Visa vs Status vs I-94: What’s The Difference?

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There is a lot of information to process when sorting through the requirements for getting a visa to the United States. One of the most common misunderstandings is the difference between a Visa and a status. Many people use the two terms interchangeably, but they are two different concepts. This quick guide will lay out the differences for you and help make it easier when you are starting the process of applying to enter the United States.

What is a Visa?

A visa is probably the more commonly used term and the one that most people use on a regular basis. Technically, a visa refers to the actual page you would get from a consulate. A United States consulate is where you would start the visa application process. The consulate will provide you with the necessary paperwork and you would apply to them for a visa. A visa is, in a sense, your key to entry into the United States. While there is a chance that key won’t be enough to grant you entry, it is safe to say that you’re definitely not getting in without it. 

A visa is essentially an authorization attached to a passport that grants permission to submit an entry request to the U.S. under a specific visa status. A visa is only issued by a U.S. Consulate, which can be located in a U.S. Embassy or separate office. U.S. Consulate offices are always located in foreign countries; they’re never found in the United States.

Many immigration authorities liken a visa to a “key” to that particular country. Once the visa is accepted and admission into the country has been granted, the visa will not be needed until the foreigner has departed and re-entry is requested. A visa is necessary to gain admittance to any port of entrance, like an airport.

When you apply for a visa, there is a waiting period. If approved, you will receive a stamped document marking you as such. This document must accompany you when you make your trip to the U.S. Once you arrive at one of the ports of entry, which can include an airport or a border crossing, a border agent will examine your documentation. It’s at this point when you may be denied entry, even with your visa. If, for example, your visa states you are visiting to be a student, you cannot state that you are coming to the country to look for work. If you do, you may be denied. The border agent may have other reasons to suspect you are not going to fulfill the legal requirements of your visa, and could deny you on those suspicions as well. If you are denied by a border agent, then unfortunately you have no recourse. The decision cannot be appealed, and you are back to the drawing board.

Although a “visa” and an I-94 are similar in that they relate to a foreign individual’s primary purpose in the U.S., they are in fact not the same. This similarity has led to confusion over which term applies in certain situations, which we will attempt to clarify in today’s blog post.

Understanding the difference between a visa and I-94 is important to knowing your responsibilities and rights during your stay in the U.S. It’s also the determining factor in the rules you must abide by while on U.S. soil.

What is an I-94?

An I-94 outlines the parameters that foreign individuals must comply with during their temporary stay in the United States. Every foreigner is given an I-94 when they enter the U.S., which is used to define how long they may remain in the U.S. and what they’re allowed to do. Depending on the specific visa status associated with the I-94, there will be a set of defined parameters which outline the foreign individual’s allowed activities.

Examples of these parameters are as follows:

  • Freedom and latitude to stay in the United States as long as the primary purpose originally undertaken continues
  • The rights necessary to engage in said primary purpose of the underlying visa status
  • Protection under the law, including local, state, and federal laws

Along with certain rights, the I-94 status carries with it specific responsibilities:

  • Obeying and complying with all laws of the United States
  • Complying with all regulations in support of engaging in your primary purpose as per the underlying visa status
  • Upon completion of the primary purpose or before the end of your admission period, applying for a Change of Status for a different primary purpose or immediately returning to your original country

While a visa and I-94 are indeed different, they work in concert to define and clarify a foreign visitor’s rights and responsibilities in the country. Understanding how they work together is a key first step in being granted admission into the United States for work and other worthwhile endeavors.

What is a Status?

This is where the confusion can be cleared up. Once you are admitted into the United States, you are then classified under a status. For Australians, the status could be E3, for example. E3 means that you have a job offer and are coming to the country to work. That status will give you specific rights and responsibilities. You cannot undertake any activities that would violate the terms of your status, otherwise you can be removed from the country. You will also be given a period of time for which your status is valid. This is different than the expiration date stamped on your visa, so make sure you are aware of the time period for your status. It is absolutely critical to abide by all of the laws and regulations related to your status. This means that if you are there for tourism, do not apply for schooling or work. If you do so, you will be classified as “out of status,” which could open you up to legal consequences, such as deportation.


How do Expiration Dates Work?

As we mentioned, there is a difference between your visa expiration and your status expiration. You need to know which is which to avoid making any errors when you are in the country. The date for your visa simply refers to how long your visa, or the potential “key” to entering the country can work. You need a valid visa to get in the country, but not to stay. If your visa expires while you are in the country and you leave the country, you will need to re-apply in order to request entry again. 

The status expiry date refers to how long you can remain in the country with that status. You can extend or change that status, but it must be done within that period of time. Strangely enough, you can be out of status for overstaying, but still have a valid visa. This can happen if you are granted a visa for a certain period, for example 5 years, but have overstayed your status limits. You can leave the country and request to come back without applying for another visa, but you would need to request your status again upon re-entry. 

Do You Need a Lawyer For All Of This?

