Immigration Status and Visa Status: Is There a Difference?

February 27, 2023
Courtney Wachal

Although the term “visa” is often used to encompass multiple topics, including an entry stamp in your passport, a visa that you obtained at a U.S. consulate or an approval notice of your immigration status in the U.S., these technically all have different meanings and often cause confusion.

Because the word “visa” is often used interchangeably with “immigration status”, it can be confusing for individuals trying to determine if they are still in valid U.S. immigration status.  For purposes of this post, we are discussing nonimmigrant visas and nonimmigrant status in the United States.

What is a visa?

A visa is an entry document given by the U.S. Department of State to allow you to enter the United States. In most cases, a valid visa is required to enter the United States. This means that regardless of your immigration status, you still need a valid visa for purposes of international travel.

Typically, a visa, also called a “visa stamp”, is a sticker that is stamped into a page of your passport by a U.S. embassy or consulate. In order to obtain a visa, you have to schedule an appointment at a U.S. consulate or embassy for an interview. At this point, the U.S. consulate or embassy will review your documents and your application to decide whether you are eligible for a visa classification.

In many cases, a visa stamp is valid for the duration of an approved visa petition. This means that if you have an H-1B petition that is valid for 3 years, then your visa stamp should have a 3-year validity. Once this visa expires, you would need to renew your visa upon traveling outside of the United States to ensure you can return to the United States after your trip abroad.

If I change immigration status, do I still need a new visa if mine has not yet expired?

Yes, if you change from one immigration status to another, you will need to obtain a new visa. The visa has to match your current immigration status. For example, if you were previously in  F-1 status and then change your status to H-1B, you would need to obtain an H-1B visa the next time you travel outside of the United States.

You do not need to immediately obtain a new visa stamp at the time your status changes, but you will need to obtain a new visa to re-enter the U.S. in the future.

I’m a citizen of Canada, do I need a visa?

In most cases, Canadian citizens do not need to obtain a visa to enter the United States. However, Canadians need to present an approved visa petition or apply for U.S. immigration status  at the port of entry.

If I have a visa from a U.S. embassy or consulate, do I also need an entry stamp?

An  entry stamp, or admission stamp, is an ink stamp issued by Customs and Border Protection at the U.S. port-of-entry. This entry stamp should correspond with your current immigration status. Each time you enter the U.S., you should receive a new entry stamp to reflect that you have provided the requisite documentation to enter and remain in the U.S. in a valid immigration status (such as H-1B, O-1, or F-1).

How do I know my immigration status?

An immigration status reflects your visa category and authorized period of stay when you are present in the United States. Immigration status is normally issued to you by USCIS. Often, your status is provided via an I-94 (a document issued by CBP after you are admitted through a U.S. port of entry) or via an approval notice issued to you by USCIS. For example, you might be in L-1 or K-1 status while you are in the United States.

Does my visa expire the same time as my immigration status?

Generally, yes! Often, the visa is issued to you for the same duration as your approved immigration status. However, it may expire at a different time than your immigration status in certain situations.

One example of this would be:

You are in valid H-1B status with a valid U.S. visa. Your H-1B status is set to expire within 6 months so your attorney files an H-1B extension. Your new H-1B extension gets approved and now your immigration status in H-1B is valid for another 3 year period.

However, your U.S. visa stamp would likely still expire based on the original validity of your prior H-1B. Thus, the next time you travel you will need a new, valid H-1B visa stamp, even though your immigration status wasn’t expiring while you were present in the United States

If you would like additional clarity on this topic or you plan to travel and need to renew your visa, please reach to any of our attorneys for assistance.

The material contained in this alert does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only. An attorney-client relationship is not presumed or intended by receipt or review of this presentation. The information provided should never replace informed counsel when specific immigration-related guidance is needed.

© 2023 Minsky, McCormick & Hallagan, P.C. All rights reserved. Information may not be reproduced, displayed, modified, or distributed without the express prior written permission of Minsky, McCormick & Hallagan, P.C.

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