Immigration Basics: Visa and Status

The terms visa and status are often used interchangeably, which creates confusion for many people. Here, the distinctions between visa and status are clarified for the benefit of our readers.

Visa Issued by U.S. Consulate Abroad

A visa is a document issued by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), usually at a U.S. consulate abroad. This document, often called a stamp, is affixed to a page in one’s passport. The visa is not actually a stamp; the proper term is foil. A visa does not guarantee an individual’s entry into the United States, nor does the visa confer a U.S. immigration status upon an individual. Instead, the visa allows the holder to request permission to enter the United States at a port of entry (POE).

Contents of Visa Foil

The visa foil includes biographic information and a picture of the visa holder. The visa also indicates the type / class of visa being issued (i.e. B-2, F-1, H1B, etc). Visas may be issued for single entry or multiple entries. Whether or not a visa will be issued for single or multiple entries is dependent upon the category and country-specific issues of reciprocity with the United States.

A multiple-entry visa does not have limits on the number of times one may use the visa for travel. Country-specific information for the duration and number of entries permitted by visa category is available on the DOS reciprocity table. There are many visas that do allow for multiple entries, but it is necessary to check the particular notation on one’s visa to be certain.

The visa also indicates an issue date and an expiration date. The maximum validity timeframe varies anywhere from one month to ten years, depending upon the visa category. Generally, the visa holder may use the visa to seek entry into the United States until the expiration date indicated on the visa. The visa expiration date does not correspond to the length of time an individual is allowed to remain in the United States; the expiration date dictates the last day that the individual can request admission to the United States without obtaining a new visa stamp.

Status in the U.S.

Immigration status, such as the nonimmigrant, “lettered” status (e.g. B-2, F-1, H1B), is what an individual holds while physically in the United States. When one presents him/herself for inspection by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the individual is requesting admission to the United States, usually in the category set forth in the visa.

I-94 Issued by CBP at the POE

If the CBP officer at the POE agrees that the individual is eligible to enter the United States in the requested category, the CBP officer will issue an arrival / departure record (I-94 card). This card is usually stapled to a page of the passport. The I-94 card lists the status in which the individual is being admitted into the United States (e.g. B-2, F-1, H1B) and the duration of stay permitted.

Importance of the I-94 Card Expiration Date

The I-94 card lists an expiration date, indicating how long an individual is allowed to stay in the United States. This date is not the same as the expiration date of the visa. The I-94 expiration could be far less or far more time than the validity of the visa. For example, a tourist admitted on a multiple-entry B-2 visa, valid for 10 years, is only permitted to stay in the United States for a maximum of six months at a time. The permitted time is set out in the I-94. Conversely, an H1B worker should be admitted to the U.S. through the duration listed on the approved U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) petition, even if that date goes well beyond the visa expiration date.

Visa Exemption for Visa Waiver and Canadian Citizens

Individuals coming from Visa Waiver countries do not need the actual visa in their passports to enter the United States as visitors. However, that privilege is limited to entries under the visa waiver 90-day visit provisions. Individuals from visa waiver countries still need visas to enter in any other immigration category. This is different from Canadian citizens, who have the privilege of being visa exempt in most nonimmigrant categories. They are still subject to immigration restrictions on the length of their stays and ability to work in the United States. They are simply processed for admission at the border without applying for visas at the U.S. consulate in most nonimmigrant categories.

Must File EOS or COS with USCIS Before I-94 Expiration

The nonimmigrant must depart the United States by the expiration date listed on the I-94 card. If the individual wishes to remain longer in the U.S., s/he must file an application for extension of status (EOS) or change of status (COS) before the expiration date listed on the I-94 card. Of course, this is only helpful if one is potentially eligible for the EOS or COS request, and all other legal requirements are met.

An individual who “overstays” and remains beyond the expiration date listed on the I-94 card without filing a case that allows for remaining in the United States, is in violation of immigration law. Such an individual generally would begin accruing unlawful presence time, as s/he does not have a timely filed application to change status and/or extend stay pending with the USCIS. Overstaying could subject the individual to a 3-year or 10-year inadmissibility bar on entry, automatic visa revocation (the person cannot use that visa even if it shows validity for 10 years), or to being put into removal proceedings.


The complexity of U.S. immigration law is reflected in the vast and somewhat interchangeable immigration terminology. Therefore, it is important to have an understanding of the different immigration documents, such as visas and I-94 cards, and to work with a knowledgeable and experienced attorney who can navigate through the complex immigration process.

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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.