It’s no secret that the United States has some of the strictest immigration policies worldwide. Understanding certain nuances of U.S. immigration can make a huge difference if you’re a U.S. visa holder.
Before you book your flights or pack your bags, make sure you understand the implications of international travel on your U.S. visa.
Background information on U.S. visas and international travel
The U.S. offers several nonimmigrant visas that allow foreign nationals to travel, work, live, and/or study in the U.S.
For the most part, U.S. visa holders can freely travel in and outside of the U.S. as long as they:
- Have a valid visa and the required documentation for that visa
- Express an intention to only participate in activities permitted for their visa type
For example, O-3 visa holders can live in the U.S. and go to school, but they are not permitted to work.
If a consular officer, CBP officer, USCIS officer, or other immigration official believes that you will participate in activities not permitted for your visa type, you may have trouble entering the country.
7 travel considerations for foreign nationals with U.S. visas
Whether you’ve had a U.S. visa for years or you just began the application process for your first visa, these seven points are important to keep in mind.
1: You need a valid passport, ideally one that is valid for at least six more months
Some countries, including the U.S., may deny you entry if your passport expires in less than six months. If your passport expires within the next year, consider beginning the renewal process immediately.
2: You will need a valid visa stamp to re-enter the U.S.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, but in most cases you need a valid visa stamp to enter the U.S.
A visa stamp is the physical visa sticker in your passport. You can only get a visa stamp at a U.S. embassy or U.S. consulate abroad. If you applied for your current visa in the U.S. and haven’t left the country yet, you likely do not have a valid visa stamp.
So, what are the exceptions to this rule?
- Canadian citizens. Canadians are visa exempt, meaning that they do not need a physical visa stamp to enter the U.S. If you are Canadian, you can enter with your I-797 approval notice.
- Short trips to Mexico and Canada. Under automatic revalidation, you can re-enter the U.S. with an expired visa stamp if you spent less than 30 days in Mexico or Canada. This applies to all nonimmigrant visa holders, regardless of their home country.
3: You may need to attend an interview at a U.S. embassy before re-entering the United States
What happens if you don’t have a valid visa stamp and aren’t eligible for any of the exceptions above? You will need a visa stamp to re-enter the U.S.
To get a valid visa stamp, you must attend a visa stamping appointment (also referred to as visa interview) abroad before returning to the U.S.
Many people choose to book an interview in their home country, however, it is possible to book a visa interview as a third-country national in some other countries. For example, an Indian visa holder who leaves the U.S. for a conference in Europe may consider attending a visa interview in Europe instead of India. If you’re considering booking an appointment outside your home country, read our guide on the topic.
4: International travel could delay a future green card application
You can apply for a green card immediately after returning to the U.S. on a dual intent visa like an H-1B visa or L-1 visa (if you qualify for a green card, of course).
However, most immigration attorneys advise that you wait at least 90 days before filing a green card application if you recently entered the U.S. on other visas, such as the O-1 visa, TN visa, or E-3 visa. If you hold one of these visas and wish to apply for permanent residence soon, you may consider avoiding international travel.
5: You can be denied entry into the U.S., even with a valid work visa
Holding a valid nonimmigrant visa does not guarantee entry into the U.S. There are several reasons why a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) office may find you inadmissible at a port of entry.
For example, if you overstayed your visa in the past, CBP can deny you entry even though you currently have a valid visa.
6: When re-entering the U.S., carefully word your responses to CBP officer questions
Saying the wrong thing to a CBP officer at a U.S. port of entry could result in being denied entry into the country.
For example, if you hold a temporary work visa like an O-1A visa, you cannot suggest that you plan to permanently move to the U.S. when you enter the country.
Although you can apply for a green card once in the U.S. on a O-1A visa, you will likely be denied entry if you express an intention to immigrate to the country when entering the U.S.
7: If you are in the process of applying for a green card, or a new U.S. visa, consult with your immigration attorney before traveling
When in doubt, connect with your immigration attorney about international travel. This is especially important if you have a pending green card or visa application.
Explore other free resources for nonimmigrant visa holders
How to Strengthen Your Employment-Based Green Card Profile
Which Consulate Can I Go To For My Nonimmigrant Visa?
What is the Difference Between Form I-140 and Form I-485?