5 Misconceptions about the I-94

by Carolyn Szaiff Alvarez

Hardly a week goes by when a client doesn’t tell us, “I don’t have an I-94. They got rid of I-94s.” And it’s understandable, since there has been a lot of confusion after Customs and Border Protection (CBP) converted from paper I-94s to electronic I-94s in 2013. To recap: the I-94 is an electronic document (formerly paper) issued to foreign nationals that:

  1. Tracks arrivals and (indirectly) departures to and from the United States; and
  2. Is evidence of legal status in the US for foreign nationals in their category of admission (for example, H-1, O-1, L-1, F-1, and so on).

The lack of a paper stapled into a passport has led to many misunderstandings. We try to address five of the most common.

1. “I-94s don’t exist anymore.”

As mentioned, we hear this one a lot. The I-94 used to be a small paper form (commonly referred to as the “I-94 card”) that would be placed or stapled into a foreign national’s passport upon entry to the US. In 2013, the CBP eliminated these paper cards and moved to an electronic system instead. Since foreign nationals do not receive a paper I-94 when they enter the US, many foreign nationals believe that CBP stopped issuing I-94s altogether. But I-94s still exist—they’re just electronic now in most cases! (Paper I-94s are still issued at the bottom of approval notices for those who file for a change, amendment, or extension of status with USCIS.)

For those who prefer to have a hard copy of the I-94 (and we recommend that people do), it’s easy to print from the I-94 website. Foreign nationals should click “Get Most Recent I-94,” consent to the terms of use, and enter their details: full name, date of birth, passport number, and passport country of issuance.

For those traveling to the US by air or by sea, the electronic I-94 is issued at the port of entry using information obtained in advance (e.g., from the flight booking); if, however, foreign nationals enter the US by land (driving from Canada or Mexico), this information needs to be collected in-person at the port of entry. To save time at the land border, foreign nationals can obtain a provisional I-94 by submitting an application and paying the $6 fee online up to seven days before entry via land to the US.

2. “I-94s and visas are the same thing.”

Simply put, they are not the same thing!

A visa allows foreign nationals to request permission to enter the US at a port of entry. Typically, these visas are represented in the form of a visa stamp, which is a full-page document printed into the foreign national’s passport. (Canadians do not receive visa stamps.)  Having a visa does not guarantee admission into the US, since admission is at the discretion of CBP when entering the US.

The I-94 is issued once foreign nationals have been admitted to the US (following inspection by a CBP officer). The I-94 serves as evidence of this lawful entry, and indicates how long foreign nationals may stay in the US. Note that the I-94 expiration date may be different from the visa expiration date—Protima briefly touched on this previously and we also discuss this in more depth in point four below.

3. “The I-94 information is always entered correctly by the CBP officer.”

CBP officers are human, and humans sometimes make mistakes! For this reason, foreign nationals should not assume that the I-94 information has been correctly entered. It is important to check the electronic I-94 details after every entry to the US. While it is rare, there are sometimes errors, and not correcting those errors can have serious immigration-related consequences.

Thankfully, it is relatively easy to fix these errors. As we previously stated, foreign nationals should immediately advise their employer or lawyer if they notice an error. CBP has indicated that foreign nationals can get this information corrected by visiting, or in some cases telephoning, a Deferred Inspections Site.

There are over seventy Deferred Inspections Sites throughout the US and the outlying territories. The Deferred Inspections Site staff is available to review and issue the necessary documents to remedy errors recorded on arrival documents issued at the time of entry to the United States relating to several issues including: improper nonimmigrant classification, inaccurate biographical information, or incorrect period of admission, as appropriate. The Deferred Inspections Sites will only correct errors made at the time of entry.

Any designated Deferred Inspections Site or CBP office located within an international airport should be able to correct this information, regardless of where the actual entry was made. Mail-in procedures are generally not available.

4. “I-94s are valid as long as the visa is valid.”

Since visas and I-94s are not the same thing, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they do not necessarily have the same duration of validity. Indeed, there are several instances in which an I-94 and a visa might have different expiration dates:

  • In the case of certain visa classifications (E-3, H-1B, L-1, TN, H-1B, O, and P), the regulations provide for a ten-day grace period both before and after a foreign national’s visa duration. This grace period is intended to assist foreign nationals with the transition to/from the US; the foreign national cannot work during this period. For this reason, a foreign national’s I-94 may indicate an expiration date that is ten days past their visa expiration date. Note that this grace period can only be issued by a CBP officer at the port of entry, and typically must be requested by the foreign national (it is not automatic).
  • Foreign national students are typically issued a visa (F-1 or J-1) for a period of several years. While the visa has a specified expiration date, the I-94 in these situations usually lists an expiration of “D/S,” meaning “duration of status.” This means that these foreign nationals are permitted to remain in the US for so long as they maintain their nonimmigrant status. The requirements for maintenance of status differ depending on the visa category, but for F-1 students this means taking a full course load and maintaining a valid I-20, among other requirements. In these situations, a foreign national may be able to remain in the US past the expiration date of their visa, provided that they are maintaining their status.
  • Foreign nationals traveling for tourism or business purposes may be issued a B-1/B-2 visa for a longer period than they are permitted to remain in the US.  The B-1/B-2 visa may be issued for a validity period of up to ten years; however, the maximum duration of stay on this visa is only six months. Therefore, many foreign nationals traveling on this visa will note that their I-94 expires much sooner than their visa does. If foreign nationals leave and reenter the US, they may be granted an additional period of stay. Note, however, that the subsequent period of stay may be different in length.
  • Foreign nationals traveling to the US with E-1 (treaty trader) or E-2 (treaty investor) visas may find that even though their visas are valid for longer (up to five years) they are only issued I-94s that are valid for two years. Each time E-1 and E-2 visa holders leave and return to the US with a valid visa, they will be admitted for two years at a time.

5. “When I file my extension of stay, the I-94 online is automatically updated.”

I-94 electronic records are updated by CBP when foreign nationals travel to and from the US. When foreign nationals would like to request an extension of stay for their nonimmigrant status, a petition must be submitted to US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS, part of the Department of Homeland Security). Note that CBP and USCIS are separate governmental entities.

If the extension of stay is granted, USCIS (not CBP) issues a new I-94 to the foreign national. In this case, just to make things more confusing, USCIS issues a paper version of the I-94, attached to the foreign national’s Form I-797 approval notice. Since USCIS issues the new I-94, CBP’s electronic I-94 system is not updated to reflect the extension of stay. This is the only instance when a paper I-94 is issued, and when foreign nationals later travel they will again receive an electronic I-94 from CBP.

We hope that this post is helpful in clearing up some of the most common misconceptions about the I-94 and that foreign nationals are encouraged to check their I-94 records every time they enter the US.  Just remember, it’s in the cloud now, along with all of your selfies!