5 Things to Remember Before You Travel Internationally this Holiday Season

by Protima Daryanani

As the holidays approach we are becoming busier and busier as we prepare for a break. If you are like me, you have several lists going: work projects to finish before leaving, gifts to purchase, cards to send, things to pack, and more! As we have done previously, we thought it would be helpful to give foreign nationals who are traveling internationally one additional list (sorry) for your travel to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible and that you can enjoy the holiday season without being overly worried about immigration status and visa stamps. Now that we’ve made this list, make sure you check it twice (as the song says)!

1.     Is your passport valid for travel?

First and foremost, you should make sure you have your current passport in hand. It is a good idea to check that the passport is not damaged or overly distressed and that it has the machine-readable markings on the photo page. If there are any clipped pages or holes in the passport, it is likely that it is an old invalid or expired passport. Lost or stolen passports must be replaced before commencing international travel. Also you should check the expiration date of the passport. The passport should have at least six months of validity—meaning that its passport expiration date must be at least six months after the last day of your international trip. While passports from certain countries are exempt from this rule, it is a best practice to ensure your passport has at least six months of validity left. So, if you are planning a trip overseas and the last date of your travel is January 1st, then your passport should be valid ideally until at least July 1st.  

Next, if any of your information in your passport has changed, please update it immediately. This includes marriage name change, gender change, adoption name change, among others. Also, if your appearance has changed dramatically, you should apply for a passport renewal to update your photo. Any misspellings or inaccurate info must be updated. Keep in mind that the passport is not considered a valid document until you sign the first page. The signature line is on the page with your passport information. Finally, if you do not have enough blank pages, you will need to apply for a new passport.

2.     Is your visa valid for travel?

You must ensure you have a visa stamp in your passport that is valid on the date you plan to re-enter the US after your international trip. The visa stamp should also be in the same visa classification as the petition under which you are in the US. (See more about petitions and I-797’s below.) 

As a reminder, a visa stamp printed in a passport—to be distinguished from the entry stamp that a Customs & Border Protection (CBP) officer provides at the airport—allows foreign nationals to enter the US for a specific length of time and for a specific purpose. The term refers to the actual stamp in the passport with a foreign national’s picture. As the State Department warns:

Having a U.S. visa allows you to travel to a port of entry, airport or land border crossing, and request permission of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspector to enter the United States. While having a visa does not guarantee entry to the United States, it does indicate a consular officer at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad has determined you are eligible to seek entry for that specific purpose.

Like the passport, the visa stamp itself must not be damaged or tampered with in any way. 

3.     Is your I-797 approval of visa petition valid?

The “visa stamp” should be distinguished from a “visa petition” which is the application that is filed with US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) in the United States to generate an I-797 approval notice which in turn is presented to the US Embassy/Consulate abroad to obtain a visa stamp. Some visas can simply be obtained by applying directly to the US Embassy/Consulate abroad. Others like the H-1B or O-1 require that a petition be approved by USCIS in the United States first. Foreign nationals then present the proof of the approved petition (I-797) to the US Embassy/Consulate abroad in order to obtain a visa stamp in their passport. Often people can confuse the I-797 with a visa stamp and that can be a dangerous mistake. With the exception of Canadians, the I-797 approval notice cannot be used for travel to the US other than to present to the US Embassy/Consulate abroad to obtain a US visa stamp and subsequently to the CBP inspector along with the visa stamp.

Similarly, if you have a valid visa stamp in your passport that is not rooted by a valid visa petition, then the stamp itself is not usable for travel to the US. Therefore, it is important to check the validity dates of the I-797 petition approval notice to ensure it corresponds to the visa stamp expiration. If the I-797 has expired, you will need to contact your sponsor and attorney to ensure a new petition is filed on your behalf. Once the new petition is approved, you may use the new I-797 with the visa stamp in your passport for the remainder of the time your visa stamp is valid. If either of them expire before the other, they will need to be renewed.

4.     Book the US Embassy/Consulate appointment early and expect delays

If you discover that your visa stamp needs to be renewed, please ensure you book your visa appointment and complete the DS-160 as far ahead as possible as US Embassies/Consulates tend to book up fast during the holiday season since many people travel home at this time of year with the intention of completing their visa processing. Once the visa appointment is complete you can also expect significant delays in the return of your passport with the visa because US Embassies and Consulates close on Christmas and New Year’s Day and also on any locally observed holidays such as Boxing Day (December 26) in England or Lunar New Year (in certain Asian countries). Unfortunately, there is no way to expedite the return of the passport after the interview but you can certainly make the consular officer aware of your travel dates.

5.     Bring visa paperwork when you travel

Lastly when traveling internationally, you should bring all your visa petition paperwork with you. You can keep it as a scan on your laptop or phone if you find it is cumbersome to carry all the paperwork, but it is important you have quick access to it if you are ever asked. While the I-797 petition approval notice is the only document you must have with you in your passport (along with a valid visa stamp, as required), we have also heard of consular or CBP officers asking for information from the visa petition itself so we suggest you have it with you when you travel.

BONUS TIP: Customs & Border Protection (CBP) has an important reminder for international travelers entering the US using the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the US without a visa for stays of ninety days or less for business or pleasure under certain conditions. VWP travelers must apply under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Due to changes in ESTA application processing, CBP says that “real-time approvals will no longer be available.” Although not mandatory, CBP strongly recommends that travelers apply for their ESTA “at the time of booking their trip and no later than 72 hours prior to departure.” CPB notes that applicants “who apply on the same day of their flight’s departure risk not having an approved ESTA prior to their scheduled departure.” (Emphasis added.) International travelers without an approved ESTA will not be authorized to board their flight.

As you can see, a few quick checks of your visa and travel documents will make your travel smoother and your holidays less stressful. And with that, we wish all of you a wonderful conclusion to the holiday season and the very best for 2018!  Safe travels!