A common misconception in the visa renewal process is that once the visa is approved, you are “good to go”. Actually, the visa renewal process has a two-part renewal: the visa and the visa stamp.
What’s the difference between the visa and the visa stamp?
- A nonimmigrant visa (L-1, H1-B, F-1 etc.) is the document that allows you to stay in the US and engage in the conduct permitted by the type of your visa (launch a business, work for a company in your field, go to school etc.). A visa is also used to consider your visa stamp renewal, should you choose to leave the country to do so.
- A visa stamp (also known as “visa foil”) in your passport gives you permission to enter the US in your status. It tells you how long (or how many times) you are permitted to enter the US in that immigrant category. It has nothing to do with how long you are permitted to stay or what you are permitted to do (i.e. travel, study, work etc.) in the US. The stamp can expire once you are in the US and hold a valid I-94 or non-immigrant status, so long as you do not intend to travel outside of the US and try to return.
When it comes to your visa stamp expiration, there are two different paths one can take:
- You can continue without any action and your visa stamp will remain expired. This means that you are not permitted to re-enter the US should you decide to leave
for any reason or period of time. For this option to be a viable one, your current status in the US (the L-1, H1-B, F-1 etc.) needs to be valid and continuous (you cannot be out of status for any period of time). So, if you have renewed your current non-immigrant visa and obtained approval, you will still be allowed to carry on business as usual within the US and travel throughout the country. However, your visa (entry) stamp will no longer allow you to freely enter the country once you have left; if you do, you will have to obtain a new visa stamp (entry permit) before leaving. YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TRAVEL OUTSIDE OF THE UNITED STATES WITH THIS OPTION. IF YOU DO, YOU WILL NOT BE GRANTED RE-ENTRY WITHOUT A VISA INTERVIEW AND A RENEWED VISA STAMP (which is not guaranteed).
- If you need to travel outside of the US, you will need to get a new stamp issued into your passport. While many applicants have to go to their home country to get the new stamp, you may have the option of going to Canada to get your new stamp. This option would mean that you would have to travel to Toronto, Ontario (or another city with a consulate post in Canada) where they will process your application. Currently, the typical wait time for a nonimmigrant visa stamp renewal appointment is 7 days (including weekends). After the appointment, the typical wait time (not including weekends) for processing is 2 days. These days are subject to change and can vary depending on the applicant and may take as long as 90 days.
Should you choose to take the second option and travel to Toronto, you will need to call 1-877-341-2441 to set up your appointment time, pay a visa application fee if applicable, arrange where to pick up your new stamp in your passport (you will have to remain in Toronto until you receive your new stamp) and obtain more information regarding this process. It is important to understand you are NOT guaranteed a renewal stamp. The decision is made by the consulate official based on the documents you provide and your interview.
What you should take with you to your appointment to have the best chance at a renewal stamp is described below:
- Appointment letter (provided by the US consulate in Canada after you make the appointment);
- Valid passport (valid for at least 6 months);
- Confirmation sheet for DS-160 (the online non-immigrant visa application which can be found at www.ceac.state.gov/genniv/). You will need to complete the DS-160 online in order to receive the confirmation sheet;
- Passport-style photos (if you did not already include them in your DS-160 application);
- Proof of status in the US (your I-797); and
- Documentation showing your status (bills, mortgages, accounts etc.)
(You can also take a copy of the entire package submitted to USCIS for the renewal of your non-immigrant visa).
Once you are approved for your visa stamp, it will be printed in 1 – 2 business days and placed in your passport. Your passport will then be turned over to the courier service and delivered where you had previously selected to pick it up when you made your initial appointment. Should you have any questions about the delivery, you can call 1-844-341-2441 (or 647-955-3736 from within Canada).
There are some cases that may require additional administrative processing. These cases are usually resolved within 60 days of the interview. Once again, there is no way to guarantee the approval of your visa stamp.
It is important that you seek the advice an attorney to ensure that you comply with all USCIS requirements. It is costly and time-consuming to exit the US without proper documentation and approval and then be denied re-entry until the proper procedures have been followed.