One fundamental concept in U.S. immigration law is the difference between having a visa and having status. Status is what is granted upon entry into the U.S. and must be maintained. For travel purposes, the focus should be on the visa. Knowing the difference will help international students avoid a lot of confusion and headaches when it comes time to travel.
What Is a Visa?
A visa is the actual stamp or sticker in your passport that is labeled “VISA.” This stamp includes:
- biometric information (i.e., photograph, fingerprints)
- visa type/class
- issue date
- expiration date
The significance of the visa is that you need an unexpired visa of the correct visa type/class before the U.S. government will admit you into the U.S. (If you’re traveling by air, airlines will likely check your passport to see if you have a valid visa. Please note that airline employees aren’t government officials and aren’t the final authority on whether one can be admitted into the U.S. or not. Therefore, even if airline employees don’t find any problems with your visa, that doesn’t mean that you might not have complications at the border.) While the visa itself isn’t relevant until the time of reentry, it’s still always best to check your visa before making travel plans.
For those who are students at academic institutions, it’s important to note whether the visa type is listed as “F-1.” F-1 is for international students at academic institutions. If you don’t have F-1 listed as your visa type, then before reentering the U.S. after international travel, you’ll need to apply at the U.S. consulate closest to home to obtain a new visa. Visa processing is subject to available appointments at the local U.S. consulate, and sometimes, there are delays of several weeks even after the appointment due to security background checks. Therefore, it’s very important that you allow enough time for visa processing.
In addition to the visa type, check on the number of entries allowed for that visa. Under the place where your passport number is listed, there’s a data field called “Entries.” There should be either a number or an “M” in the entries field. If there’s a number, usually the government officers will cross out the number and reduce it by one each time the visa is used. Based on the reciprocal treatment by the U.S. and some countries, entries can be limited. An “M” indicates “multiple entries” so there’s no limit in that situation. It’s important to ensure that an individual have at least another entry available on the visa; otherwise, the individual will have to obtain a new visa at the consulate before reentering the U.S.
As always, there are exceptions to the rule.
Canadian students don’t need visas stamps in their passports. Instead when they cross into the U.S., they must show other documentation—such as a valid passport and a valid Form I-20—to be admitted into the U.S. as students.
Another exception to the rule that’s applicable to everyone (except nationals of Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria) is that if someone is traveling outside of the U.S. to Canada, Mexico, or an adjacent island for less than 30 days, and not to any other country, then he can reenter even on an expired visa stamp, and even if it is in a different visa type/class. However, the individual must still have documentation to show that he’s returning as a student. Such documentation includes a valid passport and an unexpired and valid Form I-20. This is called the automatic visa revalidation rule. (See the U.S. State Department’s website for more details.)
This information has been provided for educational purposes only. Given that each person’s circumstances are different, it’s important to consult with competent immigration attorneys to determine the best recommendation for an individual’s case.
About the Author:
Vincent W. Lau is the managing partner for Clark Lau LLC in Cambridge, MA and serves as adjunct faculty for New England Law Boston. He is also active with the American Immigration Lawyers Association where he serves as an appointed member of the national liaison committee to the U.S. Department of Labor.