Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record
I-94 UPDATE: DHS is no longer issuing paper I-94 cards at entry. All nonimmigrants should print their electronic Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Records immediately after entry at https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/. It is important to review for errors in spelling, expiration date, and visa category. Retain a copy for proof of valid U.S. immigration status.
The document which actually generally controls a noncitizen’s immigration status in the United States is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record.
I-94 records are generated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) when they admit an international traveler into the United States. CBP can make mistakes which have real consequences for the international traveler and family members, if each I-94 is not checked online following U.S. arrival to make sure that the information is correct in the system. Common issues or mistakes include:
- Family members with different expiration dates (i.e. due to passport expiration or otherwise)
- Incorrect visa category (i.e. admitting someone as a visitor not authorized to work, instead of a work-authorized category)
- No I-94 record in the system, which occurred for a client who traveled through Chicago and was identified when seeking to change status
Although CBP Immigration Inspectors can issue these records upon arrival to the United States, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is another sub-agency of DHS which can issue I-94s to change or extend nonimmigrant status. The Social Security Administration and other local state agencies, such as the DMV or DPS, may be unfamiliar with the I-94s issued by USCIS, which can be practically frustrating but often overcome with an explanation and documentation provided by an experienced U.S. immigration attorney.
Automatic Visa Revalidation / Contiguous Territories Rule
Although a valid visa stamp issued by a U.S. Consulate outside of the United States is generally required for international travel, certain international travelers can travel on a different/expired visa and a valid Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record to Canada or Mexico only on a trip less than 30 days and return from international travel without first obtaining a new visa stamp. This is called “automatic visa revalidation” or the “Contiguous Territories Rule.” It’s generally recommended that the traveler retain proof of maintenance of U.S. immigration status, such as an employment verification letter from an employer and recent paystubs, to present only if questioned upon return from international travel.
Common situations where this occurs include:
- Mexican Trade NAFTA (TN) visa may be approved for only one (1) year, but CBP can admit the traveler in TN status on Form I-94 for three (3) years. This means that the international professional can live and work for the TN sponsor for three (3) years even though the physical TN visa stamp was valid for one year, as the TN visa stamp is essentially just an international travel document. After the TN visa expires, the individual in TN status can work pursuant to the I-94 for the remaining two-year period of validity on the I-94, limiting any international travel after visa expiration to Canada and Mexico for less than 30 days.
- An international traveler who entered the United States with a B-1/B-2 visa and was admitted as a tourist or business visitor can have a U.S. employer petition to change their status to a work-authorized visa category. With an I-94 issued by USCIS, the traveler can travel internationally with a valid passport, valid/expired B-1/B-2 visa, and the valid USCIS I-94 for the work-authorized visa category, and so long as travel is limited to Canada or Mexico for less than 30 days, CBP can readmit the traveler on this valid I-94 for the work-authorized visa category, essentially as if they never left.
Please “do not try this at home.” Consult with an experienced business immigration attorney before engaging in international travel, especially in the current environment.
The above is informational and not intended to be legal advice. Please consult with an experienced business immigration attorney on your specific facts and circumstances before proceeding with any U.S. immigration strategy.