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A U.S. visa is a travel document that allows you to enter the U.S. Visas are issued for specific purposes of travel, such as tourism, business, study, employment or to join family. Your reason for travelling to the U.S. will determine which type of visa you should apply for. Visas are also issued for a specific period of time - once a visa expires, you no longer have the legal right to travel to or remain in the U.S.
There are two types of U.S. visas, nonimmigrant and immigrant, and the main difference is the length of time they allow you to stay in the U.S.
Visas are often confused with green cards and U.S. citizenship. What all these terms have in common is that they relate to a person's immigration status - their lawful right to be in the U.S. and any legal rights or restrictions attached to this status.
|Immigration Status||Visa Holder||Green Card Holder (Permanent Resident)||U.S. citizen|
|Time allowed to be in the U.S.||Temporary||Permanent||Permanent|
|Rights while in the U.S.|
While the application process for a U.S. visa varies depending on the visa type, all processes include:
Before you apply for a U.S. visa, be sure you know which visa you need. Note that if you are planning on visiting the U.S. for less than 90 days, you may not be required to have a visa.
Visitor visas are nonimmigrant visas issued for the purposes of tourism, business or medical treatment. B-1 visas are for business travel. B-2 visas are for tourism, participating in social events or amateur competitions, or to receive medical treatment.
Read more about U.S. visitor visas.
There are temporary work visas (nonimmigrant) and permanent work visas (immigrant). Both nonimmigrant and immigrant work visas have several categories, depending on the type of work.
In general, to apply:
Read more about U.S. work visas.
There are nonimmigrant and immigrant investment visas. The nonimmigrant investment visas are the E-1 Treaty Trader Visas and E-2 Treaty Investor visas. The immigrant investor visas are the E-5 Employment Fifth Preference Visas.
To apply for an E-1 or E-2 visas:
Read more about U.S. E-1 and E-2 investment visas.
To apply for an E-5 Employment Fifth Preference Visa:
Read more about E-5 investment visas.
Read more about U.S. student visas.
U.S. family visas are immigrant visas. They are available to family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens may apply for Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas. Spouses and children of U.S. permanent residents and siblings of U.S. citizens may apply for Family Preference Immigrant Visas. Fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens and permanent residents may apply for K visas.
Read more about U.S. family visas.
Transit (C) visas are nonimmigrant visas for persons travelling through the U.S. on their way to another country.
Read more about U.S. transit visas.
All visa applications go through the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs. In many cases, the first parts of the visa application process (completing the proper application forms) can be completed online. Once the application forms are received and approved, you will have to attend a visa interview at a U.S. consulate or embassy near you.
The visa validity is the length of time between the visa issuance date and the visa expiration date. Visa validity is determined by the visa type and by the consular officer who issued the visa. It is the period of time you are allowed to travel to a U.S. Port of Entry, not the amount of time you are allowed to stay in the U.S.
Having a U.S. visa means that you're eligible to travel to a U.S. port-of-entry for a specific purpose. Once you arrive at a U.S. port-of-entry, a U.S. immigration officer will decide whether to allow you to enter and how long you may stay. If you are given permission to enter the country, the immigration officer will either stamp your passport with an admission stamp or give you a paper Form I-94 which marks the amount of time you are allowed to stay in the U.S. If the stamp or Form I-94 has a specific date, this is the date you must leave the U.S. If the stamp or Form I-94 is marked "D/S" (duration of status), then you may remain in the U.S. as long as you continue your course of study, remain in your exchange program or remain employed. The date you are admitted into the country and the date your status expires will be entered into an electronic system by the immigration officer (this electronic method was recently started in 2013 for travelers entering via air or sea).
For further explanation, please read this example scenario:
Rosa is visiting the U.S. from Argentina on a B-2 visa that is valid for four years. This means that during that four-year period, Rosa has permission to travel to a U.S. Port of Entry (i.e. U.S. customs at the airport, border patrol stop if going via car, or seaport) and ask for admission into the U.S. The visa validity only denotes Rosa's permission to travel to the U.S., not how long she is allowed to stay in the U.S. during each trip.
At the U.S. Port of Entry, An immigration official will decide whether to allow Rosa to enter and how long she will be allowed to stay in the U.S. during that particular visit. The length of stay is usually shown by a passport stamp, which has an "expiration date". The expiration date is the date Rosa's permission to stay expires and the date she must leave the U.S. The date Rosa was admitted into the country and the date her status expires (known as the arrival/departure record) will be entered into an electronic system by the immigration official (this electronic method was recently started in 2013 for travelers entering via air or sea).
Regardless of the four-year validity of Rosa's B-2 visa, she must leave the U.S. no later than the expiration date given to her at the U.S. Port of Entry (unless she applies for an extension of stay). If Rosa wants to come back and visit the U.S. at a later time during those four years, she does not have to apply for a new visa just go to the Port of Entry and request entry.
Many nonimmigrant visa-holders can apply for an extension of stay, lengthening the amount of time they able to remain in the U.S. For most nonimmigrant visas you may file Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status before your current visa expires.
The Diversity Visa Program, also known as the Green Card Lottery, is a green card program for foreign-nationals from countries with traditionally low immigration rates to the U.S. Currently there are approximately 55,000 visas available. To apply, the applicant must be a national of a qualifying country, have an equivalent education to a U.S. high school diploma, or have two years of work experience in a job that requires two years of work experience.