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Visa Specifics for the USA (Part 2)

What is a visa?

A visa for the United States is an endorsement (stamp) on a passport indicating that the holder may be allowed to enter the United States. You will have gotten your visa at the U.S. Consulate in the country where you requested it. The Customs and Border Protection official (“Customs agent”) at your port of entry has the final say if you can enter the United States and for how long. The visa tells him or her that the State Department (Consulate) has OK’d your stay.

Why do I need a visa?

Consider your visa an entry ticket. You cannot enter the United States without one, except if you get a Visa Waiver (see below). The Customs agent at the border will give you a stamp in your passport with an indication under what visa you entered the country or if you entered under a visa waiver, and a date until which you can stay in the country. Consider the stamp your residence permit. Some years ago, you would fill in a short form on the plane, which was stapled to your passport. It was called a Form I-94 and was the residence permit. You can find that form on the Internet now, if you Google “I-94”. It will have your “I-94 Number” on it.

Do I always need a visa?

No you don’t. Citizens with passports of Western European countries and a number of other countries around the world are allowed to come into the United States for up to 90 days without a visa. For them, the visa is waived (aka not necessary). Thus the term “Visa Waiver”. With it, you can visit, but you may not work. To get it, google “ESTA” (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), go to the website and follow the instructions. An approved ESTA request costs $14.00 USD per person, payable by credit card. It is valid for two years for as many trips as you want to make (see below: How long can I stay…) or until your passport expires.

What kinds of visas are there?

Visas are divided into nonimmigrant visas or immigrant visas. An immigrant visa is a Green Card. There are a lot of nonimmigrant visas, starting from a visitor visas that gives you 180 days at once, instead of 90 day chunks of time before having to leave the country again, to work visas or investment visas or other special visas that are valid for one year, three years, five years or for the length of the job or the study the bearer has to cover. It depends on the visa. There is no separate visa for retired folks.

What do I need to get a visa for the United States?

That varies considerably from visa type to visa type. Some general rules are: First, you will need money or proof that you have money, enough to keep you in food and lodging until you can earn what is necessary for you and your family. Coming to the United States to work hard, but without money, will not allow you to get a visa. They all require some sort of financial base. Second, you will need an employer, or a business plan, or special qualifications, or a non-U.S. company that sends you. Third, you will need a U.S. company that requests the visa for you. This can be your own own company or a sponsoring company, depending on the visa. Setting up a company in the United States is a snap.

How does getting a visa work?

In order to answer this, you first have to understand that there are two separate agencies involved in getting you a visa. The one, formerly under the Department of Justice, now under the Department of Homeland Security, is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services - USCIS which provides the approval for you to get the status your visa application or petition requests. The other is the Department of State (“foreign affairs ministry”) under which falls the U.S. Consulate in the requestor’s country which provides the visa proper, i.e., the stamp in your passport. You need the USCIS approval before the consulate gives the visa. Consulates may refuse to do so if they think they have sufficient reason for that.

How long does it take to get a visa?

In many cases, the USCIS can take three to four months to adjudicate (decide on) a request for a visa status. This can be shortened to two weeks by using a system called “Premium Processing” against payment of an extra fee. If the visa is adjudicated by a consulate, it can take two to four months. In that case, no premium processing is possible. Each agency can ask questions, in which case adjudication will take longer.

How expensive is it to get a visa?

Most visa petitions adjudicated by the USCIS will cost $960 for a first time, $460 for extensions. Premium Processing costs $1,225. Consular adjudications are free, but picking up the visas costs about $200 per person. To that should be added any legal fees if you use the help of an immigration attorney.

How long can I stay in the United States on my visa?

Each visa has its own length of time. A visitor’s visa normally is good for six months and can be renewed once; one business visa is good for one year and can be renewed three times for a two year period each; another is good for five years and can be renewed indefinitely; a third is good for three years and can be renewed once for the same period.

Can a visa be renewed?

All visas can be renewed. See above.

What about the Green Card?

A Green Card gives Legal Permanent Residence (LPR). It eventually leads to citizenship.

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This is the second of a series of articles about coming to the United States to live and work. The content is specific to Dutch remote workers but the general information can be applied to other countries as well. 

Maarten Meckman, the author, has lived in Sarasota, Florida since 1996. For questions on your specific country, contact Maarten at www.Visas-USA.net or [email protected].