Nonimmigrant Visa Types

There is an alphabet soup of nonimmigrant visa categories for which foreigners may apply when they want to travel to the United States. The most common ones—visas for temporary visitors for tourism or business and student visas—account for the great bulk of all visas issued to foreigners.

Visas are issued for varying periods of time and frequency of use ranging from a day or two and one entry into the United States to unlimited entries and indefinite validity. The U.S. consular officers abroad decide the type of visa that is appropriate and the number of entries based on many different factors. The criteria that influence the visa issuance process are spelled out in the immigration law and the regulations of the Department of State. They include such factors as the nature of the proposed travel, the characteristics of the individual applicant (e.g., ability to cover costs of the stay in the United States without taking a job), and the characteristics of the country of nationality of the applicant (e.g., whether many of its nationals abused visas by becoming illegal residents, or, what policies the foreign government applies to U.S. citizens seeking entry to its country.)

A common misconception is that the visa governs how long a visitor may stay in the United States. In fact, the visa is only a permission to apply for entry into the country. It is the immigration inspectors of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that determine whether the visitor may enter the country and the length of stay. Of course, the visa tells the DHS inspector that the consular officer has found the traveler to meet the criteria in the immigration law to be admitted into the country, so it is infrequent that a person with a valid visa would be refused entry. But, because a visa may be for multiple entries, circumstances may have changed from when the visa was issued, and an INS inspector may conclude that the traveler is no longer a bona fide nonimmigrant.

Foreign travelers may legally enter the United States at designated ports of entry by air, sea or land. Entry by sea accounts for the smallest number (about a million a month), followed by entries by air (about 5-7 million a month), and the largest number enters by land from Mexico or Canada (about 35-40 million per month). Canadians enter without visas and the vast majority of Mexican entries are done by residents near the border who present a Border Crossing Card that allows entry for not longer than three days to destinations within 25 miles of the border.

Below are listed the nonimmigrant visa categories and the number of entries for each category in FY11 (the latest year for which the Immigration Statistical Yearbook has been published).. The estimated total number of nonimmigrant entries was 158,500,000. Most of those entries were without visas and were cross-border entries from Canada or Mexico. The number of entries with visas or for business or pleasure by persons able to enter in the Visa Waiver Program numbered 53,082,286. Most of them were in visa categories that did not allow the person to take a U.S. job. But, the number of admissions of foreign travelers with visas that allowed them to work in the U.S. job reached more than 5.6 million.


Visa Categories

Updated December 2012