Understanding the U.S. Entry Visa

To enter the United States, all nonimmigrant international visitors (except Canadians) are required to have the proper visa stamp placed in their passports. “Nonimmigrant” means a person has no intention of staying in the United States permanently. Visas are obtained at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Visas cannot be obtained within the United States because it is an "entry" document only.

People come to the United States for many different reasons. The type of visa you request should match the purpose for your visit. Visa types are classified using an alpha-numeric system. For example, a visitor coming to study in the United States may be given an “F-1” or “J-1” student visa classification. A person coming to the United States for travel may be given a “B-2” visa, otherwise known as a tourist visa. The sample below shows what a tourist visa looks like:

What is the purpose of a visa?

A visa allows a nonimmigrant to travel to a U.S. port-of-entry (airport, for example) and present themselves to a U.S. Immigration Inspector. The Inspector will ask some questions about their intent for coming to the United States and check to make sure that the nonimmigrant has an appropriate visa. Once admitted, an I-94 Arrival/Departure Record will be created. This indicates which nonimmigrant status they have been admitted to and the amount of time they are allowed to stay.

A J-1 Exchange Visitor should only enter the United States with the visa that has their school's (or program's) name noted on it (see "annotation," above), even if the visa has not yet expired. If changing schools or programs, obtain a new visa with the new program name noted on it before entering or re-entering the United States.

New F-1 students applying for a visa from abroad should enter the United States for the first time using the F-1 visa that has their school's (or program's) name noted on it. If you are returning from abroad after spending a semester or more out of the United States, current Dept of State and SEVP guidance indicates that you do not need to apply for a new F-1 visa if your current F/J student visa is still valid, regardless of length of time outside the United States. For more information see our Returning Students page for information about the use of an F-1 visa after withdrawal or leave of absence.

Transfer F-1 Students who properly transferred their I-20 to UC Berkeley may continue to use an unexpired F-1 visa from a previous school for travel during their studies at UC Berkeley. Transfer students returning to UC Berkeley after a withdrawal should review the Returning Students page for information about the use of an F-1 visa after withdrawal or leave of absence.

Visa Expiration and Length of Stay in the United States

Although a visa has an expiration date, it does not determine how long one can remain in the United States. (Remember, a visa is an ENTRY document only.)  Once in the United States, there are other factors that determine the allowed length of stay. International visitors coming to the United States as F-1 or J-1 students are generally allowed to remain for the length of their academic programs.

Applying for a Visa

For information about the steps involved in a visa application, see Applying for a Visa.