A resource for intercountry adoptees to obtain their own immigration records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Updated August 2022.
Caveat. I have a list of questions and answers below that provide additional context to requesting your own immigration records. I recommend you read through this FAQ first before requesting your own records through the USCIS online FOIA system.
The first thing I ever do in an intercountry adoptee citizenship case is to make a FOIA request for the client’s USCIS records. I do this because I must review all the records that exist for my client so I can advise them of their status and options, if necessary, to secure or prove US citizenship.
A FOIA request for a client involves an online submission to obtain the client’s entire “A File;” i.e., the immigration file related to my client’s adoption and immigration to the United States as a child.
Obtaining your own A File through an online FOIA request is not hard, and I’ve done presentations on this issue in the past with Adoptees United. Here, however, I provide a walk-through video in which a fictional person (me) requests his own records through the USCIS FIRST portal. Note: a closed-caption version of this video is available here.
USCIS Accounts and Links
USCIS has a video demonstrating how to set up an account, which is necessary to use the online process to request immigration records. The USCIS portal to request records through a FOIA is at first.uscis.gov.
FAQ: Getting Your Own Immigration Records through a FOIA
Most questions about the process should be answered in the videos. Other questions may appear below in order to provide additional information and context.
Does a FOIA request cost anything?
Generally, no. The government reserves the right to charge for records for voluminous files but I have yet to encounter any charge for requesting an A File for an intercountry adoptee. It should be free.
What kind of records will I get?
It will depend on your adoption and legal immigration status. If you were naturalized or obtained a certificate of citizenship in the past, there may be copies of these documents as well as copies of the applications that led to naturalization or the certificate of citizenship. If the adoption was finalized in the country of origin (or if it proceeded on a guardianship basis), you should receive copies of the adoption or guardianship records from that country. It’s possible a birth certificate or certificate of abandonment is in the file, though sometimes these records are withheld or redacted. Other records may include adoptive parent home studies, tax returns and financial documents, adoption agency correspondence, a copy of passport pages from the original passport from the country of origin, and the visa issued to enter the United States. The records you receive may vary widely from what other intercountry adoptees have received, which is often influenced by how long ago the adoption/immigration occurred.
How long will it take to get records once I submit the request?
It generally takes four to six weeks to get documents through the online USCIS process. Times, however, may vary depending on the workload at the National Records Center, the department that processes the requests. I’ve had some requests take less than two weeks and some take nearly six months. Generally, though, most are completed within six weeks.
I’m worried about my immigration status. Is it safe to apply for my records without being reported to immigration enforcement?
As a general rule, if you have concerns about your status and are worried about anything in your past that may trigger involvement by immigration enforcement, you should talk with an attorney before proceeding. While a FOIA request should NOT trigger a report to immigration enforcement, it’s best to talk to an attorney or advocate if you have questions about your status and any possible negative response from immigration authorities. While I have not encountered enforcement actions arising out of a FOIA request I’ve made for a client, it is something to consider before making a request.
Do I have to use the online process to request my own records?
No, and sometimes immigration attorneys advise that you use an alternative process (such as email or mail) because the online process requires answers to some questions that are not required if you apply by mail or email (for instance, the FIRST online process requires you to provide answers to questions about the purpose of the request, aliases, mailing address, country of birth, and information about family members). Instead of using the FIRST system you can email a request or you can also use a USCIS form to make the request by mail. More information about these methods is here. The Immigrant Legal Resource Center also has more in-depth resources about FOIA for USCIS and other agencies here.