FAQs

Q?What is a visa?
A.

The word visa is often misused. A visa is, in effect, an admission ticket. You get it at a US consulate and use it at the airport, seaport or land border crossing when you enter the US. You usually also need it when boarding your flight or ship. When you arrive in the US, the BCBP immigration inspector will look at your passport with the visa in it and grant you a corresponding status.

After you arrive in the USA, you do not need the visa at all, ever! In fact, there are many people whose visa expired or whose visa is of a different category, but yet they are perfectly legally in the USA.

There are two main types of visa: immigrant and non-immigrant. A non-immigrant visa is a sticker in your passport (it used to be a stamp, and in fact the term “visa stamp” is sometimes still used to distinguish it from the term “visa” when you really mean “status”). It takes up a full page in your passport.

An immigrant visa is sometimes also called a “mysterious brown envelope”, for that is exactly what it is. The consulate will take all documents that you sent in, the visa application form, medical examination, etc. and put it all into a brown envelope. This envelope is the visa. Remember to keep it sealed; once the seal is broken, the visa would become worthless.

Q?What is a status?
A.

A status is what you have after you arrive in the USA, until you leave. People outside the USA never have a status. This is true even if you have a long-term visa such as H-1B – your status ends as soon as you leave the USA, even for just a one-day business trip. Don’t worry, you’ll get a new status as soon as you return. Assuming, of course, that you have the required documents and qualify for the status again.

Your status is documented on form I-94.

Q?Do I need a visa?
A.

You need a visa in most cases if you are entering the USA. It does not matter when the visa expires, as long as it is good on entry.

There are a few exceptions. You do not need a visa if:

You are from a visa waiver country and plan to come to the US as a tourist or business visitor for no more than 90 days. Note that effective October 1, 2003, you must also have a machine-readable passport (MRP). If you do not have a machine-readable passport, you must apply for a visa even if you are from a visa waiver country. Department of State announced that eventually, they will require passports with biometric identifiers.
You are a Canadian citizen without a criminal record, and plan to enter the USA as a non-immigrant. There are a few non-immigrant categories where even Canadian citizens need a visa, though (K, the fiancé visa, is one of them).
You leave the USA for a short trip (30 day maximum) to Canada or Mexico. If you are an F-1 student, you can also use the same procedure to travel to Caribbean islands. This is known as Automatic Revalidation. There are exceptions to this rule:
Your I-94 needs to be still valid when you return.
If your status is K-1 or K-2, this is not available.
You must have a visa in your passport. The visa can be expired or of a different category, but must be the one you used when entering the USA. Of course, visa waiver tourists are exempt from this requirement.
You cannot be a citizen or national of one of the so-called terror-sponsoring nations (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lybia, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba).
You must not have left the country you travelled to (that is, you cannot go to Guatemala from Mexico, or go from Canada to your home country).
You must not apply for a US visa in Canada or Mexico. If you do, Automatic Revalidation is no longer available, and you need to have the actual correct type of visa.

Q?What’s the deal with “immigration intent”?
A.

US immigration law distinguishes between a non-immigrant visa and an immigrant visa. The law says, in effect, that “everybody who comes must have an immigrant visa, unless he proves that he does not plan to immigrate.” There are a few exceptions from this rule. For instance, a fiancee visa (K visa) is for people who explicitly plan to immigrate. Also, certain long-term work visas (such as H-1 or L-1, and their families) are exempt from this rule.

And that means that it is your responsibility to provide evidence that you will return to your home country. If you can’t, the consulate will assume that you have immigration intent and deny your visa.

Notice that I am saying “the consulate”. It does happen that BCBP officers at the port of entry will look into immigration intent, too, but usually, they will defer to your visa and leave this work to the consulate.

Q?How do I convert a tourist visa to a working visa?
A.

This question was suggested by Jennifer.

First, let’s clarify the terminology. As you can see from other questions on this page, there is an important distinction between visa and status. If you really are talking about visas then the answer is that visas can never be “converted”. It would also be pointless to do so, since a visa is useless inside the USA. You would have to apply for a completely new one at a US consulate. Having a tourist visa in your passport won’t usually make a difference when you apply for another type of visa.

But most people asking this type of question are actually referring to changing from tourist status rather than from a tourist visa. In this case, the answer is complex and depends on a number of details.

First of all, you need to check whether you arrived in the USA with a tourist visa, or on the visa waiver program. That’s pretty easy to figure out. Look at the I-94 card in your passport. If it is green, you have a visa waiver. If it is white, you have an actual tourist visa.

With the visa waiver, there is no way you can change to *any* other status (except for “spouse of US citizen”). You would have to leave the USA before your 90 days are up and apply for a new visa of the appropriate category at a US consulate abroad. If you have a white I-94, you may be able to change status without leaving the USA.

The next thing you need to figure out is which status you want to change to. There is no such thing as a “generic working status” but there are quite a few individual categories that would allow you to work. Realistically, you would only be able to get a non-immigrant working status. In all cases, you would first have to find an employer willing to sponsor you. The employer would then file almost all the paperwork, and guide you through the remainder. With any of these categories, you would be allowed to work only for the sponsoring employer.

Q?How do I convert a tourist visa to a working visa?
A.

This question was suggested by Jennifer.

First, let’s clarify the terminology. As you can see from other questions on this page, there is an important distinction between visa and status. If you really are talking about visas then the answer is that visas can never be “converted”. It would also be pointless to do so, since a visa is useless inside the USA. You would have to apply for a completely new one at a US consulate. Having a tourist visa in your passport won’t usually make a difference when you apply for another type of visa.

But most people asking this type of question are actually referring to changing from tourist status rather than from a tourist visa. In this case, the answer is complex and depends on a number of details.

First of all, you need to check whether you arrived in the USA with a tourist visa, or on the visa waiver program. That’s pretty easy to figure out. Look at the I-94 card in your passport. If it is green, you have a visa waiver. If it is white, you have an actual tourist visa.

With the visa waiver, there is no way you can change to *any* other status (except for “spouse of US citizen”). You would have to leave the USA before your 90 days are up and apply for a new visa of the appropriate category at a US consulate abroad. If you have a white I-94, you may be able to change status without leaving the USA.

The next thing you need to figure out is which status you want to change to. There is no such thing as a “generic working status” but there are quite a few individual categories that would allow you to work. Realistically, you would only be able to get a non-immigrant working status. In all cases, you would first have to find an employer willing to sponsor you. The employer would then file almost all the paperwork, and guide you through the remainder. With any of these categories, you would be allowed to work only for the sponsoring employer.

Q?How do I file something with USCIS?
A.

The procedures depend on the individual office and the type of case. Some district offices and local offices expect you to hand-carry applications and file in person. Other offices, and all service centers, require you to file by mail. The detailed instructions are available on the USCIS Web site.

When mailing something, be sure to use certified mail, return receipt requested, and keep a copy of everything you mailed, usually for the rest of your life.

Q?Where can I get immigration forms?
A.

You are possibly going to deal with several different agencies, among them USCIS, CBP, Department of Labor, and Department of State (who runs US consulates abroad). For USCIS forms, please visit their Web site (see the link list below). The only BCBP form that you are likely to encounter is the I-94, I-94W or I-94T, which are available from the airlines (usually distributed on the flight) as well as all port of entries.

For Department of State forms, please visit the consulate’s Web site.

For Department of Labor, please visit their Web site listed below.