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Frequently Asked Questions: Passports, Visas and the I-94 Card

Q. What is a visa?

A. A visa is a permit to apply to enter the United States. Visas are different from “status,” which is the length of time an individual may stay in the U.S. after admission. There are two types of visas, nonimmigrant and immigrant. The nonimmigrant visa is issued to individuals who intend to come into the U.S. for a temporary period and for a specific purpose. The immigrant visa is issued to individuals who intend to live and work permanently in the U.S. Such individuals obtain “green cards” after arrival and are called permanent residents.

Q. Who needs a visa?

A. Most individuals coming into the U.S. for a temporary period of stay must obtain a visa. There is an exception for individuals who are nationals of countries which are included in the Visa Waiver Program. Such nonimmigrants are not required to obtain a visa to apply to enter the U.S. as a visitor for business or pleasure (B-1 and/or B-2 visa categories), if they are staying for no more than 90 days. In addition, citizens of Canada do not generally require a nonimmigrant visa unless they are coming to the U.S. as a Treaty Trader or Treaty Investor.

Q. Is there a specific period of time for which a passport must be valid?

A. The length of the visa may be limited to the expiration date of the passport. In addition, U.S. immigration law requires that a foreign national’s passport be valid during all periods of time spent in the U.S., including the time during an extension of stay, so a person’s status may be limited to the validity of their passport.

Q. How does an individual obtain a visa for entry into the U.S.?

A. If an individual is planning to travel to the U.S., he or she (and family members) should apply for their nonimmigrant visa(s) at the nearest U.S. embassy or consular post. Prior to applying for the visa, the applicant must obtain the necessary supporting documentation, which may include notice of the approval of a nonimmigrant visa petition by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Q. Does a visa guarantee entry into the U.S.?

A. No. A visa is issued by a consular officer outside of the U.S. Having a valid visa does not necessarily guarantee a smooth entry into the U.S. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has the authority to grant or deny admission to the U.S. In addition, CBP will determine how long an individual may remain in the U.S. This information is recorded on the I-94 card at the port of entry.

Q. What is an I-94 Card?

A. The I-94 Card is also known as the Arrival/Departure Document. It serves as the registration form for individuals admitted to the U.S. as nonimmigrants. This document is created by CBP when the individual is inspected upon arrival in the U.S. The CBP inspector will endorse the I-94 with the date, place of arrival, status (i.e., F, J, H, L, etc.), and length of authorized stay. While CBP is now using “electronic” or “paperless” I-94s, it is very important to print out the I-94 from CBP’s website following each entry into the U.S.  The I-94 is the official record of admission and permission to remain in the U.S., and it should be closely checked for any errors at the earliest.  If an individual decides to remain in the U.S. beyond the date on the I-94 card, he or she must timely file a petition for an extension of stay with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) prior to the expiry of the I-94. There may be serious consequences to overstaying the I-94 card by even one day.

Q. Does an individual need a new visa every time he or she travels outside of the U.S.?

A. Not necessarily. An individual should examine the visa in his or her passport to determine the classification (H-1, L-1, J-1, etc.), number of entries permitted, and the expiration date. If the individual is reentering in the same classification  and the initial visa has not expired and is valid for more than one entry, a new visa is not required. If he or she has changed status in the U.S. prior to departing or plans to reenter in a different status, a new visa is required.

Q. How may an individual in a valid nonimmigrant status obtain or extend the validity of the visa in his or her passport?

A. Generally, individuals wishing to apply for nonimmigrant visas must make a personal appearance before a U.S. consular officer at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate outside of the U.S. Most applicants apply in their country of nationality; however, some applicants may apply in Canada or Mexico, or in other countries outside their own.

Q. What determines the length of validity of a visa?

A. A visa is a permit to travel to the U.S. and apply to enter the U.S. The Consular Officer may grant a visa for as little as one month or as long as ten years, depending on the classification of the visa and the treatment given by the individual’s country of nationality to U.S. visa applicants in similar classifications. The U.S. government’s “reciprocity schedule” for each country lists maximum validity of each type of visa for nationals of each country. The validity of the visa does not affect how long an individual may remain in the U.S. on any entry. Therefore, the date on the I-94 Card may be different from the date on the visa.

Q. What determines the length of validity of my stay in the U.S.?

A. The duration of a nonimmigrant’s lawful stay is recorded on the I-94 Card created by CBP when the individual is inspected upon arrival in the U.S. It may be shorter or longer than the validity of the nonimmigrant’s visa, and may be limited to the expiry of their passport. Nonimmigrants should note the date written on this card, as it governs the time they are “lawfully present” in the U.S.

Q. If a visa has expired and an immigration status extension is in process, may an individual leave the country?

A. Yes. An individual may leave the U.S.; but, in most cases, he or she must remain out of the country until the extension is approved. Once the approval notice is received, the individual must apply for a new visa at the appropriate U.S. consular post.

Q. What happens if a valid visa is in an expired passport?

A. The individual should keep the expired passport with the valid visa together with the new passport issued by his or her country of nationality. It is not required — although it may be convenient — to have the visa issued in the new passport.

Q. May an individual travel to the U.S. on a business trip while awaiting a USCIS approval notice for a visa that allows employment in the U.S.?

A. An individual whose overseas position requires a trip to the U.S. may travel to the U.S. on a business visa (B-1) or under the visa waiver program, but he or she must not assume any of the responsibilities of the U.S. position while in that category. In addition, he or she must remain on the payroll of the foreign company.