Visa vs. I-94 (Departure Record): What’s the Difference?

The U.S. generally employs a “double-check” system for nonimmigrants to be admitted to the country. First, you must apply for a visa at a U.S. Consulate. Second, you must apply for admission to the U.S. at a port of entry.


A visa is a document glued into the traveler’s passport. The application is made at a U.S. Consulate, which is part of the Department of State.

Having a U.S. visa allows you to travel to a port of entry—airport, sea port, or land border crossing—and request permission to enter the U.S. (Certain Canadians, travelers under the visa waiver program, and other are exempt from the visa requirement.)


A visa may be valid for a single entry or for multiple entries, depending on the reciprocity agreement between the U.S. and your country for the particular type of visa.

The period of validity of the visa will also depend on the reciprocity agreement between the U.S. and your country for the particular type of visa. Also, the period of validity may be limited by the expiration date of your passport. You must enter the U.S. no later than the expiration date shown on the visa. The validity of the visa does not affect how long you may remain in the U.S. You may remain in the U.S. past the date your visa expires.

Form I-94–General

Second, you must apply for admission at a port of entry staffed by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors. The inspectors, guardians of the nation’s borders, are responsible for deciding whether to admit or refuse admission to travelers. Having a visa is not a guarantee that you will be admitted.

CBP will provide you with a paper or electronic Form I-94. This form serves as evidence of lawful admission and alien registration. It is important that you depart the U.S. on or before the last day you are authorized to be in the U.S. on any given trip, based on the expiration date on your I-94. Failure to depart the U.S. is a violation of status, may cause your visa to be automatically voided, and may cause you to be ineligible for a visa in the future for return travel to the U.S.

The expiration date on the Form I-94 is decided by the inspector. It need not relate to the date to which the visa is valid. For example:

  • A B-1 visitor for business or B-2 visitor for pleasure may be admitted for not more than one year. For a B-1, the inspector should decide on an expiration date which is “fair and reasonable” for completion of the purpose of the visit. At many ports of entry, 3 months seems to be the default period of admission for B-1s. In contrast, B-2s are usually admitted for six months.
  • An F-1 student or J-1 exchange visitor is admitted for “duration of Status” (D/S). This means that they are allowed to remain in the U.S. until the completion date shown on the I-20/DS-2019 (plus 60 days for F-1s or 30 days for J-1s) so long as they comply with the terms of their immigration status.
  • An H-1B temporary worker or L-1 intracompany transferee may be admitted for a period of up to 3 years but not longer than the period of validity of the underlying petition.

Also note that nonimmigrants are usually admissible only to a date six months before their passport expires.

If you want to remain in the U.S. beyond the date on the I-94, you may be eligible to file an application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to extend your stay.

(Certain persons, such as Canadians entering the U.S. for six months or less as visitors, do not need I-94s.)

Paper I-94

Effective April 30, 2013, CBP has eliminated the previous requirement that every person seeking admission to the U.S. as a nonimmigrant must fill a paper Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record. If you will be entering the U.S. by airplane, skip to the following section regarding the automated I-94 process.

If you are entering the U.S. at a land port of entry, CBP will provide you with a Form I-94 to fill out. Then, when the inspector decides to admit you to the U.S., he or she will staple into your passport the Departure Record portion of the Form I-94, where the officer will write the status you have been admitted in and the date by which you must leave the U.S.



Electronic I-94

CBP phased in an automated Form I-94 process for air travelers beginning April 30, 2013. The automation means that affected visitors will no longer need to fill out a paper form when arriving to the U.S. by air. Records of admission will now be generated using traveler information already transmitted by the airlines to CBP through electronic means.

Travelers wanting a hard copy or other evidence of admission can access this information online using the website if they did not receive a hard copy attached to their passport. ( Individuals can print a copy of an I-94 based on the electronically submitted data, including the I-94 number from the form, to provide as necessary to benefits providers or as evidence of lawful admission, such as to apply for a Social Security card, driver’s license, to complete employment eligibility verification, or to change or extend status with USCIS. We recommend that all clients download their I-94, check it for accuracy, and contact our firm if it contains incorrect information.

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