How to Read a US Visa Stamp

by Ashley Emerson Mendoza


Congratulations—if you are reading this, chances are you are the proud holder (or soon-to-be-holder) of a shiny new US visa stamp! Or maybe you’re just curious—that’s fine too.

For those foreign nationals who have a visa stamp, it is crucial to understand what it is, what it does, and what everything on it means. This may seem straightforward, but given all the acronyms and abbreviations (not to mention occasional administrative errors), this can easily become confusing. 

With some exceptions, foreign nationals who seek to enter the US must first obtain a US visa stamp. A visa stamp is processed into a foreign national's passport by a US Embassy/Consulate abroad. With a valid US visa stamp, foreign nationals may apply for admission to the US at a port of entry. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will review the visa in the passport and all supporting documents and determine if the foreign national may enter—meaning that even with a valid visa stamp, admission to the US is at the discretion of CBP. While it does not guarantee entry to the US, a US visa stamp indicates that a consular officer at a US Embassy/Consulate abroad has determined the foreign national is eligible to seek entry in a particular visa classification to engage in a specific set of activities permitted by the visa.

The visa stamp provides the inspecting CBP officer at the port of entry with the information necessary to admit the foreign national to the US under a specified visa status and for a specific period of time. Because admission to the US is tied to the information contained on the visa stamp itself (as well as the petition and approval notice, if any), it is important that foreign nationals carefully review their visa stamps for accuracy. In order to check that all is in order on the visa stamp, foreign nationals must be able to understand their visa stamp.

What’s on a Visa Stamp?
Here is a sample image of a US visitor visa stamp:

A) Passport number corresponds to the number of the passport in which the visa is placed. Foreign nationals should refer back to the photo page of their passport and check that this number matches;  

B) Legal name corresponds to the exact name as written on the photo page of the passport in which the visa stamp is placed;

C) The issuing post is the US Embassy/Consulate where the visa stamp was issued;

D) Sex corresponds to the sex reported on the photo page of the passport;

E) Date of birth corresponds to the date of birth stated on the photo page of the passport;

F) Control number is assigned by the Department of State to keep track of visa issuances;

G) For visa type, "R" is an abbreviation for “regular” passport. This is not a visa classification. The letters/numbers to the right of the R (B1/B2) is the visa type/classification;

H) Under entries, "M" is an abbreviation for “multiple” entries, meaning that the visa holder may seek entry into the US multiple times. If a number appears here, the visa holder may only seek entry into the US for that number of times on the visa;

I) The annotations area is where additional information about the visa and the petition itself, including any restrictions, are listed, if applicable. For example, on a student visa, the SEVIS number and name of the school would be listed here, and on a work visa, the name of the employer and the petition number; 

J) The issuance date is the date the US Embassy/Consulate issued the visa, and the expiration date is the last day that the visa holder may seek entry into the US on this visa stamp.  Sometimes, the expiration date may be earlier than the date of the approved petition.

K)  Nationality corresponds to the country of citizenship that issued the passport in which the visa stamp is placed;

L)  The visa number is a series of red numbers on the lower right hand portion of the visa stamp issued by the Embassy/Consulate.

M) Although not on this sample visa, the PED date is an acronym for the petition end date. It is important to note that this may be different from the visa’s expiration date. See below for examples of when this may occur!

What to Check after Obtaining a Visa
After obtaining the visa stamp at the US Embassy/Consulate, it is crucial to check all fields of information on the visa stamp carefully. While most of the time the information listed on the visa stamp will be correct, on occasion the US Embassy/Consulate may make an error. We’ve even seen the wrong person’s visa stamped in a passport! While every error should ideally be corrected, given consular delays and foreign nationals’ need to travel to the US urgently, the severity of the mistake will determine how soon one needs to address the issue. 

