The U.S visa process can be complicated and confusing, but we’ve compiled answers to the most frequently asked questions about U.S visas and immigration.
What is a U.S Visa?
A U.S visa is permission for a person to travel to the United States. The visa is issued by a U.S Embassy in a foreign country after processing a visa application and determining whether the applicant is suitable to be allowed into the U.S.
The U.S Embassy looks over a person’s background and documents and decides whether to give them a visa or not. If the applicant is approved for a visa, then they get a stamp on their passport. The stamp serves as a U.S visa and contains important information regarding the visa holder.
The visa has the holder’s name, surname, date of birth, and nationality as well as the date the visa was issued and the date it expires. Once the visa has expired, the visa holder must return to their home country or apply for extensions. If the visa holder continues to stay in the U.S after the visa has expired, they risk being deported or arrested by U.S immigration agencies.
What are the types of U.S visas?
There are two major categories of U.S visas and they are divided based on the length of stay:
U.S nonimmigrant visas are those that allow a person to stay in the U.S for a shorter period of time, while immigrant visas are permanent. Each of these two categories of visas has other types within them that allow the visa holder to travel for business, tourism, work, education, or training.
What is the difference between a U.S nonimmigrant visa and a U.S immigrant visa?
The main difference between nonimmigrant and immigrant visas is the length of time that the visa holder is allowed to stay in the U.S. Nonimmigrant visas are temporary, which means that they expire and the visa holder must return to their home country immediately.
Immigrant visas are otherwise known as Green Cards and they are permanent. Once the visa holder has an immigrant visa, they can move to the U.S and stay there as long as they want to without having a deadline to return to their home country.
What is USCIS?
The U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the main immigration authority for U.S visas. They accept and process applications, as well as make decisions about giving petitions from U.S employers to hire foreign workers.
USCIS issues documents related to visas and keeps detailed records about all immigrants in the U.S. USCIS is more relevant for nonimmigrant employment visas as well as all immigrant visa petitions which they process and adjudicate.
How do I apply for a U.S nonimmigrant visa?
To apply for a U.S nonimmigrant visa, you must first decide which type of nonimmigrant visa you want to get. Our guide has a compilation of all the types of U.S nonimmigrant visas, so you can go through all of them to see which one fits you best.
Once you know which nonimmigrant visa you are applying for, then you can research the requirements of each. In general, a U.S nonimmigrant visa starts by submitting Form DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application to the U.S Embassy in your country together with supporting documents and receipts for the payment of all fees.
The U.S Embassy then processes the application, interviews the applicant, and makes a decision whether to issue a visa or not.
How do I apply for a U.S immigrant visa?
To apply for U.S immigrant visas you must first know which type of visa you will apply for. Immigrant visas will require a petition from an employer or family member to USCIS, which they must first approve.
After USCIS processes and approves the petition, you can then start the application process at a U.S Embassy in your home country. You must submit Form DS-260, Online Immigrant Visa Application together with supporting documents and attend a visa interview.
The U.S Embassy will take into account the USCIS decision and your documents and issue a decision whether to give you a Green Card or not.
What kind of documents do I need for a U.S visa?
Besides the application forms that you have to submit to apply for a U.S nonimmigrant or immigrant visa, you must also submit supporting documents.
The supporting documents prove that you are eligible for the visa you are applying for and support your case as to why the U.S Embassy should approve you. The supporting documents are different for all types of visas depending on the eligibility requirements, but in general, you will have to submit:
- Your valid passport;
- Your approved petition if applicable;
- The visa receipts which prove you have paid all fees;
- Photographs which meet the Photo Requirements;
- Your degrees and diplomas;
- Your resume and employment letters;
- Your marriage certificate and children’s birth certificates if applicable;
- Your bank statements and other financial statements;
- Your medical history or the results of medical examinations;
- Proof of relationships with family or friends if you are going to the U.S to visit them;
- Employment offer or contract if you are going to the U.S to work;
- University acceptance letter or sponsorship letters if you are going to the U.S to study, etc.
How much does a U.S visa cost?
Depending on the type of visa you are applying for, there are different fees you will have to pay. In general, all applicants will have to pay an application fee.
- For U.S nonimmigrant visas such as visitor visas, education visas, or exchange visitor visas, the fee is $160.
- For petition based visas such as H, L, or O visas, the fee is $190.
- For trader and investor visas, the fee is $205.
- Immigrant petition applications can range from fees of $205 to $775.
For more details on the fees of each U.S visa, visit our guide U.S Visa Fees or check the USCIS site.
How long does it take to get a U.S visa?
How long it takes to get a U.S visa depends on the time it takes USCIS and the U.S Embassy to process it. There are visas which might take two weeks up to a few months to process, while there are visas which can take years to process.
Usually, U.S nonimmigrant visas take less time to process, from one month to six months, while U.S immigrant visas take longer.
U.S immigrant visas can take from six months up to a few years to get processing. This is because many of them have annual limitations and if you apply after the limit on the number of issued visas has been reached, your application will be processed in the next periods.
