What Is a Visa—and Why Is It So Misunderstood?

With constantly changing policies and regulations, the U.S. immigration system is difficult enough without confusing terminology and seemingly paradoxical legal concepts. At Gambacorta Law, our goal is to demystify these terms and concepts for our clients so they can make fully informed decisions with confidence.

One of the most common terms we clarify for clients is “visa.” Despite being perhaps the most commonly used word in the realm of immigration law, “visa” is often mistaken for other concepts like green card, status, and passport.

To put it simply, a visa allows you to enter the U.S. for a certain purpose and length of time. Here are some of the most important things to understand about visas and why they can be so confusing.

Why a Visa Is Not the Same as a Green Card

Whether you become a lawful permanent resident (i.e. green card holder) depends on which type of visa you acquire. If you obtain a nonimmigrant visa, your stay will be temporary, while an immigrant visa allows you to move here permanently. Both immigrants and nonimmigrants obtain visas through consular processing abroad.

A Visa Does NOT Guarantee Your Entry into the U.S.

Typically signified by a stamp on your passport, a visa is what you present to CBP at a U.S. port of entry. If the CBP officer allows you to enter the U.S. with a nonimmigrant visa, they will tell you how long you can stay in the United States. If the officer allows you to enter the U.S. with an immigrant visa, USCIS will mail you your green card, which signifies your lawful permanent residence.

You Always Need It—Unless You Don’t

Generally, a visa is what you need to enter the United States as a noncitizen. However, not every foreign citizen obtains a visa before entering. Some, for example, will enter the U.S. through a humanitarian program like asylum. Others may enter without inspection but will obtain asylum status and/or a waiver of unlawful presence. Eventually, these individuals can adjust their status to lawful permanent residence without obtaining a visa.

Not every nonimmigrant needs a visa, either. Individuals from certain countries can qualify for the Visa Waiver Program, which allows them to enter the U.S. and stay for 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa.

Visas and Adjustment of Status

Another reason why visas are often misunderstood is because adjustment of status (the process by which a person obtains a green card from within the United States) does not require applicants to obtain a visa—but it does require them to wait until a visa becomes available.

Let’s say, for example, that you are in the United States lawfully but do not yet have your green card. You might have obtained asylum status, or you are here on a nonimmigrant visa that allows you to become a permanent resident. To begin the adjustment of status process, your sponsor (or you, if your category allows you to self-petition) will file an immigrant petition. Once this petition is approved, you will most likely need to wait until a visa becomes available in your category before filing the actual application. This is because the U.S. government uses visa numbers to track the number of green cards given to foreign citizens each year.

Each month, you can check the Visa Bulletin to see if you are permitted to file your application.

Bring Your Questions & Concerns to Our Firm

Are you still unsure about the difference between a visa and other immigration concepts? Do you need a professional to determine whether you need a visa or how best to obtain the one you need?

At Gambacorta Law, we are deeply grateful for the opportunity to help clients accomplish their immigration goals. With years of focused legal experience, we can provide the information, guidance, and advocacy you need at every point in the process.

Get started with an initial case evaluation by calling (847) 443-9303 or contacting us online today.