Sometimes students and scholars visiting the U.S. confuse the term “visa” with the concept of “status.” It is important to know the differences between these terms.

Visa stamp

A visa, or visa stamp, is a physical stamp or sticker placed in your passport that is issued by a consular officer at a U.S. embassy or consulate outside of the U.S. It indicates that you are eligible to apply for entry to the U.S. in a specific immigration category, such as F-1 or J-1 student. After obtaining the visa, you need it when you present yourself to an immigration official at a U.S. port of entry.

The visa stamp is solely for entering the U.S. You will need it again only when you leave the U.S. and intend to re-enter using that visa. It’s sometimes called an “entry visa,” which is different from “status,” a concept explained below. The visa stamp can expire at any time after your entry to the U.S. without affecting your non-immigrant status. If you leave the U.S. and your visa has expired, you will need to apply for a new visa in order to re-enter the U.S.

Note: Canadian citizens are exempt from needing a U.S. visa but must have all other documentation required for entry to the U.S.

See the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs website for more information about U.S. visas.

See example image of an F-1 visa below.

Immigration status

Non-immigrant status (also referred to as “status” or “immigration status”) is a non-physical legal condition, granted by an official of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when you are admitted into the U.S. at a port of entry. Once you obtain non-immigrant status, you must maintain that status throughout your stay in the U.S. unless you legally change to another status.

Since the visa is only necessary for entry into the U.S. under a specific status and may expire after entry, it should not be relied upon to determine if you are maintaining non-immigrant status. Other documents are intended to offer initial evidence of the validity of a non-immigrant’s status. A list of documents used to verify validity of non-immigrant status appears below.

Eligibility documents

The following documents can be used to verify non-immigrant status and are sometimes referred to as “eligibility documents”:

  • F-1 Students: Valid I-20
  • J-1 Exchange Visitors (students and scholars): Valid DS-2019
  • H-1B, E-3, TN, O-1: Valid I-797 Approval Notice

Among the purposes these documents serve are the following:

  • To provide evidence of eligibility to apply for a U.S. entry visa and admission to the U.S. at a port of entry
  • To show the parameters of the program for which status was granted
  • To initiate changes or updates to the status once it has been granted