The I-94 Form

An “I-94” form is issued to a visitor upon legal entry to the United States.  The I-94 lists the entry date and the authorized period of stay for the visitor. 

The I-94 is not a visa, but it can be just as important.  Each visitor who arrives in the U.S. fills out a short questionnaire at the port of entry.  The visitor is then issued the I-94.  This form is important for several reasons.  It lists the expiration date for the visitor’s period of stay.  This is the date when the visitor must depart the U.S.  If the visitor does not leave the country by the date, he or she is considered a visa overstay, which is a violation of the terms of the visa, and could lead to serious consequences.  For instance, a known visa violator will have a difficult, if not impossible, time securing another visa from the U.S. government.  If the overstay period is for more than 30 days, the visa violator will be barred from returning to the United States for a period of at least three years. 

Oftentimes, people get confused between the validity date on the visa and the date on the I-94.  Remember that the I-94, not the visa, dictates a person’s ability to remain lawfully in the United States.  The date on the visa sets forth the time period in which the visa may be used before being renewed.  For instance, if your visa has a date of 1 March 2012, you may use that visa to enter the U.S. from now until that date.  Even if you enter on 1 March 2012, your stay may continue past the validity date on the visa, depending on the length of stay indicated on your I-94.  If your I-94 indicates a date of 1 October 2012, you may lawfully remain in the U.S. until that date, regardless of the fact that your visa’s validity date has passed.

Conversely, if your I-94 has a date of 1 June 2011, you must leave the U.S. by that date even though your visa will not be expiring until 1 March 2012.  If you follow these important points, you will stay out of trouble and not become an unwitting visa violator.

The importance of the I-94 form in the immigration context is that it proves that you were inspected by an immigration official when you entered the U.S.  Here’s one scenario where the I-94 can make or break a case:  Supposed that you’re a visitor who entered the U.S. as a student.  You are issued an I-94 form at the border, which establishes that you met with an customs official upon entering the country and didn’t just sneak across the border.  You attend an American university for several years, during which time you meet and marry a dashing American guy or gal.  Your new spouse wants to sponsor you to remain permanently in the U.S.  Typically, immigration visas are issued abroad at a consular post, and the beneficiary spouse must obtain them the U.S. embassy or consulate of the spouse’s home country.  Processing times for immigration visas for spouses can be 6-12 months.   Because you are madly in love and don’t want to be separated from your spouse for even a second, you don’t want to leave the U.S. just to obtain an immigration visa.  If you had kept your I-94 form, you could easily adjust your status from a student visa holder to lawful permanent resident.  That means you may remain in the U.S. while your spouse’s petition for you is pending.  A very important benefit, indeed.

Of course there are ways to replace an I-94 form if they are misplaced, lost, or stolen, but why would anyone want to go through the trouble (and it is a lot of trouble)?  Remember to keep it in a safe place with your passport!

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