Contiguous Territory Rule Permits Reentry from Canada or Mexico

The following article discusses an important exception to the general requirement that nonimmigrant foreign nationals need to have valid visas, issued at the consulate abroad, in order to enter the United States. This exception is the automatic visa revalidation process, better known as the contiguous territory rule. The exception carved out by this rule applies to nonimmigrants (those in temporary status) seeking to reenter the U.S. after a brief trip to Mexico or Canada. The specific requirements are explained below.

Visa Requirement for Most Foreign Nationals

In most situations, if a foreign national's visa foil (often referred to as the visa stamp) expires after being lawfully admitted into the United States, the expiration of the visa stamp generally has no impact on an individual's lawful status. However, if the foreign national travels outside the United States, s/he would typically need to first obtain a valid visa stamp at a U.S. consulate abroad in order to be readmitted to the United States.

Exceptions for Visa Requirement

An exception exists under the contiguous territory rule, which involves travel between the U.S. and Canada or Mexico. It allows one to travel and reenter the U.S. without the need to obtain a new U.S. visa stamp.

Overview of Automatic Visa Revalidation Process

In order to be eligible to benefit from the contiguous territory rule, a foreign national must be in the U.S. in lawful nonimmigrant (temporary) status and must travel to Canada or Mexico for no more than 30 days.

In this situation, the foreign national traveler may present the valid, unexpired I-94 form (arrival / departure record), along with the passport containing an expired visa.

If these conditions are met, and the foreign national is not prohibited from using automatic visa revalidation by one of the exclusions listed later in this article, the expired visa is considered "automatically revalidated" to the date the individual requests the ability to reenter the United States. Essentially, the expired visa is considered valid for the brief period when the individual is seeking readmission to the U.S. No new visa is actually granted in this process.

Automatic visa revalidation is even available in those situations where a foreign national uses a visa in one category to enter the United States, and later changes to a different status within the U.S. In those situations, where a foreign national did not depart the U.S. and applied for change of status to a new nonimmigrant category, the visa stamp in the passport will be in the category of the initial entry. In this common situation, the foreign national may present the original visa, expired or not, and the I-797 approval notice and I-94 card showing the change of status. Under the contiguous territory rule, the Port of Entry (POE) officer in Canada or Mexico may automatically extend the visa to the date of application for readmission, and the visa is considered converted as necessary to that changed classification. Again, there is no new visa actually granted.

The old visa is considered extended for the individual and the category changed during the time s/he is being processed for readmission at the POE.

Exceptions for Visa Revalidation Benefit

While the automatic visa revalidation process can be a great benefit to many foreign nationals who wish to travel briefly to Canada or Mexico, there are limitations on the availability of this option.

Readmission under the contiguous territory rule is not available to those who apply for new visas at one of the U.S. consulates during a visit to Canada or Mexico. So, if an H1B worker with an expired visa goes on a short trip to Montreal and applies for a new H1B visa, the contiguous territory rule will not apply. Of course, if the visa is issued, the foreign national can simply return to the United States in H1B status using the new visa. If, however, the visa is not issued, s/he does not have the automatic visa revalidation rule available to allow reentry to the United States.

Other groups who are excluded from using automatic visa revalidation are certain foreign nationals who are required to obtain nonimmigrant waivers to enter the United States, and nationals or citizens of countries that the U.S. government has deemed to be state-sponsors of terrorism. As of the time of this writing, these countries include Iran, Cuba, Sudan, and Syria.

Expanded Benefits for Those in F or J Status

The same benefits of automatic visa revalidation generally apply to foreign nationals in F or J status; however, these nonimmigrants can also use the automatic visa revalidation process after visits to certain neighboring islands, such as Bermuda, the Bahamas, or Trinidad. (A full list of the eligible adjacent islands can be found on the ICE WebSite.)

Foreign nationals requesting entry in F or J status must present either a valid SEVIS I-20 or DS-2019 form, along with the I-94 and expired visa, in order to reenter the United States.

Comply with Visa Requirements of Contiguous Territories

The automatic visa revalidation rule is part of U.S. immigration law. It facilitates reentry to the United States. It does not address any separate visa requirements for entry into Canada, Mexico, or the adjacent islands. Individuals traveling outside of the United States need to check the visa requirements for entry to the particular destination country and ensure that all required approvals are in place prior to departing the U.S.

Conclusion

The automatic visa revalidation process is convenient for many foreign nationals looking to take a short trip to destinations such as Niagara Falls in Canada or the pyramids in Chitzen Itza in Mexico, as well as other brief excursions for business or pleasure.  However, those wishing to remain abroad beyond the 30-day limit, or who will be applying for a new visa during their trip, must follow standard visa requirements. As always, any foreign national should consult a qualified immigration attorney with travel questions prior to departing the United States if there are any concerns or questions.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.

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