Can I Get a U.S. Visa if I'm Already in the Country?

Understanding when you do and don't need a visa, and how to change or renew your status from within the United States.

The short answer to this question is no. If you are currently within the United States, you do not need a visa. In technical terms, a visa is simply an entry document that is issued only by an overseas U.S. embassy or consulate and allows you to come to the United States.

But few people understand this narrow meaning of the word "visa." So it's possible that what you're really asking is a broader question, as to whether you can, while in the United States, go from having one type of visa status to getting a renewal or extension of your status, or can change your status to another visa or even adjust status to permanent resident (a green card holder).

A related question is whether you can go from having no status in the United States to obtaining some legal right to be here, temporarily or permanently.

Renewing or Extending Your Status

Whether you can renew or extend your status depends on the type of visa you received. Tourists with B-2 visas, for example, are allowed to ask for a renewal -- though it will be denied if USCIS thinks that what the person is really seeking is to live in the United States long-term. Many work visas can be renewed at least once. People on student visas don't have to worry about renewals unless they graduate or finish their course of study and plan to start a new school program, since students are admitted for "duration of status" (D/S), meaning for the amount of time it takes to complete their studies.

Check on the terms of your visa, or talk to an attorney for details. And note that you'll need to apply before your permitted stay runs out, and can be denied if you have violated the terms of your original visa or committed a crime in the United States.

Changing Your Status

Whether you can change from your current status to another one again depends on the type of visa you originally received. For example, many students successfully switch to employment-based temporary visas. However, some categories don't allow changes of status, including B-2 tourists (unless they were given a notation in their visa that they were coming to the U.S. as prospective students -- in that case, they can change to student status).

Other visa types that don't allow changes of status include fiancée (K-1), crew member (D), aliens in transit with or without a visa (C), exchange students subject to the two-year home residency requirement (J), alien witnesses and informants (S), and M-1 vocational students if they're trying to switch to F-1 student.

Also, people who entered the U.S using the Visa Waiver program -- that is, came from a country whose citizens aren't require to obtain a U.S. for short visits, then you won't be eligible to change status. (Though in a few cases you can actually adjust status to permanent resident, namely if you're the immediate relative, such as the spouse, parent, or child, of a U.S. citizen and didn't use the visa waiver for the purpose of applying for a green card.)

See Applying for an Extension of a U.S. Visa or Change of Status for more on these options.

Adjusting Your Status

If you have become eligible for permanent residence (a green card) while in the United States, and you are here on a valid visa, haven't stayed past the date you were supposed to leave, and haven't violated its terms (such as by working without authorization), you'll most likely be able to complete the application process within the United States -- known as adjustment of status.

If your permitted stay has expired and you haven't left, you most likely can't apply to adjust status -- though exceptions exist, such as for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.

If you're here illegally (having entered without inspection, perhaps by crossing the border at an unauthorized point) and you have become eligible for permanent residence (such as through marriage to a U.S. citizen), chances are you cannot apply to adjust status. This is subject to some very narrow exceptions.

Talk to an Attorney

The immigration system is quite complex, and the exact options available to you will depend on your circumstances. Find an immigration attorney to discuss your options as soon as possible -- before your permitted stay, if any, expires. The attorney might point you toward possibilities you didn't know were available, or help you with the application process.

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