Apply for a visa
The first step is for the foreign national to apply and be issued a "visa" or "Machine Readable Visa" (MRV). The "visa" or "MRV" is a document issued by a US Consulate to a foreign national after application and if approved, is laminated into the applicant's passport. The MRV allows that person to board an airplane or ship and present themselves to a US Port of Entry (air, land or sea port) and request admission to the United States. The MRV will have an expiration date and indicate whether the person may make a single or multiple entries.
Citizens of countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) are exempt from the MRV requirement. They may simply board an airplane or ship with their unexpired passport. Citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries have a historical rate of visa compliance with their authorized period of admission. In other words, citizens of VWP countries do not tend to overstay their visas.
Interview with Customs
Second, upon arrival to the US port of entry, the foreign national will be interviewed by a Customs Border Patrol (CBP) officer. The officer will interview the foreign national to determine that their planned activities are authorized under the visa class of the approved MRV. Each visa class has a maximum period of admission. When admitted, the person is given Form I-94 Entry/Departure Card endorsed with the visa class and expiration date of the period of admission. The I-94 Card is often referred to as the "visa" in lay terms, since it indicates the visa class and the expiration date of the authorized period of stay.
Necessary documents to be issued an MRV (visa)
All visas require at a minimum submission of U.S. consulate Forms DS-160 or DS-156, DS-157 (if required), a valid passport, required photos, the machine-read-able visa (MRV) fee, and reciprocity fees applicable to specific nationalities.
How long will the MRV (visa) be valid?
The maximum MRV validity depends on the visa class and the applicant's country of nationality. For instance, a B-2 Visitor for Pleasure visa will be issued for the maximum of 10 years with multiple entries during those 10 years. However, the visa will be issued for less than 10 years and for limited entries in accordance with reciprocity schedules set by agreements between the United States and the country of the applicant's nationality. Depending on the evidence presented by the applicant and his or her answers during the visa interview, the consul also has discretion to issue a visa for less than the maximum time allowed.
How long will I be authorized to remain in the US?
The I-94 card will indicate the expiration date of the authorized period of stay. USCIS regulations outline the limitations on the period of admission. For instance, a B-1 visitor for business may be admitted for no more than one year. However, the actual period of admission granted by the inspecting CBP officer should be a "period of time which is fair and reasonable for completion of the purpose of the trip." Again, depending on the applicant's answers during this brief airport, seaport or land border entry, the period may be just 30 days or even shorter.
What is the difference between the expiration date on the MRV (visa) and the expiration date on the I-94 Card?
The MRV expiration date indicates how often you can use the MRV to board a plane and appear at a port of entry and request admission. An I-94 Card determines how long you may remain during each stay. Often times, applicant's are under the mistaken impression that because they were issued an MRV for 10 years, they may remain in the US for 10 years. That is incorrect. They must comply with the terms of each entry. The foreign national must depart the US or apply to extend status or change status before the expiration date indicated on the I-94 card.
Can a lawyer improve my chances of being issued an MRV (visa)?
A knowledgeable and experienced immigration lawyer is familiar with the eligibility requirements for each visa class. A lawyer can ensure that the foreign national is prepared to document his or her eligibility at the first interview. A lawyer can guide an applicant to choose the best visa fit for their proposed activities. Some visas must be pre-approved by USCIS before the MRV application is made. A visa denial has a number of negative consequences. First, the denial will have to be disclosed on all future applications. Second, the applicant may be subjected to a waiting period for reapplication.
Do I need a lawyer to extend or change my visa status?
Again, a knowledgeable and experienced immigration lawyer can guide you in determining whether you are eligible for an extension or change of visa status. Oftentimes applicants make applications for extension or change of status without full knowledge of the requirements for a particular visa status which results in a denial of the visa application. A denial can bring on a cascade of negative consequences including triggering of unlawful presence, voiding of the MRV and now having to disclose a denial for all future applications. Failure to disclose relevant information or violations of status can trigger the USCIS to make a finding of fraud. Fraud can be very difficult to overcome.