While there is no requirement to use an attorney to apply for a visa or to request entry into the United States, it is a prudent idea to obtain the services of a lawyer for the application process. An immigration lawyer is not connected to the government, and works to help people with any issues regarding visas, statuses, and citizenship. There are some cases where an attorney would be completely unnecessary, such as when you are visiting the U.S. for tourism for a period of fewer than 90 days. For more complex situations, an attorney can save you a lot of hassle. 

Immigration laws for any country are complicated, and the U.S. is no different. While you may think it’s a good idea to save a few bucks by doing everything yourself, the fact is that it can cost you even more money, plus time and aggravation, if you make a mistake. Here are some reasons why an attorney is your best option for applying for a visa. 

They Understand the Process

Immigration attorneys understand the process of applying for a visa and complying with the regulations when you are in the country under a status. While applying is mostly about filling out paperwork, there are difficult questions and complicated language to muddle through. You may make a mistake and not even realize it, which would lead to delays and possibly rejection. An immigration lawyer will ensure that all of the necessary paperwork is filled out properly, and you will not have to struggle and worry about the details. 

One of the best things about getting the assistance of an attorney for the application process is that they know how to fill out applications to get the desired result. If you are not sure if your job offer qualifies for an E3 visa, they may be able to come up with a way to describe your job to make it fit within the requirements, for example. 

They also understand the difference between the Visa types and what the requirements are for each. If you apply for the wrong visa, you most likely will be rejected. By consulting with an attorney, they can take your information and advise you as to which visa type would be most appropriate, and help you apply with that focus. 

If you have something in your past that might prevent a visa acceptance, such as certain criminal charges, then you need expertise to help you solve that problem. There may be legal recourse of which you were not aware. In fact, you may not have realized in the first place that your charges might disqualify you. An attorney can help work through those issues and get the application processed, or advise you if you are unqualified right up front. 

No matter what your status is, there may be other options for you that you are not aware of or had not considered. An experienced attorney will be able to lay out all of your options to get you to wherever it is you want to be. This means making sure that you understand the broad scope of your situation, and providing you with the next steps. This could be in a deportation situation, for instance, or it just might be options for how to fill out an application to get the approval that you’re looking for. 

If you are interested, a lawyer can also help you on the path to citizenship. If you have an attorney helping you with your initial visa application, they can start right then advising you on how to go about preparing to apply for citizenship and what the requirements are. As your life in the United States progresses, they can advise you every step of the way as to what needs to happen to stay on the path to citizenship. 

Consequences to Not Using an Attorney

There are a few consequences to not using an attorney for visa or status issues. For one, if you are denied a visa, you may have trouble in the future if you were to apply again. There will be closer scrutiny to future applications, which means longer processing times as well. 

The obvious consequence is also that if you are rejected, you probably won’t be able to go to the United States for your original purpose. If you have a job offer lined up, then it may not still be waiting by the time a second application has gone through the application process. 

If You Have Issues While In the United States

There may come a time when you are in the United States under a status, and something happens to either threaten your status or cause other problems. For instance, you may be charged with a crime, or you may have overstayed. There is no question that you must hire an attorney in these cases. 

If you have committed a crime, there is a very real possibility that your status will be revoked. First off, you will need a criminal lawyer to defend you, but you will also need someone with expertise in immigration law. They can help you meet with immigration officials if necessary, and even help your defense negotiate a lesser charge that will not threaten your status. 

If you have overstayed, it is a serious problem. However, you may be able to apply for a waiver to exit the country and enter again. If you make any errors filling out a waiver application, then you will not be accepted. The U.S. government reserves the right to bar legal entry from those who have overstayed their visas for anywhere between three to ten years. That means you will lose your job in the United States or you won’t be able to continue your schooling. The waiver approval process can take a long time, however, so you must be patient. You may be able to apply while still in the U.S. or you may be required to leave. Check with an immigration lawyer who can give you the best advice. 

There is no simple way to enter the United States for purposes other than tourism. If you are planning to work or go to school it’s important that all of the paperwork is filled out properly, otherwise you risk being denied. Part of applying for a visa is understanding the concepts with which you are working. If you’ve read this far, you should now have a good grasp of the difference between a visa and a status. 

If possible, you should use a reputable and experienced immigration attorney to help you with every step of the process, and continue to do so even when you have successfully entered the country, in case any issues arise. They can make sure that everything is handled correctly and that you are not in violation of your status. Having a grasp of the terminology and mechanisms of your visa status, and having an expert in your corner at all times, will make your experience living and working in the United States stress free and even more rewarding. 

For more information regarding a Visa, Status and I-94, contact Lightman Law Firm at (212) 643-0985 or submit a consultation request online.

Lightman Law Firm was recently honored as New York’s 2014 Immigration Law Firm of the Year by Acquisition International. Additionally, founding attorney, Douglas Lightman, was named a “Rising Star” by Lightman Law Firm also carries a 4.9 rating on Google Reviews.