What is a visa? Such a simple question, but there remains so much confusion about what a visa actually is. To explain this simple concept I illustrate by way of the movie, “The Wizard of Oz”? Readers will recall that, after their long and perilous journey, Dorothy, with Toto and her coterie, approaches the gates of the Emerald City and knocks on the giant door. A small portal opens up and a little man peaks out the window and demands to know, “Who goes there!” Dorothy ( or is it the Scarecrow?) explains that they’ve traveled all the way from Kansas to see the Wizard and ask to be admitted to the Emerald City. The Porter will have none of it, however, and slams the portal shut: Dorothy lacks any papers, letters of introduction or any other document to confirm her bona fides as a visitor to the Land of Oz. What Dorothy needed was a visa.
A visa is that document, usually stamped into one’s passport, that permits the bearer to approach a “port of entry” (the portal in our Oz story), and request to be admitted for a particular purpose that has been pre-approved by a U.S. Consulate abroad. A visa lets the traveler request permission to enter the country and it lets the officer at the port of entry know that the bearer has been pre-approved by a U.S. consulate in his or her home country to enter the United States. It’s that simple. A visa does not guarantee admission and it does not state how long the bearer can stay in the country. If Dorothy had had a visa, she could have requested permission to enter Oz and ask the Wizard for a way back to Kansas.
There are two facts about visas that many people get confused: the first is that a visa does not guarantee admission. Just because a person has applied for and been granted a visa by a U.S. Consulate abroad, this does not require the border agents to admit her. Admission is not guaranteed by a visa; border agents have the discretion to deny entry to travelers who request admission to the United States even if they have a valid visa. However, this is rare: the vast majority of visa holders are granted entry into the country.
The second fact about visas that many people misunderstand is that a visa does not state how long the bearer may remain in the country. In other words, the expiration date on a visa is not the date by which a person has to leave the United States. This comes as quite a shock to many people, because practically everyone thinks that if you’re in the United States and your visa is about to expire, you have to leave the country before the expiration date. But this is not necessarily so: the expiration date on a visa indicates that last date a person may approach a port of entry and request admission.
To illustrate using a real life example: a U.S. B-1/B-2 tourist visa is typically valid for ten years and allows multiple entries. Moreover, tourists are usually granted from three to six months to remain in the country on any given entry. So, if someone is visiting from overseas and has a multiple entry B-1/B-2 tourist visa valid for ten years, he or she will present this visa to the border agent, who will ask the bearer the purpose of his stay. “To visit Disney World then travel to California to see the Wine Country,” our tourist says. The border agent, satisfied that all the documentation is in order, stamps the traveler’s passport with an entry stamp valid for six months. Thus, the date by which the person must depart the United States is the entry stamp, not the visa. The visa is valid for ten years, but the border agent permitted the traveler to remain for only six months, not ten years. The entry stamp, also known as an I-94 Entry and Departure Record, is what a person must consult if he or she wants to know the date by which he or she must leave the country. While it is the case that the expiration date of a visa and the expiration date of an I-94 are often the same, they aren’t always the same, so it’s extremely important that visitors check their entry stamps to make sure of the date they have to depart the United States. In addition to a stamp, entries into the United States are also recorded online so visitors can (and should) check the online system to make sure the expiration date recorded there matches what’s in their passport.
Dorothy’s visit to Oz would have been much simpler if she had had a visa before traveling there. And readers are well advised to consult their I-94 records when they travel to the United States so that they will know exactly how long they’re allowed to remain in this country. And if there is any doubt or confusion, please let us know at the Law Office of Gregory J. Eck, LLC. We can answer these and any other questions about immigration to the United States.