Visa Basics

What is a Visa?

A visa is a permit to enter the United States. If needed, it is normally obtained at an American consulate outside the United States. It classifies the purpose of a visit to the U.S. as business, tourism, etc., and may only be valid for a single entry or multiple visits during a specified period of time.

An immigrant visa is given to someone who intends to live and work permanently in the United States. In most cases, your relative or employer sends an application to the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (CIS) for you (the beneficiary) to become an immigrant. Certain applicants such as workers with extraordinary ability, investors, and certain special immigrants can petition on their own behalf.

A nonimmigrant visa is given to someone who lives in another country and wishes to come temporarily to the United States for a specific purpose. Nonimmigrant visas are given to people such as tourists, business people, students, temporary workers, and diplomats.

Do I need a Visa?

Anyone who is traveling to the United States to become an immigrant must have an immigrant visa. In addition, most people who want to travel to the United States as a nonimmigrant require a visa. Under the Visa Waiver Pilot Program, nationals of participating countries do not require a visa to apply to enter the United States as a visitor for business or pleasure (B-1 or B-2 visa categories), if staying for no more than 90 days, and if not inadmissible (see INA 212 (a)). In addition, Canadians do not generally require a nonimmigrant visa unless they are coming to the United States as a Treaty Trader. Some other categories of aliens do not require visas. Please see 8 CFR 212.1 for more information.

How do I apply for a Visa?

For the following nonimmigrant categories, you should apply directly with the Department of State (which oversees all American consulates):

A – Diplomatic and other government officials, and their families and employees.
B – Temporary visitors for business or pleasure.
C – Aliens in Transit
D – Crewmen
E – International Traders and Investors
F/M – Students
G – Representatives to international organizations, their families and employees.
I – Representatives of foreign media and their families
J – Exchange Visitors and their families
R – Religious Workers

For all other nonimmigrant visa categories, and for all immigrant visas except those won through the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, you must first apply with CIS. After receiving approval from CIS, you then must go to your local U.S. consulate to complete your processing.

What are the different types of visas?

There are numerous types of visas that fall into two main categories: temporary visas and permanent resident visas, or “green cards.”

Temporary Visas – the most common temporary visas are:

  • B-1/B-2 Visitor’s Visas – Visitor visas are available for visits to the U.S. for business or pleasure. B-1 business visitor visas are for a short duration and must not involve local employment. Nationals of certain countries may be eligible to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa.
  • E-1/E-2 Treaty Trader and Investor Visas – Investors and traders and their employees may receive visas to carry on their businesses in the U.S. if their home country has a commercial treaty with the U.S. conferring visa eligibility.
  • F-1 and M-1 Student Visas – Persons seeking to pursue full-time study at a learning institution in the U.S. may be eligible for a visa for the course of their study plus, in some cases, a period for practical training in their field of study.
  • H-1B Specialty Occupation (Professional) Visas – Professional workers with at least a bachelor’s degree (or its equivalent in work experience) may be eligible for a non-immigrant visa if their employers can demonstrate that they are to be paid at least the prevailing wage for the position.
  • K-1 Fianceé Visas – A fianceé of a U.S. citizen is eligible for a non-immigrant visa conditioned on the conclusion of the marriage within 90 days of entry into the U.S.
  • K-3 Spouse Visas – A spouse of a U.S. citizen is eligible to apply for a non-immigrant visa in order to enter the U.S. during the pendency of a permanent residence petition.
  • L-1 Intracompany Transfer Visas – L-1 visas are available to executives, managers and specialized knowledge employees transferring to their employer’s U.S. affiliate. Executives and managers holding L-1 visas may be eligible for permanent residency without the need for a labor certification.
  • R-1 Religious Worker Visas – Religious workers may be eligible for an R-1 visa.
  • TN Status Under the North American Free Trade Agreement – A special category has been set up for nationals of Canada and Mexico under the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Permanent Residency Visas (Green Cards)

  • Family Sponsored Immigration – U.S. citizens may petition for permanent resident status for spouses, parents, children and siblings. Permanent residents may also petition for spouses and children.
  • B-3 Skilled Workers and Professionals – Visa holders in this category normally must have a job offer and the potential employer must complete the labor certification process.
  • EB-4 Special Immigrant Visas for Religious Workers – Ministers of religion are eligible for permanent residency.
  • EB-5 Investor/Employment Creation Visas – Under the 1990 Immigration Act, Congress has set aside up to 10,000 visas per year for foreign investors in new commercial enterprises who create employment for at least 10 individuals. There are two groups of investors under the program – those who invest at least $500,000 in “targeted employment areas” (rural areas or areas experiencing high unemployment of at least 150% of the national average rate) and those who invest $1,000,000 anywhere else. No fewer than 3,000 of the annual allotment of visas must go to targeted employment areas.
  • DV-1 Visas (“Green Card Lottery”) – 50,000 visas were allotted for the 2015 year in a random drawing to individuals from nations underrepresented in the total immigrant pool.

Where can I be fingerprinted?

After CIS has received your application, you will be notified of the location where you should get fingerprinted.
How can I check the status of my visa petition? You can check the status of your visa petition online here. You will need the receipt number provided to you by CIS after it accepted the visa petition for filing.

What do I do if my address has changed?

If your address changes, you should complete a Form AR-11 (Alien’s Change of Address Card) and mail it to CIS. It is extremely important to make sure CIS has your latest address. If CIS does not have a current address for you, you may not receive important information. For example, you may miss the notice of your interview date and time. In addition, CIS may not be able to tell you if you need to send or bring additional documents to your interview.

What if I cannot make it to my scheduled interview?

It is very important not to miss your interview. If you have to miss your interview, you should notify the office where your interview is scheduled by mail as soon as possible. In your letter, you should ask to have your interview rescheduled. Rescheduling an interview may add several months to the naturalization process, so try not to change your original interview date. If you miss your scheduled interview without notifying CIS, it will “administratively close” your case. Unless you contact CIS to schedule a new interview within 1 year after your case is closed, CIS will deny your application. CIS will not notify you if they close your case because you missed your interview.

What is “Adjustment of Status”?

If you are in the United States under a non-immigrant status, you may be able to adjust your status to another non-immigrant status or even an immigrant status without leaving the United States. By adjusting your status in the United States, you may be able to avoid the possible obstacles involved in leaving the United States and attempting to reenter.

When does my status as a permanent resident begin?

Your status as a permanent resident begins on the date you were granted permanent resident status. This date is on your Permanent Resident Card.

What is an arrival-departure Record?

Once you receive an immigrant or nonimmigrant visa, you are authorized to travel to the United States. However, a visa does not guarantee that you will be allowed to enter the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) has authority to grant or deny your admissions, and it will also determine how long you may stay.

CIS creates an Arrival/Departure Record called a CIS Form-194 when the traveler is inspected upon arrival in the United States. CBP endorses the Form I-94 with the date, place of arrival the “class of admission” (which corresponds to the visa class), the length of time the traveler may remain in the United States, and any special conditions that may apply to the visit. If you want to stay longer than the date authorized by your Form I-94, you must apply for an extension before your authorized stay expires.

If you have questions about seeking an immigrant or nonimmigrant visa or need legal advice or help filing a visa application, seeking adjustment of status or appealing the denial of a visa, contact the Atlanta, Georgia immigration attorneys at Brownstein & Nguyen LLC today for a free consultation. We have over 20 years of experience successfully representing clients in all aspects of immigration law. Click here to see what our clients say about our experience and dedication in handling their legal matters.