A-File is short for Alien File. An A-File is an individual file the U.S. government keeps on foreign-born, noncitizen immigrants. Each file is identified by an Alien Registration Number or A-Number that’s unique to each individual. This article will explain what is in an A-File and how you can get a copy of yours if you need one. This can help you navigate through the U.S. immigration system.
Written by Amelia Neimi.
Updated July 26, 2022
What Is an A-File?
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) keeps an A-File of all foreign-born immigrants who come to the U.S., including lawful permanent residents, foreign students, and people coming to the country on vacation. This file contains all the official documents that relate to that person’s immigration history, including:
Any applications or petitions they have submitted
All documents attached to those applications, including copies of someone’s birth certificate and passport
Any materials created by DHS, such as internal memos or investigations into that person’s history
DHS starts an A-File when someone crosses their radar. This could be when an immigrant files an application or petition for a long-term or permanent benefit like naturalization. The agency also might start an A-File when it begins an enforcement or deportation action against someone.
An Alien Registration Number, or an A-Number, is an identification number that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) gives to most immigrants who apply to live in the United States. This number is on the documents in your A-File.
How Long Does It Take To Get Your A-File?
There’s a lot of valuable information in an A-File. It contains many immigration-related documents, including government memos about your immigration applications.
If the government denied an immigration benefit or application, such as a green card application, you’ll need to see what’s in this file. It can help you understand if there were any errors in your application. You can see what went wrong so you can fix these errors if you want to apply again. You’ll also be able to see if any weak points in your application need additional evidence.
Immigration attorneys helping with your application will want to see your A-File. This will let them see your application history, immigration records, and any mistakes that were made along the way. It can take anywhere from a few days to a few years for the government to process file requests so you can receive your A-File. If you need documents from this file, submit your request for your A-File from the appropriate government agency as soon as you can.
How Can You Get a Copy of Your A-File?
Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), you can request documents from the federal government, including documents not normally available to the public. Typically, the government agency you request information from must release this information to you. However, there are certain exceptions to what the agency will give you. For example, the government won’t release case files that relate to national security.
You need to follow a few steps to request a copy of your A-File. First, you need to submit a FOIA request to the correct immigration agency. Your request should explain why you’re looking for this information. You also need to use the right form for immigration-related requests.
Keep in mind that you might not need to make a FOIA request to get some information. For example, you can check your USCIS case status online, so you won’t need to wait for the government to process record requests. It’s also good to check the USCIS Electronic Reading Room for records before you make a FOIA request. But if you do need to make a FOIA request, follow the steps below.
Determine Which Immigration Agency Has the Information You Need
A FOIA request is sometimes the best way to get the information you need about certain immigration information. For example, if you need to check the date you entered the country or if you want to see what the agency wrote about your immigration application, you can use FOIA to get documents from your A-File.
To request an A-File, start by figuring out which immigration agency you should go to. This will depend on what type of information you need. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will have most of the records in an A-File, including applications you’ve submitted in the past. However, other agencies will also have information related to your immigration status.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP), will keep track of every time you entered or left the country.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will have information about enforcement actions against you, including if charges were ever filed against you.
The FBI will have information about federal criminal background checks or any criminal convictions in your background.
You might hit a few roadblocks when gathering the information in your A-File. For example, older records from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) before 1982 may not be available through FOIA. If you’re working with an attorney, they may ask you to request everything you can to get a better idea of the full picture of your case. (Or they may file the request on your behalf.) Looking through your full A-File can help them decide the best way to move forward with your immigration case.
State Your Reason for the Request
When you make a FOIA request, you’ll need to explain why you want this information. For example, you may want to show your record of lawful entry into the U.S., or you may want to know why your green card application was denied.
Normally, government agencies process requests in the order they are received. However, some requests are more urgent than others. The Department of Justice encourages agencies to process FOIA requests more quickly when someone’s personal safety or due process rights are on the line. Someone who is applying for asylum or facing a deportation hearing falls into this category. If you can explain the urgency of your request, including that you have a hearing or another deadline coming up soon, the agency may be able to expedite your FOIA request.
You can include this information in a cover letter with your request. Make sure you include your phone number and email address, so the agent reviewing your information can contact you if they have any questions. Additionally, when you make your request, you should be as specific as you can about what documents you need. Specific requests that limit what documents they’re looking for are easier, and quicker, for an agency to process. Any details you can include, including your A-Number or the dates of the records, will also make your request easier to process.
How To Make a FOIA Request for Your A-File
Once you’ve identified what information you need, why you need this information, and which agency has it, you’re ready to make your FOIA request. In general, your FOIA request should be as specific as possible and give the agency as much information as you can. For example, if you’re looking for a specific record showing that you entered the country, you can tell CBP when and where you entered the U.S. This will help them narrow down the records to find your information.
If you’re requesting records about yourself, give the agency your full name and date of birth, any aliases you go by, and your contact information. The agent reviewing your request might have questions about the records you need, so they might send you an email or give you a call. You should also tell the agency if you want the records electronically (in an email) or if you want them to mail the records to you, which may cost money for printing and shipping.
DHS is the parent agency for most agencies that work with immigration law, including USCIS, CBP, and ICE. For some of its agencies, you can send a FOIA request directly to DHS. However, for USCIS, CBP, and ICE, you’ll need to go directly to those agencies. Here is some agency-specific information you should know about making your FOIA request.
Submitting a FOIA Request to USCIS
USCIS has most of the documents in your A-File. You should start by checking its electronic reading room. Many of its files are already available to the public in this room. The information you need might already be posted there. If it is, you don’t need to file a FOIA request. This can save you a lot of time and hassle.
If your information isn’t available in the electronic reading room, you can file a FOIA request with USCIS online. You can also check the status of your request online in the USCIS FOIA tracking system. If you don’t want to go online, you can send Form G-639 to:
National Records Center (NRC)
P.O. Box 648010
Lee’s Summit, MO 64064-8010
Submitting a FOIA Request to ICE
ICE has files related to law enforcement investigations. This agency doesn’t have a specific form to use for FOIA requests. Instead, write them a letter explaining who you are, what records you need, and why you need them. You’ll also need to include an affirmation to give ICE permission to access and send you your records.
If you need records relating to deportation hearings, you can send a request to ICE by email to ICE-FOIA@dhs.gov, or by USPS or FedEx to:
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Freedom of Information Act Office
500 12th Street SW, Stop 5009
Washington, D.C. 20536-5009
Submitting a FOIA Request to CBP
Submitting a FOIA Request to the Department of State
The Department of State keeps records of visa requests from noncitizens. You can make a FOIA request for this information from the Department of State's website.
Gathering information related to your immigration case can be complicated, but help is available. If you are eligible, our free web app will walk you through your immigration process and help you prepare and file your application with the U.S. government. If our app isn’t a good fit or you just have immigration questions you need answered, you can speak with an independent attorney for just $24/month through our Ask an Attorney program.