There are two major categories of U.S. visas issued to foreign nationals who are desirous of entering the USA for a short visit, for temporary work stints or to live and work permanently. Non immigrant visas are issued to foreign nationals for short visits for business or pleasure and temporary work stints while immigrant visas are issued to those foreign nationals who wish to have a permanent home in the USA.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the USA put in place a system known as the National Security Entry – Exit Registration System (NSEERS) which is known as Special Registration. Through this system the U.S. government can keep track of more than 35 million non immigrant visitors who enter the United States every year. Non immigrant visa holders have to register with immigration authorities at any of the 327 US ports of entry or at a designated ICE office (special investigations office) in accordance with special registration procedures.
Non-immigrant Visa holders who are subject to NSEERS registration at the Port of Entry include:
- Certain citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria as have been designated by the DHA Secretary in the Federal Register.
- Non-immigrant visa holders who are on the watch list of the State Department.
- Any other non-immigrant visa holder male or female regardless of nationality who has been identified by immigration authorities at airports, seaports and land ports in accordance with certain US laws.
These special procedures also require student visa holders to notify the authorities of their change of address through the SEVIS system which is an online system which keeps a track of all student and exchange visa holders and their dependants. Refugees, asylum applicants, holders of diplomatic passports and others admitted under “A” or “G” visas are usually exempt from these registration requirements.
Non immigrant visa holders generally have to fill an arrival/departure card called a I-94 (I-94W for Visa Waiver holders) when they enter the US this I-94 has details of their address in the US etc. The immigration authorities at the US ports of entry usually stamp this I-94 form with an expiration date.
This date indicates the maximum permissible time that is available to you for your visit to the US. This I-94 is then stapled to your passport. The date stamped on the I-94 is usually different to the validity of your visa. This date must be adhered to otherwise you will be considered to be out of status and may be subject to arrest, detention, fines or deportation. Decisions on all these instances are made on an individual basis and differ from case to case.
When you depart from the US you have to also make sure that this I-94/I-94W is taken away by the authorities (usually the airline on which you depart) otherwise it can seriously affect your chances of returning to the USA the next time around. Non- immigrant visa holders who transit through the US on their way to another country also have leave their information with the authorities when they arrive at the US port of entry even though they may be departing from elsewhere. More information about these special registration procedures is available at the Customs and Border Protection website. (http://www.cbp.gov/)
International travelers who are desirous of traveling to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program now have to register with US immigration authorities at least three days before their departure from their home country. This registration is available on the Electronic System for Travel Authorization Web site. (http://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/)
This is a free online tool which is available in 16 languages. This tool determines the eligibility of the visitor for travel to the United States under VWP. It collects the same information as the paper 1-94W which a Visa Waiver traveler fills en route to the USA.
An ESTA authorization will be valid up to two years and will be good for multiple entries into the US. The ESTA authorization has certain passport requirements, the information for which can also be obtained on the website. The Department of Homeland Security advises that you should fill in your ESTA details as soon as you make your plans to visit the USA.