AS WE GET closer to the holiday season, many foreign nationals living in the United States will be travelling abroad. For any such foreign nationals, it is important to make sure you have the correct documents in place before starting on your travels. Depending on your situation, this can mean planning ahead and making appointments with Embassy’s or even pre-submitting documents for review.
One of the key things to remember is that a nonimmigrant status and nonimmigrant visa are not the same thing. A visa is a stamp that is put in your passport at a US embassy or consulate abroad that allows you to travel to a port of entry (such as an airport) in the US and request admission. A visa is only for the purpose of entering the US, not for the purpose of staying in the country. Your lawful status is the classification and duration of authorized stay in that classification. Your status in the US is valid up to the expiration date stated on the I-94 so long as you do not do anything to violate your status. I-94’s are now automated and travelers are no longer given paper I-94’s at the time of entry. You can look up your I-94 online with the US Customs and Border Protection.
Because a visa is used for the purpose of seeking admission to the country, it does not have to remain valid while in the US. Once you have entered the US on a visa your I-94 is what determines the duration of your stay in a particular classification. This means that you could have a B visa that is valid for 10 years but it does not mean that you can stay in the US consecutively for 10 years. When you enter the US on the B visa your I-94 will indication how long you can stay in the country.
For example, while already in the US studying in F-1 (student) status, you applied to change your status from F-1to H-1B (specialty occupation worker). At the time your H-1B was approved, you likely received an approval notice which has the new I-94 attached at the bottom indicating the validity period. Having this approved change of status does not meen that you have an H-1B visa; you are in the US in H-1B status and as long as you maintain your status and do not do anything to violate the status, you can remain in H-1B status for the duration of the stay indicated on the I-94. However, the first time you leave the US, you will generally need to go to the US embassy or consulate of your home country to get an H-1B visa before you can re-enter the US. So don’t assume that because your current I-94 is valid for another year, you’ll be able to re-enter the US without a valid visa. With some exceptions you generally get a new I-94 each time you enter the US. Also, do not think that because you were able to leave the US, you will be able to get back in.
The process of getting a visa varies by US embassy or consulate so it is best to check the individual location’s procedures. Generally, you will need to submit a DS-160 form online, pay the visa fee, make an appointment online and then attend the interview. Depending on the type of visa you need, the procedures and required documents will differ. For some types of visas such as an E visa, embassies and consulates require that you pre-submit documents and go through an initial review before you can even make your appointment so it can be a lengthy process. Many embassies and consulates do not accept visa applications from third country nationals. This means that if you are a British national, you may not be able to get your visa in Japan or France, for example; you will need to go to the embassy in the United Kingdom.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many embassies and consulates get busy during the holidays as it is peak travel time so make sure to book your appointment early to be sure that you can get the date within your anticipated travel time. Also remember that after you attend your interview, assuming that all goes well, it will take a few days before you can get your passport with the visa in it back so make sure to allow for extra time after your interview.
Once you are back in the US, go online and look up your new I-94 to be sure of your new period of authorized stay.
If you are a green card holder, although you do not need a visa to re-enter, make sure that you have your green card and that it is still valid during your travel times. If your card will expire while abroad you will need to take steps to ensure that you renew it and otherwise determine that you don’t have any issues returning to the US.
The procedures described above are general procedures and there are many exceptions, so be sure to consult with an attorney to make sure you will be able to re-enter the US as you come back from holiday.