If you are at any point in the application process for a visa to the United States, you’ve no doubt heard of the I-94. The I-94 is a document that tracks entrances and departures in and out of the U.S. It can also be used as proof of status for foreign nationals who are in the country under a visa status of some kind. There has been some confusion in recent years with the I-94. In the past it was a physical document that was issued to people as they entered the country. This had several issues, not the least of which is that it could be lost or destroyed. In 2013, it was switched to an online digital document, so there is no way to lose it. No longer is the I-94 attached to your passport. It is now easily accessible from anywhere.
What is an I-94?
Much like people get confused by the difference between a visa and a visa status, many people think that an I-94 and a visa are the same thing. They are quite different, however. A visa is what grants someone permission to request entry into the U.S. A visa status is the status that they have while they are in the U.S. A visa is stamped on someone’s passport once it is approved. With that stamp, someone can then request entry at a port of entry. At that point it’s up to the border agent whether that person is able to enter.
An I-94 is proof that a foreign national was allowed entry into the country. It means they have gone through the visa process, been approved, and then been inspected by a border agent. Not only does it prove that someone is allowed to be there, but it also says how long they are allowed to stay. When a foreign national goes through a port of entry, a border agent may stamp a date onto the passport to indicate the expiry of the visa. However, the date on the I-94 is different, and is the actual expiry date for the visa status.
The I-94 Arrival/Departure Record is a very important record to keep track of during any entries into the US in any nonimmigrant visa status. The I-94 system is an automated record system maintained by the US Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) that provides an overview of your entries and exits into and out of the United States.
Formerly, CBP would issue physical, white I-94 cards to individuals entering the US in a nonimmigrant visa status. Over the past few years, the CBP stopped issuing I-94s in the form of white cards and began automating the process. Instead of receiving a physical I-94 card upon your entry to the US, you now must access your I-94 online.
The I-94 Is Still in Use
An I-94 is most commonly issued at ports of entries when someone is entering the country. For people who had gotten used to having the small piece of paper stapled to their passports, they may have thought that the U.S. was no longer issuing them at all. However, that’s not the case. Now, when someone is admitted into the country, the record is placed into the system and can be accessed by the foreign national through an online portal.
If you would like to have a hard copy, it can be easily printed from the site. Most immigration lawyers will suggest to keep a hard copy on file, just in case. If you are traveling by air or sea, then your information will be already entered into your electronic I-94 file through the details you submitted with your travel booking. If you are arriving by land, then you will have to provide the information to the border agent who processes you.
How to access your I-94
You can access your I-94 through the following website: https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov. As you will see on the site, you will need to provide your name, date of birth, passport number, and your passport’s country of issuance. Once entered, you can access both your I-94 record from your most recent entry to the US and your detailed “Travel History”, which provides an overview of your travel history into and out of the US over the past five years.
An I-94 is updated when a foreign national enters the United States, but you may still need to access the information to prove that you are in the U.S. legally. To do so, visit the CBP’s website and find the “Form I-94 section. You must agree to the terms of service to get to the login section. Logging in is simple. Your information is already in the system, and you will just have to validate your identity to access it. You will be required to enter in information from your passport, your name, and your date of birth. Once logged in, you can either look at your most recent I-94 or even see your travel history. By selecting to see your most recent I-94, you will have all of the information contained on that record. It includes the date of entry, your visa status, and the expiration date for your stay. Make sure to print it off and keep a hard copy safe for your records.
It is important to note that the system is not 100% accurate and many times not all exits from the US are captured properly.
What to look for on your I-94
Once you access your I-94 online, there are some important items you should note. Your I-94 will include a record number. This number is specific to this particular I-94, and will change with each entry and subsequent I-94 issued. This number and I-94 record will be important for use on any change of status or adjustment of status application or any other immigration matter you are seeking to address during the period of time that you are in the US.
The I-94 will also include your date of entry, class of admission, and end date of your admission. It is very important to ensure that you were entered under the right status and on the correct dates.
Check Your I-94 With Every Entry
The information on the I-94 is entered by the border patrol agent. While in the vast majority of cases they are perfectly entered, there may be a time when the information is incorrect. These agents enter in thousands of pieces of data every day, so there are bound to be mistakes every now and again. Make sure that you check your online I-94 entries after every time you enter the U.S. If there is a mistake, you cannot let it go uncorrected. If you do, you may end up with consequences down the road. For instance, if the wrong date is expiry date is entered, then you may end up “overstaying” your visa.
Tell an attorney right away if you spot an error. They can help you get it rectified quickly and without causing you too many immigration related hassles. Fixing mistakes on your I-94 is not especially difficult, but you do not want to make a mistake and exacerbate the problem. You will probably have to visit one of the 70 deferred inspection sites around the country. These sites can handle errors and make sure that they are corrected properly. They may ask you some additional questions and make sure you have your required documentation. Errors usually fall under the categories of incorrect deadlines, incorrect personal information, and incorrect status classification. You can also visit any port of entry and speak with a border control agent there. They can correct the errors as well if that is more convenient.
