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Difference Between Visa and Status

It is common to confuse the terms visa and I-94/non-immigrant status. Yet you will need to clearly know the difference in order to understand your rights and responsibilities while in the United States.

Remember, both visa and status is specific to the primary purpose of your application for admission to the U.S. and the duration of your visit. Your non-immigrant status determines which rules you will need to follow once in the U.S.

I-94/Non-immigrant status

The I-94 status, also known as a non-immigrant status, defines the terms under which non-citizen visitors can temporarily reside in the U.S. Your I-94 can be accessed through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

Each I-94 status has a set of regulations that govern the activities of international visitors. I-94 status imposes both rights and responsibilities.

Your rights include:

  • The right to be in the U.S. as long as you continue to pursue your primary purpose.
  • Various rights in support of your primary purpose.
  • The right to all federal, state, and local legal protections.

Also, an I-94 status requires you to fulfill certain responsibilities.

Your responsibilities include:

  • Fully complying with the general laws of the U.S.
  • Focusing on your primary purpose by complying with regulations that govern activities in your particular I-94 status.
  • After completing your primary purpose, leaving the U.S. or applying for a Change of Status to reflect a new primary purpose.

All internationals are issued an I-94 status upon entry into the U.S. An I-94 Arrival/Departure Record, a small white card, will be stapled into your passport (see image below). This is most commonly called the "I-94 card." The I-94 card is documentary evidence for non-immigrant status.

Because the U.S. government has no jurisdiction outside of the country, you cannot have an I-94 status anywhere else but in the United States. So when you leave, an immigration officer (or airline representative) will open your passport and take back the I-94 card; thereby taking back your I-94 status (if you plan to return soon to resume your primary purpose, your non-immigrant status usually can be activated again upon reentry).

I-94 arrival/departure record card, which will be stabled into your passport.

We recommend faculty and scholars obtain a paper I-94 at land borders to show proof of legal entry/admission into the U.S. You may either apply for one online within the seven days prior to reentering or you may be required to go to Secondary Inspection with U.S. Customs at time of reentry ($6 fee will apply for either).  

For more information regarding the Form I-94 automation please review the list of resources below:

If your I-94 is paper (and not issued electronically), upon leaving, surrender the I-94 to the U.S. government official or airline representative. Exception: keep I-94 when traveling on Automatic Visa Revalidation. If for some reason your physical I-94 is not collected, you may submit it upon your return to the U.S.; see: If you were issued an I-94 electronically, you do not need to surrender an I-94 upon departing the U.S. The federal government will record your departure based on the carrier's flight manifest.


A U.S. visa is an official authorization affixed to a valid passport, granting permission to request entry into the U.S. in that particular non-immigrant classification.

See a list of I-94/ non-immigrant visa status categories commonly found at UC San Diego.

A visa must be shown at the port of entry to the U.S. to gain admission with I-94 status. Once in the U.S., you will not need a visa until the next time you wish to enter the U.S.

Think of your visa as a key. Like a key, you will only use your visa to "open the door" and enter. Once in, you do not use your key until you leave and need to re-enter.

Only a U.S. Consulate can issue visas to enter the country. Consulates may have offices in a U.S. Embassy or they may have their own stand-alone offices; they are always located outside of the U.S. Therefore, you can only apply for a visa if you are outside of the U.S.

At a U.S. port of entry (such as an airport) you must show your visa to an officer from the Department of Homeland Security. By presenting your visa, you are applying for the related I-94 status.

Image of common visa and its different elements