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Immigration 101: An Overview of Visas

Posted by attorney Anthony Aboseif

Visas: Everywhere You Want to Be?

A visa is a legal document that a foreign national gets at a U.S. embassy or consulate overseas. The visa is printed onto the foreign national’s passport or travel document. The visa gives the foreign national permission to seek entry into the United States. However, it does not guarantee entry into the United States. The foreign national will be inspected at a port of entry, such as an airport, before being legally admitted to the United States.

Visa Categories: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

There are two general categories of visas: immigrant and nonimmigrant. An immigrant visa allows a person to enter the United States with the intention of staying in the United States permanently. A person who receives an immigrant visa at a U.S. embassy abroad has six months to travel to the United States and seek entry. Once the person is admitted, he or she becomes a permanent resident of the United States and will receive a green card shortly thereafter.

A nonimmigrant visa is given to a foreign national who only intends to stay in the United States temporarily and for a specific purpose. For example, an F-1 visa (student visa) is given to someone who intends to study in the United States and then return to his or her home country.

It should be noted here that the consular officer at the embassy or the customs and border officer will assume that the foreign national has immigrant intent when applying for a nonimmigrant visa. In other words, it is assumed that the foreign national plans to stay in the United States permanently. It is up to the foreign national to prove that he or she plans to stay in the United States temporarily and will only do activities allowed by the visa. Certain nonimmigrant visas like the speciality occupation H-1B visa allow for dual intent. For example, with respect to this visa category, the foreign national could have both the intention of staying temporarily or staying permanently by having the employer sponsor him or her for permanent residence (a green card).

As stated above, simply getting a visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. For example, let’s say that Joan obtains a nonimmigrant visitor visa (B-1/B-2). Joan is inspected at the airport and it is discovered that she intends to marry her U.S. citizen fiancé and stay permanently in the United States. Joan could be denied entry because her intention to stay permanently goes against the purpose of the visitor visa. She could also be denied entry if it were discovered that she got her visa by fraud or providing false information at the U.S. embassy in her home country.

Let’s say, on the other hand, that Joan married her U.S. citizen fiancé in her home country. Her husband now petitions for her so that she can immigrate to the United States. After she is interviewed at the U.S. embassy in her home country, she gets an immigrant visa. As long as there aren’t any other reasons to deny her entry into the United States when she shows up at the airport, Joan will be able admitted as a permanent resident and receive her green card shortly thereafter.

The Visa Waiver Program: Foreign Nationals Who Don’t Need a Visa

There are certain foreign nationals who do not need a visa to enter the United States.The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows nationals of 37 participating countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without getting a visa. For more about the Visa Waiver Program, click here.

Citizens of Canada and Bermuda are not participants of the Visa Waiver Program. However, citizens of these countries do not need visas to enter the United States except for certain travel purposes. For more information about citizens of Canada and Bermuda, click here.

To learn more about visas, including how to read and understand a visa, click here.

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