How long can I stay in the U.S with a visa?
Since U.S nonimmigrant visas are temporary, they have an expiration date. This date depends on the type of visa. There are visas which are valid for only 3 months, and some that are valid for 3 years such as the H-1B visa.
You must check the type of visa you want to apply for and see how long it is valid once you get it. U.S immigrant visas do not have an expiration date so with such a visa, you can stay in the U.S permanently.
What kind of visa do I need to work in the U.S?
To be allowed to work in the U.S you need an employment-based visa. You will first need a job offer from a U.S employer and the employer must then petition for you at USCIS.
If you are working temporarily in the U.S, then you will need one of the nonimmigrant work visas depending on the work you are doing. If you are working in the U.S permanently with a Green Card, then you need one of the Employment-Based Immigrant Visas.
What is a Labor Conditions Application?
A Labor Conditions Application (LCA) or Certification is issued by the U.S Department of Labor to a company which is planning to hire a foreign worker. The LCA gives the right to the company to hire employees who are not U.S citizens of Legal Permanent Residents (LPR) and sponsor them for visas.
The LCA declares that the company needs to hire a foreign worker because a U.S worker was not available, qualified, or willing to work in that job position. It also states that the foreign worker’s salary will be on par with that of a U.S worker and that the foreign worker will not face discrimination or a bad work environment.
What is an employment petition?
An employment petition is submitted by a U.S company that wants to sponsor a foreign worker for an employment visa. The petition is submitted to USCIS for processing and includes details of the job position, salary, and the qualifications of the foreign worker.
When a U.S employer submits an employment petition, they must also pay the fees for processing and sponsoring the employee. They must also attach supporting documents which prove that the company can afford to hire a foreign worker, that they have paid all taxes, and obtained a Labor Certification Application (LCA) from the Department of Labor.
I only need to transit through the U.S. Do I need a visa?
If you are only transiting through the U.S to go to a different country, then you might need a transit visa. This is the C-1 visa which allows you to stay in the U.S for a very short time until you leave to go to your final destination.
For more on the transit visa and whether you need it, check out the C-1 Visa article.
What kind of visa do I need to study in the U.S?
To study in the U.S, you must first get an acceptance letter from an accredited educational institution. You can get the F-1 visa if you will study in a university in the U.S, a J-1 visa if you are being sponsored as an exchange scholar, or an M-1 visa if you are going to the U.S to study in a vocational institution. Find out more about study and exchange visas here.
What is the Optional Practical Training?
The Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a program which allows students with F-1 visas to stay in the U.S for an additional 12 months after graduation and work for a U.S employer. The OPT can be completed part-time while the student is still doing their studies or full time after graduation.
After the OPT is completed, students must either find an employer willing to sponsor them for a work visa or return to their home countries. Students with STEM degrees also have the option of applying for an OPT extension which allows them to stay in the U.S for an additional 24 months.
How do I get a U.S visa if I am marrying a U.S citizen?
If you are marrying a U.S citizen then the U.S citizen must petition for you at USCIS for a spouse visa or an IR-1 visa. This is an Immediate Relative Immigrant Visa which allows you to stay in the U.S with your spouse.
While the petition is being processed, you are also allowed to get a fiancé visa and live in the U.S with your spouse until you get approval from USCIS and get your spouse visa. Initially, USCIS will give you a conditional visa for two years, which means that if during the two years you get a divorce or separate from your U.S citizen spouse, you will not get the IR-1 visa.
Can I bring my children to the U.S with a visa?
Almost all U.S visas allow parents to bring their children to the U.S. The children must be minors though, so under 18 or 21 years old depending on the type of visa the parent has. Adult children are usually not allowed to get visas if their parents get one unless they are unable to take care of themselves and are dependent on their parents.
Can I bring my parents to the U.S with a visa?
Most visas do not allow bringing parents to the U.S since they are not considered immediate dependents. However, you must look through the Immediate Relative or Family Based Immigrant Visas which might allow you to sponsor your parents or siblings for an immigrant visa.
What is the U.S Visa Waiver Program?
The U.S Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows people from around 38 countries to go to the U.S for up to 90 days without needing a visa. The VWP can only be used for tourism or business purposes, but not for other purposes such as work or education.
If you want to go to the U.S for more than 90 days or for any other purpose, then you must apply for a visa. For more on the program, visit the Visa Waiver Program article.
What is ESTA?
The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is a document which you must get if you are planning to travel as part of the Visa Waiver Program. It is a digital program where you enter your information and it conducts a background check across multiple databases to determine whether you will be allowed to enter the U.S or not.
ESTA will make it faster and safer for travelers to go to the U.S for up to 90 days for business or tourism purposes. For more on the system and document, visit the ESTA article.
What is the Diversity Visa?
Residents of countries with low immigration rates to the U.S have the opportunity to apply for a Diversity Visa or lottery. The Diversity Visa opens each year around October and anyone can enter it. During the next two years, U.S authorities randomly pick people to apply for the Diversity Visa and immigrate to the U.S with a Green Card.
