So many times a client will come to the office and ask for an extension to stay longer in the United States. Many times we will determine that the client is already out of status, and an extension can not be filed. When I inform the client of the news, the reaction is often one of shock, how can that be, my visa is good for 5 years???
There is a common misconception that a U.S. visa is the evidence of your lawful status in the United States. Many individuals have difficulty understanding the difference between the visa expiration date and the length of time you have permission to remain in the U.S. These are very different terms.
A visa must be valid at the time a traveler seeks admission to the U.S., but the expiration date of the visa has no relation to the length of time a temporary visitor may be authorized by the Department of Homeland Security to remain in the United States.
Having a U.S. visa allows you to travel to a port of entry and request permission to enter the U.S. A visa by itself doesn’t authorize entry to the U.S. While having a visa does not guarantee entry to the U.S, it does indicate a consular officer at a U.S Embassy or Consulate abroad has determined you are eligible to seek entry for that specific purpose. The time between visa issuance and expiration dates is called your visa validity. The visa validity is the length of time you are permitted to travel to a port-of-entry in the U.S. At the port-of-entry, a U.S. immigration officer decides whether to allow you to enter and how long you can stay for any particular visit, as part of the Admission process.
At the port of entry, upon granting entry to the U.S., a U.S. immigration inspector, provides you a small white card, Form I-94, Arrival-Departure Record in your passport. Visa Waiver Program travelers receive Form 1-94W. On this form, the U.S. immigration inspector records either a date or “D/S” (duration of status). If your I-94 contains a specific date, then that is the date by which you must leave the United States. If you have D/S on your Form I-94, you may remain in the U.S. as long as you continue your course of studies, remain in your exchange program, or qualifying employment. The date or D/S notation, shown on your Arrival-Departure Record, I-94 or I-94W is the official record of your authorized length of stay in the U.S.
You cannot use the visa expiration date in determining or referring to your permitted length of stay in the U.S. If your visa expires while you are in the U.S., you will still be able to remain in the United States during your authorized period of stay, which is noted on your I-94 card.
Therefore, to determine how long you may remain in the U.S., you need to refer to your Arrival-Departure Record, but not to your visa expiration date. You may have a visa valid for 10 years while your Arrival-Departure Record has a notation that it expires in 6 months. This means that you have to leave the U.S. in 6 months unless you file for extension of your authorized stay.