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I-94 or Visa: How Long Can I Stay?
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I just entered the US. I have a visitor’s visa that says it is good for 10 years, but at the airport they stapled a card in my passport that says I was admitted for 6 months. How long can I actually stay in the US: 6 months or 10 years?

I can’t tell you how often we get asked this question, but it has to be at least a dozen times a month. The lack of knowledge or misunderstanding about the role of a visa and the ”I-94 card” has been a major factor for many foreign nationals that have fallen out of status in the United States. Why is this? What is the difference between visa and I-94 card? Which one determines how long can I stay in US – the I-94 or Visa?

The simple answer: A visa allows a person to appear at the gate (a port of entry) and ask to be let in, and the I-94 card is your actual admission ticket, telling you how long you can stay and what you can do while you are here.

Visa vs. I-94 Card: An Overview

While a visa is a permit to seek entry to the US, the I-94 card gives you permission to enter and remain in the US. Very few foreign nationals are aware that their stay in the US is controlled by the I-94 card issued to them at the time of entry, and not by their visa. Incorrect interpretations of the dates on I-94 or visa could cause serious trouble. It is the I-94 card that says how long you can stay in the US, and in what status you were admitted. Just to make sure you clearly understand this, let’s look at another example:

A citizen of China who wishes to enter the US as an H-1B professional can get a visa that is only valid for 3 months. However, they can be admitted for the length of the approved petition, typically 3 years. This means that the individual must travel to the US within 3 months of being issued the visa, but once he or she enters the US they would be able to stay for up to 3 years. He or she would only need to depart the US at the end of the specified period or the date specified in his I-94 card.

Now that we have a general overview of the I-94 card and the visa let’s look at the specifics and the difference between visa and I-94 card.

CASE SCENARIO
Jae Yong, a Korean citizen who is a reporter for the Korean Times, is being transferred to the US as a foreign correspondent for the paper. He will be stationed in Washington DC and reporting on US politics. He is granted an I visa for journalists and media representatives. The visa is valid for 5 years. When he entered the US his I-94 was marked D/S for “duration of status.” This means that as long as Jae is working as a foreign correspondent for the Korea Times he can stay in the US. There is no end time that he is required to leave the US.

What is an I-94 Card?

An I-94 card, also known as the Arrival/Departure Record, is a small white colored card given to all nonimmigrants when they enter the US. The I-94 card serves as evidence that a nonimmigrant has entered the country legally. It is stamped with a date indicating how long the nonimmigrant may stay for that particular trip. It is this date – and not the expiration date of the visa – that controls how long a nonimmigrant may legally remain in the US.

A new I-94 card with a new date is issued each time the nonimmigrant legally enters the US. The I-94 card will be stapled in your passport, normally on the page opposite your visa. Note that because of special rules in place between the US and Canada, Canadian visitors are not normally issued I-94 cards.

When you enter the US as a nonimmigrant, a U S I mmigration I nspector will examine your passport and visa, question you on the reason for your visit, and, if satisfied that you qualify for the nonimmigrant status you are seeking and will abide by the US immigration rules, give you the Form I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record). As we stated above, it is t his record -- not your visa – that tells you (in the lower right-hand corner) when you must leave the United States.

On this I-94 card the Immigration I nspector will write either a date or "D/S" (duration of status). If you have "duration of status" you may remain in the U.S. as long as you are in the same job or attending the same school . You will complete this form and submit it to the Immigration Inspector when you arrive at the airport, seaport, land border crossing point, or other port of entry.

I-94W: Citizens of the countries on the U S Visa Waiver Program list, who are entering the United States for a short stay and who are not U S citizens or Permanent U S Residents, must fill out form I-94W instead of the I-94.

The image below is a sample I-94 card, with the relevant information, which includes:

I-94 sample Card

You have to be very certain that all the information in your I-94 Card is correct, and that your name, date of birth, and country of citizenship match the information in your passport.

What is the purpose of I-94 card:

The I-94 Card serves as the registration form for foreign nationals admitted to the US as nonimmigrants. This document is created by US Immigration when the foreign national is inspected upon arrival at a US port of entry. The Immigration Inspector will endorse the I-94 card with the date of arrival, place of arrival, status granted (i.e., F, J, H, L, etc.), and length of authorized stay. The foreign national keeps the I-94 Card as their official record of admission and permission to remain in the US.

If a foreign national either needs to remain in the US for longer than the time granted, or decides they want to change their status and remain in the US beyond the date on the I-94 card, he or she must file an application for a change of status or an extension of stay with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

When you depart the US, you must surrender your I-94 Card, unless you will be traveling only to Canada, Mexico, or adjacent islands (other than Cuba) for a period not exceeding 30 days, in which case you may be able to use the I-94 Card to reenter the US.