The Diversity Visa has been debated and now the proposal is to substitute it with a merit-based visa. For more details on how to apply for this visa, visit the Diversity Visa article.
What is a Merit-Based Visa?
The U.S is proposing a bill to implement a merit-based visa which is an immigrant visa based on points for certain criteria. The U.S is proposing to consider age, education, English language proficiency, extraordinary achievements, job offer salary, and investment potentials to award points and then invite applicants to apply for a Green Card.
According to the proposed system, a potential applicant must get at least 30 points to qualify for the merit-based visa. For more details, visit the Merit-Based Immigration article.
What is a Returning Resident Visa?
When a person gets an immigrant visa, then they must not leave the U.S for extended periods of time. If the person leaves the U.S and does not return then they lose their immigrant status and cannot have the benefits of a Green Card again.
If the person can prove that they could not return to the U.S for reasons beyond their control, then they qualify for a Returning Resident Visa. This visa then allows the person to return to the U.S and have a Green Card again. For more information on the visa and how to apply, visit the Returning Resident Visa article.
What is a Temporary Protected Status?
If a major catastrophe or crisis occurs in a country and its citizens are endangered and have nowhere to return, the U.S can declare the country under Temporary Protected Status (TPS). This means that the citizens of this country in crisis who are in the U.S during the time that the crisis happened can claim this status and stay in the U.S until the crisis has ended.
This could take a few months or several years until the U.S government declares that it is safe for those people to return to their home countries. For more, visit the TPS article.
What is an Automatic Visa Revalidation?
Extending or renewing a visa can take a lot of time and it usually requires the visa holder to go back to their home country and apply through the U.S Embassy there. The Automatic Visa Revalidation process allows those with expired visas to travel to Canada, Mexico, and the U.S adjacent islands for less than 30 days and get an automatic visa revalidation upon re-entry to the U.S.
The Automatic Visa Revalidation will give the same amount of validity that the visa holder had before their visa expired and is conditional on a few requirements. For more details on this process, visit the Automatic Visa Revalidation article.
Those who have U.S nonimmigrant visas cannot start working unless they have a work permit. The U.S work permit is called an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) and it can be obtained immediately after your visa is approved.
The EAD allows you to work in any U.S company legally for as long as your visa is valid. Your spouse can also get an EAD if they qualify. Once you renew or extend the visa, you must also apply for a renewal of your EAD. For information on how to apply, visit the EAD article.
What is an Affidavit of Support?
An Affidavit of Support is signed by a petitioner for a U.S immigrant visa. If a person is petitioning for their spouse to join them in the U.S for example, they must prove that they have enough funds and that they have a good financial position to support the spouse until they find a job.
This is done through signing an Affidavit of Support and guaranteeing that the person getting the immigrant visa will not be dependent on U.S welfare programs.
The person who signs the Affidavit of Support will be financially responsible for the other person until their visa ends or until they get a U.S citizenship. If the person with the immigrant visa gets funds from U.S welfare programs, the person who signed the Affidavit of Support is responsible to reimburse the U.S agencies.
For more on this document, read the article on the Affidavit of Support.
How do I become a U.S citizen with a U.S visa?
Getting to a U.S citizenship is a long process. If you have a U.S nonimmigrant visa, then it is very difficult since you are not allowed to apply directly for the citizenship. You must first get a U.S immigrant visa. Some U.S nonimmigrant visas are dual intent ones which means that once you fulfill the requirements you can change your status and get the immigrant visa.
When you have an immigrant visa, then you must maintain it for 5 years to be allowed to apply for a U.S citizenship. For details on how to get a U.S citizenship, visit the article here.
Can I enter the U.S without a valid visa?
Unfortunately, once your visa has expired and is not valid anymore, you will not be allowed to enter the U.S. If you try to enter the U.S with an expired visa, the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) will make you return to your home country.
You must get an extension of the visa you have had or apply for a new visa to be allowed to re-enter the U.S.
Does a U.S visa guarantee entry into the U.S?
If the U.S Embassy approves your visa, then you are allowed to make travel plans and go to the U.S. When you arrive, you will have to go through a customs check from officers of the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).
These officers will check your documents, your luggage, and ask questions to determine whether you should be allowed to enter the U.S. If the CBP officers suspect that you are not fit to enter the U.S, then they have the authority to deny you entry into the U.S.
Therefore, having a visa does not guarantee you entry into the U.S as the final decision is up to the CBP officers.
What happens if I do not get a U.S visa?
There are multiple reasons that USCIS or the U.S Embassy could deny your petition or visa application. You could be ineligible or you might have had a criminal past so you will not qualify to enter the U.S.
If you do not get a visa, then you have two options: either appeal to USCIS or the U.S Embassy or apply for a new visa. It is usually recommended to apply for a new visa rather than appeal since the U.S Embassy will have a valid reason as to why they denied your visa and you could correct it when you reapply.
For more on this issue, visit the U.S Visa Denial article.