ALP: What is a Visa?

February 2005

Technically, a visa is a travel document placed in a foreign national's passport in the form of a stamp with his or her photo. A visa is issued by a U.S. consulate abroad which allows the foreign national to travel to the U.S. to apply for admission at a U.S. port of entry.

If a foreign national without a visa arrives at a U.S. port of entry, he or she may be returned at the carrier's expense to the home country or to the port of departure. However, there are circumstances where a visa may not be required, such as Canadian citizens with some exceptions, foreign nationals with Border Crossing Cards, and foreign nationals traveling on the Visa Waiver Program. All foreign nationals are expected to present valid visas not only for purposes of travel to the U.S., but which agree with the classification under which they seek admission to the U.S.

U.S. consular officers interview visa applicants to determine whether the alien is eligible for the particular classification and whether the alien is admissible. A key issue in visa issuance is whether the foreign national has established that he or she will comply with the terms of his or her admission. In addition, most nonimmigrant foreign nationals must establish that they intend to remain temporarily in the United States and will return abroad prior to the expiration of their period of authorized admission. However, because the law distinguishes among nonimmigrant foreign nationals who may have immigrant intent (i.e. to remain in the U.S. permanently), those who must have nonimmigrant intent (i.e. to remain in the U.S. temporarily for the purposes permitted under the admission classification), and those who may have dual intent (i.e. may seek admission for a temporary purpose while independently pursuing a related or unrelated purpose to remain in the U.S. permanently), determination of the intent of a foreign national seeking travel or admission to the U.S. is an important issue.