Written by Hannah F. Little, Esq., Managing Partner, N.C. Board Certified Immigration Law Specialist.
Understanding the difference between a visa stamp and an I-94 record authorizing status in the United States is often confusing. Yet it is critical to understand the purpose of the two documents in order to maintain legal status in the U.S. People tend to use the word “visa” when they should really refer to their “status.” Under U.S. immigration law, a clear distinction exists between the two.
A Visa is a stamp placed/affixed in the passport by a U.S. Consulate or Embassy outside the United States. The visa is essentially a travel permit or entry document allowing the visa holder to request permission to enter the U.S. at a U.S. port of entry. However, the visa stamp does not guarantee admission to the U.S. nor does it govern how long the visa holder may remain in the U.S. As long as the visa holder’s status remains valid, it does not matter if the visa expires.
Sample Visa Stamp
A visa may be valid for as few as 30 days or up to 10 years depending on the visa classification and the reciprocity agreement between the visa holder’s country of nationality and the U.S. The period of validity establishes the time during which a visa holder may appear at a U.S. port of entry and ask for admission to the U.S. A visa may be limited to a single entry or may be valid for multiple entries. However, the validity period of a visa may not always correlate to the authorized period of stay a visa holder is granted when admitted to the U.S.
Status is given to a visa holder at the U.S. port of entry when s/he is legally admitted to the U.S. Once admitted, an I-94 entry record is generated as proof of the person’s “status”. The I-94 clearly denotes the date of admittance, the visa classification in which the visa holder is admitted, and how long s/he can remain in the U.S. The I-94 document is extremely important as it governs the length of stay the visa holder is authorized to legally remain in the U.S. If the I-94 expires, regardless of the validity of the visa, the foreign national is considered “out of status” in the U.S., and s/he begins to accrue unlawful presence. The I-94 must remain valid at all times while the foreign national is present in the U.S. The I-94 record is issued/created in either a paper or electronic format as shown below:
Electronic I-94 (may be accessed online via the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website)
In general, a new I-94 entry record is generated upon every new entry to the U.S. It is our recommendation that the visa holder retrieve his/her new I-94 after each entry to ensure s/he has been admitted correctly. Mistakes by the port of entry officers are quite common, and most can be easily fixed by visiting the nearest Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Deferred Inspection office.
Understanding the difference between a visa and status is crucial to understanding how long one can legally remain in the U.S.