Updated: March 17, 2020
The following is the first of two website articles in which we set out some fundamentals of the law pertaining to US visas. For part two, please see More About Visas: How Long Can You Stay in the US?
- A visa does not determine how long you can stay in the US.
Having a valid US visa stamp in your passport allows you to travel to a US port of entry (land, sea or air) and request permission from an immigration inspector to enter the country. The immigration inspector, an officer of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), then determines whether you will be admitted to the US, and if so, how long you may stay. Upon your admission to the US the CBP officer will stamp your passport with the admission date and write in (1) the class of admission and (2) the date on which your permission to remain in the US will expire. If you are entering the US by a land border you will also be given a paper Form I-94; if entering by air or sea your admission data will be electronically stored but no paper Form I-94 will be issued. If after your admission to the United States you want additional proof of your lawful admission and the date to which you were admitted, you can download a current I-94 record of admission from the CBP online.
Some visa holders are not given a specific date by which they must leave the US, but are instead permitted entry ‘D/S’ (duration of status). The D/S stamp indicates that you may remain in the United States as long as you continue the course of studies, exchange program or qualifying employment for which you were admitted. Examples of visa types that result in a D/S admission are F (academic student), I (foreign information media representative) and J (exchange visitor). See DHS regulations at 8 CFR 214.2.
- It is OK to remain in the US past the date on which your visa expires.
The visa must be valid on the day you enter the US. If the CBP officer admits you to the US you may remain there until the date your permitted stay expires, even if your visa expires during the time you are in the United States. Confirmation of this important point can be found in the Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Manual, at 9 FAM 403.9-4(A).
Most visas can be obtained only outside the US.
All initial visa applications must be made outside the United States. Only very few people can then renew their visas (a process that requires another visa to be printed and affixed in the passport) without leaving the US. Renewal of visas within the US is limited to certain foreign government diplomats and officials, international organization officials and employees, and some officials and employees of NATO.
Most people who are in the US on visas have two choices when it comes time to apply for a new visa stamp to allow them to travel freely and then return to the US in the desired classification. They can return to the country where they last resided before moving to the US, or they can apply at one of the 17 US visa-issuing posts in Canada or Mexico.
- Visas can be used for one entry or for more, and be valid for varying periods of time.
Several factors determine how long your visa stamp will be valid, and how many times you will be authorised to seek entry to the US on your visa. The most important factor is your country of citizenship. The terms of a visa are determined on a country-by-country basis, depending on reciprocity—that is, how American citizens are treated by the visa-issuing authority of your own country. (If you are a citizen of more than one country the reciprocity rules relevant to the country that issued the passport into which the visa is to be affixed will apply.) Guides to reciprocity can be found on the State Department’s website. By looking at the reciprocity lists one can see that a UK citizen who successfully applies for a B1/B2 visitor’s visa will typically be issued a visa that is valid for 10 years and allows ‘multiple’ (an unlimited number of) entries. In contrast, a B1/B2 visa for a Russian citizen would be limited to a validity period of three years, and five years’ validity is possible for an Indonesian citizen’s visitor’s visa. Consular officers have discretion to issue visas for a period of time shorter than the maximum permitted in the reciprocity schedule but are encouraged to issue for the entire period. See 9 FAM 403.9-4(B).
Sometimes a visa will not be issued for the maximum period or number of trips permitted by the reciprocity schedule. This happens most frequently in the case of persons who are ineligible for a visa and require a waiver of ineligibility. If a waiver of ineligibility is approved by the Department of Homeland Security it may be granted for a short period of time—perhaps as brief as one year. The visa will then be issued only for that same validity period. For example, if a one-year waiver is granted, then even a UK citizen will receive a B1/B2 visa lasting only one year, rather than 10.
Our next article, More About Visas: How Long Can You Stay in the US?, addresses the issue of why the expiry date of your visa is not always a good guide as to how long it can actually be used.