Entry Documents: Unraveling the Distinctions Regarding a Visa and a Form I-94

By John C. Valdez, Esquire

Maybe the most confusing terms in immigration law involve two documents granted early in a nonimmigrant's travels to the United States. I am speaking of the visa and the Form I-94. Often a client will state that he must leave the United States because his visa is expiring. This client probably has no idea that his visa expiration date does not determine the day he must leave the United States. This common mistake and many others related to the visa and the Form I-94 create a need for a clear, simple explanation of the differences in these entry documents.

These documents are issued by different agencies

The visa is a document that can only be issued by the Department of State, at a U.S. Consulate Office outside of the United States. The visa is extremely important because a nonimmigrant can normally only be admitted to the United States if the person presents a visa1. Therefore, the visa interview is a vital step in coming to the United States.

The Form I-94 is issued by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency when a person applies for admission to the United States at an airport or land port. It is also issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service when a person applies for an extension of status or change of status while inside of the United States.

The Visa is a Ticket to Apply for Admission

Foreign nationals can think of the Visa as the document that allows him or her to knock on the door to enter the U.S. There are some formal parties where a person must show an Invitation to the Ball to get in. This is similar to the visa. Without this "invitation" to the United States, the person will not be allowed to even try to get into the country. This is the purpose of the document: to seek admission. Once inside of the United States, the document serves no further purpose. The expiration date on the visa has nothing to do with the amount of time the person can stay in the United States.

The Form I-94 Governs the Terms and Conditions of the Nonimmigrant's Stay in the U.S.

When you are admitted, a Form I-94 is issued. This document is vitally important while you are inside the United States. It will specify how long you can stay in the United States. It will also bear the category of your immigration status, which will determine if you can work in the United States. In the past, the document was given to the nonimmigrant when entering the United States. The U.S. government is in the process of changing this procedure. Now, most of the time a nonimmigrant must go to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement website to download and print this document shortly after arrival. This is the current website for obtaining the Form I-94: https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/request.html.

What Happens When You Leave the United States?

Usually, when a nonimmigrant leaves the United States, the visa becomes the important document once again. Before attempting another entry to the United States, the nonimmigrant must present another "invitation," i.e., the visa. It may be that the initial visa is unexpired and may be used again, because it permits multiple entries. If the visa is expired, or it only permitted a single entry, the person will need to obtain a new visa at a U.S. consulate.

When returning to the United States, a nonimmigrant can present a visa, but it is only an invitation to apply for admission, and an immigration inspector retains authority to make a final decision on the admission. After readmission, the Form I-94 again becomes the document controlling the terms and conditions of the foreign national's stay in the United States.

The author hopes that this explanation of the differences in the Form I-94 and a visa is helpful. For a full explanation of any immigration laws or procedures, a person should speak to an immigration attorney.

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1. There are some cases where nonimmigrants are visa exempt. For example, Canadians, under the NAFTA Treaty, often do not need to present a visa for admission.

2. Sometimes a person is permitted to travel to territories contiguous to the United States for a short time and then return using a Form I-94. Before using the Form I-94 in this way, consult an immigration attorney to determine if this use of the document is permitted.