In discussing immigration issues, there is often confusion among students and scholars visiting the US over what is meant by the term “visa” and what constitutes the concept of “status.” In light of the misunderstandings that sometimes occur, the Office for International Students & Scholars wishes to help clearly delineate the differences between these important words.
A visa is a physical item that has limited relevance and variable validity during a non-immigrant alien’s stay in the US. The visa is a sticker placed in the passport (its present format covering an entire page) by an official of the Department of State at a US consular office. Once the visa has been obtained by the alien, it is needed only at the time he or she applies for admission to the US by presenting him- or herself to an immigration official at a US port of entry.
A particular visa ceases to have purpose after an alien has used it to enter the US, at least until such time that the alien has left the US and wishes to use that visa to reenter the country. Thus, the visa is often referred to as an “entry visa,” helping to distinguish it from the concept sometimes called “visa status” discussed bellow. Since the visa’s sole function is to permit an alien admission to the US, the visa can expire at any time after the alien has entered the US without negatively affecting the alien’ non-immigrant status.
Non-immigrant status (commonly referred to as “status” or as “visa status” or “immigrant status”) is a nonphysical entity, a legal condition, granted to an alien by an officer of the Department of Homeland Security by admitting the alien into the US at a port of entry. Once the alien has obtained non-immigrant status, he or she is expected to maintain that status throughout his or her stay in the US unless the status is legally changed to another.
Because the visa needs to be valid only for entry into the US in a certain status and may expire anytime thereafter, it is clearly inappropriate to reference the visa when attempting to determine whether or not an alien is maintaining his or her non-immigrant status. Documents other than the visa are meant to provide at least initial evidence of the validity of a non-immigrant alien’s status. Example of these documents and their functions follow.