I-94 or Visa: How Long Can I Stay?

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? And what is the difference between the visa and the I-94 card.

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.

The long answer: 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. This lack of understanding has landed many in 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 and the visa let’s look at the specifics of the process.

What is an I-94 card?

An I-94 card, also known as the Arrival/Departure Record, is a small white or green 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. 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 US Immigration Inspector 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 a small white card, the Form I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record). As we stated above, it is this record — not your visa – that tells you (in the lower right-hand corner) when you must leave the United States.

It is on this card that the Immigration Inspector 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. Citizens of the countries on the US Visa Waiver Program list, who are entering the United States for a short stay and who are not US citizens or Permanent US Residents, must fill out form I-94W instead of the I-94.

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. The I-94 card will be stapled in your passport, normally on the page opposite your visa.

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 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.

Difference between I-94 and Visa:

It is extremely important that you clearly understand the difference between your visa and I-94 card. The major differences between a visa and the I-94 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.

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. Proof that you are willing to obey US immigration laws (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. 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.

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 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. 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. Any such change of status or extension request should be made at least one month before his/her I-94 expires.

Note: 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.

What if my Form I-94 has incorrect information on it?

If you discover after entry that the Form I-94, 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.