Updating the I-94
If you are in the United States as a foreign national, the time will come when you will have to extend your visa. This can be done electronically, and is submitted to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS is a different organisation than the Customs and Border Patrol, and they cannot alter or update your online I-94. It can only be updated by a border patrol officer.
If you apply from a consulate outside of the U.S., your I-94 will be updated once you return, by the agent that processes you at the border or port of entry. However, if you applied from within the U.S., it goes through the USCIS who will then send you an I-94. However, since they cannot update your online I-94, it will come as a paper document. This means that you must keep the paper I-94 safe and handy, since you will not have the electronic version to fall back on if you need the documentation for something. Once you leave the country and return again, then you will be issued a new I-94 through the electronic portal.
What if there is an error
An error on an I-94 can be very problematic as the I-94 is meant to convey your lawful nonimmigrant status in the US and your period of authorized stay. Since the automated I-94 record system was introduced, we have noticed a high number of errors when retrieving the I-94 online.
The most common errors we have seen are being admitted in the wrong visa status or being given an incorrect end date. However, we have also seen the error of not being entered into the system at all! Incorrect information can be very problematic in connection with applying for future immigration benefits or future travel to the US.
For example, an incorrect end date or an incorrect status, despite the fact that it is incorrect, will govern your stay in the US. If it’s clear that your I-94 is incorrect or you weren’t entered into the system at all, you will need to take steps to correct the information by contacting the deferred inspection site that oversees the port-of-entry where you last entered the US.
The Difference Between I-94 Dates and Visa Dates
As was touched on earlier, one of the biggest points of confusion with I-94 and visas is the expiry dates. Many people think that their visa expires at the same time as their I-94. This is true in some cases, but not in all.
For example, some visa statuses allow for a grace period after someone enters the country. This grace period gives time to foreign nationals to get settled into the country. That might mean getting their new home set up, or getting their kids in school, or whatever they need to do to make the transition easier. During this grace period, a foreign national is not allowed to work. A border patrol agent can therefore add 10 days beyond whatever their visa expiration date might be. Only the border patrol agent can issue this grace period when the foreign national enters the country. It cannot be requested later. However, they will not do so unless it is asked for by the foreign national.
Those who are in the U.S. under a student visa tend to be approved for a certain number of years, depending on their school situation. When they are issued an I-94, it will say that they are allowed to stay as long as their status is in place. Foreign students can keep their status as long as they are fulfilling the requirements. In general they have to be taking a full-time course load and keeping up with their reporting. If they meet all of these requirements they can keep their status past the original expiry date.
Visa applicants who are applying for work purposes might be approved for up to five years. However, they are only permitted to stay in the country for up to 2 years at a time. So, the I-94 will say that they can remain for 2 years, while their visa is valid for longer. This means that they can leave and return and be issued new I-94s for 2 year time periods each time they do so.
What Happens if Your I-94 Expires?
You should never overstay your I-94 of your visa. There could be serious consequences, including removal from the country and you could be barred for 3 or more years. The date listed in your I-94 is the absolute last date that you are legally allowed to be in the United States. Once you go past that date, you are immediately considered “out of status.” Your visa will be cancelled and you will have no legal standing to be in the United States. Once this happens, you can no longer apply for changes to your status, including getting a green card, even if you are eligible. At worst, you can get arrested and deported. If you leave the country, then you will have to apply for a new visa. However, that can be more difficult if you have overstayed the previous one.
Overstaying could also have you declared as an unlawful presence. This means that you are in the United States illegally without any pending applications or other situations that may prevent you from leaving. You cannot be classified as an unlawful presence if you are under the age of 18, or if you are in the process of applying for asylum, for example. You can also avoid unlawful presence status if you were the victim of human trafficking or are a battered spouse.
If you are an unlawful presence for more than 180 days and leave the country, you will be banned from re-entering for three years. If you stay for more than a year and then leave, then you could be barred for ten years. If you are deported, then you may be permanently barred from the country if you try to re-enter without applying or even try to cross the border illegally.
If you are unsure of your situation, then it’s best to check with an immigration attorney. They can provide you with your best options, as there may be waivers and other exceptions for which you can apply.
Living and working as a foreign national in the U.S. can be a lucrative and exciting opportunity. However, it’s important that you understand all of the responsibilities of being in the country. Understanding what an I-94 is, and adhering to the dates and requirements that are contained in it are vital to remaining in status. If you have any questions or concerns about an I-94 or anything else related to your immigration status, make sure to contact an immigration lawyer right away.