A visa is a document that allows a foreigner to enter a country. While a passport serves as international identification, the visa is what gives you permission to enter. Every country has its own visa policies, including not needing one at all.
In the U.S., there are two main types of visas, immigrant visas and nonimmigrant visas. The U.S. Department of State offers more information on visa categories. The main difference between these is that an immigrant visa is issued to people on the path to U.S. residency. Nonimmigrant visas are not.
Who Might Need a Nonimmigrant Visa?
Anyone who plans to stay in the U.S. for a short period of time will need a nonimmigrant visa. This includes tourists, people seeking medical treatment, someone visiting for business purposes, students, or anyone looking for temporary work. The U.S. recognizes 20 categories of nonimmigrant visa classifications.
It’s crucial to avoid overstaying your visa. Each visa type will have a deadline and instructions on whether you can file for an extension. You must be out of the country before the deadline expires to avoid trouble.
Who Might Need an Immigrant Visa?
An immigrant visa is a permanent visa. It is issued to people who are granted U.S. permanent residency (green card status). Immigrant visas are issued through family relationships, employment, and refugees, for example. There are 32 categories of immigrant visas.
Naturally, an immigrant visa is harder to get and has much more government attention. It’s important to choose the right kind of immigrant visa before you apply to avoid delays and complications. The most common route involves either a family member, spouse, or employer filing for one on your behalf.
Immigrant visas also have expiration dates, but you won’t be required to leave the country to renew things. While green cards have an expiration time of 10 years, as of this writing, it can take longer than that to build up your life here to qualify for citizenship.
Can I Get Both Types of Visas?
There are some nonimmigrant visas that allow conversion to permanent immigrant status. These are called dual intent visas. One of the most well-known is the H-1B visa for skilled foreign professionals.
This is an employment visa that gives skilled workers the opportunity to work in the U.S. and decide whether they want to pursue a green card. The visa types that qualify for dual intent are:
- E visas (for treaty traders and investors, as well as certain occupations for Austrailans)
- H1 visas (for skilled workers)
- L visas (intracompany transfers for executives, managers, and positions with specialized knowledge)
If you wish to get permanent residency while on these visas, we encourage you to speak with an immigration lawyer for advice. Your HR division may also have resources for what you need to do to start the process since your company will need to sponsor you.
Preparing for Visa Interviews
One thing in common with both kinds of visas is the visa interview. You will be asked to go to the U.S. embassy to talk about you, your history, and your reasons for coming to the United States. You will be asked to bring certain documents with you, depending on your visa.
It’s important to answer all questions honestly. Lying in a visa interview can get you shut out of access to the country forever! Fortunately, you don’t have to wait long after the interview to get your visa. You’ll know whether you passed or not that day and receive your visa packet.
When you make your trip and reach customs, you’ll hand over your visa packet for processing and get allowed into the country. If you’ve applied for permanent residency, the government will mail your card to your sponsor’s address. Once you have that, you can begin the path to citizenship.
Must I Have a Visa to Enter the United States?
Not always, but your options are more limited. Citizens of certain countries qualify for the Visa Waiver Program. This lets you visit the United States for business or pleasure for 90 days without going through the visa process.
However, you will still need to present certain documents at the border to be let into the country. You’ll need:
- A round-trip ticket that will take you out of the country
- If traveling by land, proof of financial solvency and proof of residence outside the country.
- A machine-readable passport valid for at least 9 months
- A completed I-94W form. If you arrive by land, you’ll have to pay the processing fee at the border
Travelers who enter through this program cannot change their visa classification or stay beyond 90 days. You will have to leave the country and come back again, barring rare circumstances like seeking asylum, or risk deportation.
Can I Be Denied Entry With a Visa?
Yes. A visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. It is ultimately up to the border guards to allow or deny you entry. The visa gives them the documentation and authorization to allow you into the country, but if there are problems with the visa, you could be stuck.
Be prepared to be asked why you’re entering the country. The border patrol will want to check if your stated reason matches your visa type and double check other information. If you are stuck at the border, you may get an appeal in front of an immigration judge to explain your situation.