An asylum seeker and a refugee are similar and overlap, but there is a distinctive difference between the two. It’s simple, the difference between being an asylum seeker vs a refugee ultimately narrows down to admissions and status. You see an asylum seeker is a person who requests asylum upon arrival to (or resides in) the United States, whereas a refugee has been granted refugee status while overseas or in another country that is not their own.

For example, if a person has applied for refugee status while residing outside the United States, they are considered a refugee because their claim has been granted before entering the country. On the other hand, an asylum seeker is one who is seeking protection and whose claim has not been evaluated for asylum status. This article is to help clarify the difference between the two. 

In order to qualify as an asylum seeker or refugee, an applicant must meet the definition of “A Refuge” as noted in section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA); a refugee is any person outside their country of origin who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Keep in mind that not every asylum seeker will be recognized as a refugee, but at some point, every refugee was an asylum seeker. Let’s break this down. 

What is an Asylum Seeker?

Asylum status is a form of international protection that allows an individual to remain in the United States without being deported. An asylum seeker is a person who has been forced to flee their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution and is seeking admission to request asylum in the US. These are people who are trying to find a safe and new place to rebuild their lives. 

Asylum seekers obtain asylum in one of two ways: affirmatively through a USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) asylum officer or defensively in removal proceedings before an immigration judge of DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). In short, an affirmative asylum application is made by an individual who is already in the United States. A defensive asylum application is made by someone who has been placed in removal proceedings because they were found to be unlawfully present in the United States.

To qualify for asylum status a person must meet the following criteria:

  • Meet the definition of a refugee as noted in section 101(a)(42) of the INA
  • Be physically present in the United States (or)
  • Is seeking admission at a port of entry (at any US border)

How to Apply for Asylum Status in the US?

If you are already in the United States, you can call the (USCIS) National Customer Service Center (NCSC) at 1-800-375-5283 to schedule an appointment at any USCIS field office located near you. You may also visit your local field office and make an appointment there. Applying for asylum does not have to be intimidating and is free of charge. All applications need to be submitted one year from the date of arrival. You will need to take the following steps to apply:

Filling Out the Form I-589

  1. Fill out Form I-589, (Application for Asylum and for Withholding for Removal) and submit it through USCIS. The form will ask you detailed questions about your background and reasons for seeking asylum in America. You must also provide documentation such as birth certificates, medical records, and letters from friends or family members who have already immigrated to the United States legally and who may vouch for your character (if necessary). You will then receive two notices from USCIS. A receipt notice to verify that the application was received and a scheduled biometric services appointment at an (ASC) center. Here you will provide your fingerprints, photograph, and signature (for more specific information visit USCIS Website). 

The Asylum Interview

  1. After you will have an in-person interview (visit this article to help prepare you for your interview). At your appointment, ensure to bring all relevant documents including proof of identity such as your passport and birth certificate; marriage certificate if applicable; police reports regarding persecution; travel itinerary; medical records; school records; employment records; bank statements; photographs or news articles demonstrating persecution or torture suffered by applicant or family members (if available).

After your interview, your case will be evaluated, and a decision will be made whether you are approved or sent to immigration court for removal to deportation proceedings. The length of the asylum process varies by case, but usually, you will hear back within 6 months. When an asylum application is approved you have asylee status which allows you to work and live in the United States.

One year after you have been granted asylum, you can apply for residency (a green card), and after five years, you are eligible to apply for US citizenship. Also, there is no limit for asylees in the United States but for refugees, there is a limit.

What is Refugee Status?

Like an asylum seeker, a refugee is also unable to return to their home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution. This can also include war, conflict, violence, and fear of being targeted because they belong to vulnerable groups.

The thing is that a refugee is someone who requests permission outside the country and applies at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or at a US embassy. You may seek a referral for refugee status only from outside of the United States. See the Refugees section found in the UCIS for more information.

To qualify and apply for refugee status a person

  • Must be outside of the United States
  • Is of special humanitarian concern to the United States
  • Shows that they were persecuted or fear
  • Is not firmly resettled in another country

How to apply for Refugee Status in the US?

To apply for refugee status, you will need to go through a different process

  • First, you must be referred to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a U.S. Embassy, or a nongovernmental organization. (For more information visit USRAP Consultations and Worldwide Processing Priorities).                       
  • Next, you will begin filling out an application and have a pre-screening interview at a Department of State Resettlement Support Center.                   
  • Once you have been referred and found eligible for refugee status: You will have an abroad in-person interview by a specially trained (USCIS) officer who will determine whether you are eligible for refugee resettlement (an interpreter will be provided if the interviewer does not speak your language).                    
  • You will then receive a written notification letting you know if your case was found eligible for resettlement to the United States or if more time is needed to review your case.

If your case moves forward and your security clearances are cleared, you will receive a medical screening center, a cultural orientation class, and assistance with travel plans to the United States. Please see the Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement page.

After one year in the United States, you are expected to apply for legal residency (green card). Five years after your arrival, you are also eligible to become a United States citizen.

Conclusion on the Difference between Asylum and Refugee Status 

Asylum seekers and refugees are people who seek protection under international law and, once approved, are entitled to the same rights and can remain in the U.S. indefinitely. The main difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee is where they apply for status. Whether You are overseas or in the country, it's important to get the best help and hire an immigration attorney whom you trust to take your case and help you through the process. The next step is to identify which category you fall under and begin the process as soon as possible. For more information contact  Shoreline Immigration to answer any questions you may have.  

Asylum Seekers VS Refugees FAQ 

How are Asylum Seekers different from Refugees?

An asylum seeker’s claim for refugee status has not been determined. A refugee’s application has been granted and recognized under the 1951 convention.

Who is Considered a Refugee?

A refugee is someone outside of the United States and is of special humanitarian concern. They are seeking protection from their home country due to persecution on the account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. This can also include war, violence,

What is Asylum Status?

When asylum is granted, the asylee will be able to live and work legally in the US and have the opportunity to apply for residency and citizenship in the near future.