United States Visas were issued to 6.6 million foreign nationals visiting the United States and to 470,000 immigrants in 2008. A foreign national wishing to enter the U.S. must obtain a visa unless he or she is
- a citizen of one of the thirty-seven Visa Waiver Program countries,
- a citizen of Canada, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau
- a British Overseas Territories Citizen from Bermuda or the Cayman Islands
- a citizen of the Bahamas or a British Overseas Territories Citizen from the Turks and Caicos Islands (if traveling directly to the U.S. from their respective countries with a valid passport and police certificate issued within six months of time of travel certifying they do not have a serious criminal record)
- eligible for visa-free travel under other laws.
There are separate requirements for Mexican citizens.
While there are about 185 different types of visas, there are two main categories of U.S. visas:
- Nonimmigrant visa - for temporary visits such as for tourism, business, work or studying.
- Immigrant visa - for people to immigrate to the United States. At the port of entry, the immigrant visa holder is processed for a permanent resident card (I-551, a.k.a. green card). Upon endorsement (CBP admission stamp) it serves as temporary I-551 evidencing permanent residence for 1 year.
In order to immigrate, one should either have an immigrant visa or have a dual intent visa, which is one that is compatible with making a concurrent application for permanent resident status, or having an intention to apply for permanent residence.
Entering the U.S. on an employment visa may be described as a three-step process in most cases. First, the employer files an application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services requesting a particular type of category visa for a specific individual. If the employer's application is approved, it only authorizes the individual to apply for a visa; the approved application is not actually a visa. The individual then applies for a visa and is usually interviewed at a U.S. embassy or consulate in the native country. If the embassy or consulate gives the visa, the individual is then allowed to travel to the U.S. At the border crossing, airport, or other point of entry into the U.S., the individual speaks with an agent from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ask to admission to the U.S. If approved, the individual may then enter the U.S.
Contrary to a popular misconception, a U.S. visa does not authorize the alien's entry to the United States, nor does it authorize the alien's stay in the U.S. in a particular status. A U.S. visa only serves as a preliminary permission given to the alien to travel to the United States and to seek admission to the United States at a designated port of entry. The final admission to the United States in a particular status and for a particular period of time is made at the port of entry by a U.S. immigration officer. For aliens entering the U.S. in a nonimmigrant visa status these details are recorded by the immigration officer on the alien's Form I-94 (Form I-94W for citizens of the Visa Waiver Program countries entering the U.S. for short visits), which serves as the official document authorizing the alien's stay in the United States in a particular non-immigrant visa status and for a particular period of time.
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