For example, if an O-1 visa stamp is issued for four years instead of the three-year validity period on the underlying I-797 approval notice from US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), the error can be corrected at a later date in all likelihood. While a conservative approach would dictate that the visa is not valid because it is incorrect, others might argue that foreign nationals may seek admission to the US on this visa stamp, but only for the three-year time frame that the USCIS approval notice is valid. This scenario could create an issue for foreign nationals if they did not know that they were restricted by the three-year validity period of the underlying I-797 approval notice and if they tried to seek admission to the US in the fourth year of the visa stamp validity without having a new underlying I-797 approval notice in place. Rather than relying on the incorrect visa, it is best to get it corrected.

In another example, if the visa stamp lists F-1 as the visa type when it was supposed to be an H-1B visa, this is hugely problematic and it will prevent foreign nationals from being admitted to the US in the correct visa status. This would need to be corrected immediately since the foreign national would likely be refused entry to the US by CBP or if admitted to the US in F-1 status any employment the foreign national engaged in could be considered unauthorized employment. Foreign nationals should check their visa stamps very carefully immediately upon receipt of the visa and contact the US Embassy/Consulate immediately if there is a problem. If the mistake is not noticed until a later date, foreign nationals may contact an immigration attorney who can provide advice on the nature of the error and potential issues that may arise from it, and guide foreign nationals through the process of having the US Embassy/Consulate correct the error if necessary. 

Apart from confirming the information on the visa stamp is correct, there are a few additional items that foreign nationals should consider when using their visa stamp for entry to the US:

  • Be aware of the passport expiration date. US Embassies/Consulates will not issue a US visa into a passport unless it is valid for six months beyond the authorized period of stay, unless exempted from this rule by country-specific agreements.  Foreign nationals who are exempted are able to have the visa issued into a passport with an expiration date prior to the expiration date of the US visa. Under these circumstances, it is important to note that the CBP officer who inspects and admits the foreign national to the US may admit the foreign national only until the passport expiration date, even if the visa stamp is valid beyond that date. Foreign nationals may confirm the date they are admitted to by accessing their online I-94 to see what date is listed as expiration of status. It is advisable for foreign nationals to access this document each time they enter the US to confirm they have been admitted correctly, and to be aware of the date they are admitted until.
  • Know the home country’s reciprocity agreements with the US and how they affect a visa stamp. Several countries have agreements with the US that work to benefit foreign nationals, but others impose restrictions. For example, due to a reciprocity agreement between the United States and Brazil, while an O-1 petition may be approved for up to three years by USCIS on the I-797 approval notice, Brazilians only receive O-1 visa stamps for three months at a time. This means that Brazilians may present their visa stamp for entry as many times as they need during the three-month period.  Each time they will be admitted for the full three-year duration of the petition meaning that they can remain in the US beyond the expiration of the visa stamp itself as long as their I-94 is correctly issued. But if Brazilian nationals would like to re-enter the US in O-1 classification during their three-year validity period but after the initial three-month visa stamp has expired, they will need to go through the consular process again to obtain a new visa stamp in their passport. In another example, due to a reciprocity agreement between the United States and China, while an O-1 petition may be approved for up to three years by USCIS on the I-797 approval notice, Chinese nationals receive O-1 visa stamps that are valid for three months and for only a single entry to the United States. This means that Chinese nationals may present their visa stamp for entry one time during the three-month period, when they will be admitted for the full three-year duration of the petition meaning that they may remain in the US beyond the expiration of the visa stamp itself as long as their I-94 is correctly issued. If, however, Chinese nationals would like to re-enter the US in O-1 classification a second or subsequent time during their three-year validity period, even if still within the initial three-month visa stamp’s validity period, they will need to go through the consular process again to obtain a new visa stamp in their passports.
  • Understand how visa stamps and petition approvals work together. A visa stamp without a valid petition is useless in most instances. One example is the L visa. Although L-1 classification may be approved for up to three years by USCIS on the I-797 approval notice, US Embassies/Consulates may issue the visa stamp for a period of five years. While not inherently problematic, this scenario could create a problem for foreign nationals if they did not know that they were restricted by the three-year validity period of the underlying I-797 petition approval notice and if they tried to seek admission to the US after that time without having a new underlying I-797 approval notice in place.

Armed with a valid visa stamp and a thorough understanding of the information contained on it, foreign nationals should be poised for admission to the US at the port of entry. Safe travels!