least copies of the records, or a Request for Evidence will be issued; since the records we obtain from the court or law enforcement agency are going to be certified originals, we may as well submit those. By contrast, if the records are coming from another country we will sometimes file copies with the initial packet. It is sometimes quicker to get non-certified electronic copies of the records, and have the originals sent over while the USCIS case is undergoing its initial processing.

What if I filed original documents with USCIS and want them back?

If you filed original documents with USCIS you can request their return by filing a Form G-884. Although there is no fee for filing the Form G-884, processing can take many months. For this reason it is a good idea not to file original documents that you may need in the future, if possible. For example, if you have only one certified copy of your birth certificate, and can’t get a replacement, do not file that document! Instead just file a copy and bring the original with you to the interview.

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Greg McLawsen

I’m proud to be the founder of Sound Immigration. My job is to work behind the scenes to ensure our clients have an outstanding experience at our firm. I’m passionate about reinventing the practice of law to make it work better for those we serve. I work hard to identify the best available technology to make our firm convenient for clients. I look to other industries, like real estate and the restaurant business, to learn about practice that will help serve our clients better.

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