Now that we know what the I-94 card is and why the US Immigration uses it, let’s see what a visa is. Then we can see the difference between visa and I-94 card. Hopefully then you will not be confused in the future.

What is a Visa?

A visa is a stamp in the foreign national’s passport issued by an American Embassy or Consulate in the foreign national’s home country. The visa allows the foreign national to seek entry to the United States in a certain visa status within the time period (validity period) specified on the visa. A visa may allow one, two or multiple entries before the expiration date of the visa.

Sample Visa

The visa allows the foreign national to seek entry to the United States in a certain visa status within the time period (validity period) specified on the visa

Difference between Visa and I-94 Card

It is extremely important that you clearly understand the difference between visa and I-94 card. The major difference between visa and I-94 card are as follows::

  • The I-94 is stamped with a date that indicates how long the foreign national can stay in the United States for that particular trip. Your stay in the US is not determined by the expiration date of your visa.
  • The I-94 card gives you permission to remain in the US, while a visa is a permit to seek entry to the US.
  • The I-94 generally has a validity period shorter than your visa.
  • The I-94 card is completed by an Immigration Inspector when a foreign national is inspected upon his arrival in the US, whereas a visa is issued by the US State Department and is obtained at an American consulate outside the United States.

What do you do if you want to apply for a Change of Status or Extension of Stay but your I-94 will expire next month?

If you want to stay longer than the date authorized by your I-94 card, you must apply for an extension of stay with the USCIS.

If you are in the US in any nonimmigrant visa category that supports a change of status or extension of stay you can file for a change of status or extension of stay by filing Form I-539 with USCIS. It is generally advisable to file for the extension or change of status request at least 30 days before to the expiration of I-94.

The decision to grant or deny a request for extension of stay is made solely in the discretion of the USCIS (you have no right to stay beyond the date on your I-94 card). In some cases, you may not be eligible to apply for an extension. Also, the USCIS generally will not extend your stay for a period longer than the validity of your visa.

If the USCIS approves such an application, they will issue an approval notice, the bottom portion of which is a new I-94 Form for the foreign national, reflecting that new visa status and/or extended or new period of authorized stay for that status.

Foreign nationals who enter the US under the visa waiver program (VWP) are not entitled to change their status or extend their time of stay in the US. They must depart within the 90-day period allowed visa waiver visitors. Moreover the may not simply travel to a contiguous country in order to exit and reenter for a "new" 90-day period. Proof that you are willing to obey US immigration laws and follow the dates on I-94 or visa appropriately (i.e., applying for an extension rather than just staying past the time on your I-94) will be important if you want to travel to the United States in the future.

What if your I-94 card has incorrect information on it?

If you discover after entry that the I-94 card, was issued with an error, you should go, if possible to the port of entry where you entered, and if not possible, to the nearest Immigration (Customs and Border Protection) Office with proof of entry or admission and the I-94 card, and request a corrected I-94. If the incorrect I-94 card was issued by USCIS (at a local USCIS office or from a USCIS Service Center), you should go to the nearest USCIS local office and request a new Form I-94.

If the Immigration Officer at the local office is not convinced that the I-94 was issued in error, he or she may advise you to file a Form I-102, Application for Replacement/Initial Nonimmigrant Arrival/ Departure Document. This is why it is so important to take the time to check your I-94 card for correctness before you leave the inspection area. A quick check can save you several hours of frustration later in your trip.

Conclusion:

Applying for a visa is only the first step in your journey to the US. Once you receive a visa, you can travel to the United States and seek admission. However, the visa does not guarantee that you will be allowed to enter the United States. It is up to the Immigration Inspector at the port of entry, from a separate government agency, who has the authority to grant or deny your admission to the United States. In addition, it is the Immigration Inspector – not the terms of your visa – who will determine how long you get to stay in the United States. Incorrect interpretations of the dates on I-94 or visa could cause serious trouble.

If you have any query about the I-94 card or how long you can stay in the US or extend your stay, consult a VisaPro immigration attorney. We will be happy to guide you through the process.


The above article is brought to you by "VisaPro.com". VisaPro’s US Immigration Lawyer Services include H-1B, K-1 Visa, K-3, L-1, Green Card, and over 100 Immigration Services.

The information in this article is not intended to be legal advice. If you have questions specific to your case, we suggest that you consult with the experienced immigration attorneys at http://consultattorney.visapro.com/

Visit VisaPro regularly for updates and the latest immigration news at http://www.visapro.com/


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