The process of obtaining a visa to enter the US can be lengthy, but it’s also quite rewarding, providing you with new opportunities and new experiences. However, once you enter the United States, you may wish to leave for a family emergency, business, academic purposes, or leisurely travel. If you have plans to return to the United States after a trip abroad, there are certain restrictions on how long you can be out and the procedures you have to follow to gain re-entry on your current visa.
Most visa holders must undergo an inspection at the port of entry, after which the Border Control agent will approve or deny your return to the United States. Let’s look at a brief overview of the re-entry requirements for some of the most popular visa categories to give you an idea of what to expect.
The B-1/B-2 visa is a temporary, non-immigrant visa used for business or tourism travel in the United States. This visa category allows for most temporary travel except for student travel covered under F-1 visas. B-1 visa holders can travel for business purposes, and B-2 visa holders can travel for tourist purposes, including visiting family.
B category visas are typically valid for ten years, one-time visits of up to six months, and multiple trips to the USA. However, the validity period of your visa can also vary depending on your nationality.
Travel activities that B-1/B-2 visa holders can engage in include:
- Conducting business, such as negotiating a contract or attending business meetings
- Attending a conference relevant to a profession, education, or current business endeavor
- Settling a relative’s estate
- Engaging in tourist activities or taking a vacation
- Visiting family
- Receiving medical treatment
- Attending or taking part in events, such as concerts or classes, as long as there is no payment or credit given to the attendee
Alternatively, B-1/B-2 visa holders cannot use their visas for:
- Study purposes
- Long-term employment by a US firm
- Paid performances, or any professional performance before a paying audience
- Arrival as a crew member on a ship or aircraft
- Work as foreign press, in radio, film, print journalism, or other information media
- Permanent residence in the United States
You are not limited to how many times you can return to the US with a valid B-1 or B-2 visa and passport. However, it may seem suspicious to an immigration officer if you return soon after your previous trip because it could imply that the visa is used for reasons other than business or tourism.
International students with an F-1 visa can travel abroad and within the United States. However, if traveling outside of the United States for longer than five months, it is considered a break in F-1 status. For re-entry, you will be required to obtain a new Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, also known as Form 1-20.
Traveling to a country outside of the United States that is not your home country may require you to obtain an entry visa. While traveling outside of the US, it’s highly recommended to ensure that your visa status will not expire. However, you may be able to return to the US from Mexico, Canada, and islands adjacent to the US on an expired visa as a result of an automatic revalidation if you were outside of the country for 30 days or less. This exception is not available for all visa holders, be sure to understand the eligibility criteria on the Immigration and Customs website before considering this exception.
J-1 Visas are authorized for those who intend to participate in an approved educational or training program to teach, instruct, lecture, observe, conduct research, consult, demonstrate specialized skills, receive training, or receive graduate medical education.
Generally, a J-1 visa holder cannot travel outside of the US for more than 30 days, although some exceptions are available through the approval of the J-1 visa sponsor. J-1 visa holders can travel to a US territory such as Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands without a visa and, like the F-1 visa, can travel to countries such as Canada or Mexican with an expired visa, with some exceptions.
When traveling internationally, J-1 visa holders must have a valid travel signature on the Certificate of Eligibility, DS-2019 Form to obtain re-entry into the United States. Travel signatures are valid for one calendar year or until the completion of the program, whichever comes first.
The H-1B category is a temporary visa that allows employers to petition for highly educated foreign professionals to work in certain occupations requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. H-1B visa holders can travel outside of the US during H-1B authorization. To obtain re-entry into the US, you must have present the following documents at the port of entry:
- Valid passport (valid for at least six months following an authorized period of stay)
- Valid US H-1B visa stamp in passport (unless visa-exempt, such as a Canadian citizen)
- Original Form I-797 Notice of Approval of H-1B employment
- Evidence of current H-1B employment, including most recent pay statements and/or a letter from Human Resources verifying employment. This is not required but recommended.
If your H-1B visa has expired while abroad, you must apply for a new H-1B visa at a US embassy before attempting to re-enter. You cannot apply for an H-1B visa stamp renewal while in the US. Refer to the specific US embassy/consulate website for more information, as each consulate is different and may have additional requirements.
You may travel outside of the US while an application for an Extension of your H-1B status is pending, provided you are traveling on an unexpired visa. You must show that you are returning to the US to continue your previously approved H-1B employment. If you are in the process of petitioning for a new H-1B visa, please note that the new petition is not a substitute for a valid visa. Therefore, if your original H-1B visa has expired and you have traveled outside of the country, you will not be allowed re-entry until your new petition is approved.
Non-immigrants with an expired visa may re-enter the US without obtaining a new visa if their travel was to the contiguous countries of Canada and Mexico after initial entry to the US. This process is called Automatic Revalidation and the trip must be for a period of fewer than 30 days. Additionally, holders of F and J visas may take advantage of Automatic Revalidation after visiting the Caribbean Islands (excluding Cuba).
Some exceptions may apply depending on your situation:
- If you are a citizen of a country designated as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” as determined by the State Department, such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, or Syria, you are not eligible for automatic revalidation of your expired non-immigrant visa.
- If you have applied for a new visa while out of the country, you may not re-enter the US until the new visa is issued, even if your old visa is still valid.
- Depending on your country of citizenship, you may be required to have an entry visa for Canada, Mexico, or any of the other Caribbean nations to enter those countries. Your US visa does not automatically grant entry into these other contiguous countries.
You can find more information on Automatic Revalidation on the US Department of State website.
Before leaving the United States for a trip abroad, consider speaking to a reputable immigration attorney to ensure your length of stay is not viewed as a break in your status or any other issues that may affect your current immigration status.
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