Foreign nationals seeking to visit, study or work in the United States must obtain a visa unless they are lawful permanent residents of the United States, citizens of Canada or the British Overseas Territories of Bermuda, or nationals of Visa Waiver Program countries.

Types of Visas

The Department of State, through its overseas embassies and consulates, issues two categories of visas: immigrant visas and nonimmigrant visas. Immigrant visas are for family-based or employment-based immigrants. Nonimmigrant visas are for all others who only seek to stay temporarily in the United States.

Common nonimmigrant visas include the

  • B-1 and B-2 for temporary business and pleasure visitors;
  • F-1 for academic students; and
  • H-1B for temporary workers in specialty occupations.

Applying for a Visa

In most cases, persons seeking to visit or move to the United States must first apply for a visa in their home country at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Applicants may have to establish that they have had no criminal convictions to obtain a visa, and that they will be able to support themselves financially once in America. If the embassy or consulate issues a visa, the visa holder must enter the United States within the time period specified by the visa. Visas are typically stamped on or attached to a holder's passport.

Because allowing a foreign national to enter the United States raises a host of concerns, the embassy or consulate may deny the visa application if it determines that the visa application includes misrepresentations, the applicant intends to stay permanently while applying for a temporary visa, or even over general political, economic, national security or public health and safety concerns.

Entry into the United States

People who have obtained a visa may travel to a U.S. port-of-entry. However, they are not guaranteed admission to the United States. Instead, at the border, they may be questioned by a Department of Homeland Security immigration inspector, who may authorize or deny them admission to the United States if they cannot demonstrate that they will abide by the terms of their visa.

Removal from the United States

The federal government may detain and deport persons who attempt to enter the United States without a visa and do not otherwise qualify for a visa waiver. Even those with a valid visa may be deported if they act out of status—or outside the scope of their visa—such as when a person enters on a temporary visitor visa and starts working. Persons who overstay their visa may also be deported possibly barred from returning to the United States.