Applying for an Extension of a U.S. Visa or Change of Status

If you are in the U.S. on a nonimmigrant (temporary) visa, and need to extend your time on that visa or switch to another (also temporary) visa, you will likely need to prepare and submit USCIS Form I-539.

By , Attorney · Capital University Law School

If you are in the United States on a nonimmigrant (temporary) visa, and you need to extend your time in the country or switch to another (also temporary) visa status, the procedure you will likely use is to prepare and submit Form I-539, issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). (Note that if you're changing to a visa category for work, your employer will likely handle your change of status on its I-129 petition.)

Realize, however, that extensions or changes of status are in no way granted automatically. You will need to:

  • submit the I-539 application to USCIS by the appropriate time
  • make sure you're actually eligible for the extension or change of status, and
  • fill out the form completely and without mistakes, and attach the appropriate documents.

We'll cover all of those steps here.

Submitting Your I-539 Application to USCIS on Time

You must submit your application for an extension or change of status to USCIS before, not after, your old immigration status runs out. This expiration date might be shown in a notation the immigration officer made in your passport when you entered the United States. Or, based upon Custom and Border Protection's "Simplified Arrival" program (which began in early 2022), instead of getting a stamp in your passport, you will need to verify the date on your own by downloading your I-94 Departure Record. Then submit a copy of your I-94 with your application.

Do NOT go by the date that your visa (a sticker in your passport from the U.S. consulate) expires. That is simply the last day you could use that visa for U.S. entry; it's not the date up to which you can actually stay in the United States.

If you miss the expiration date of your permitted U.S. stay and can prove it was not your fault, you can apply late for an extension of status on Form I-539. But you will need to provide documents showing USCIS that:

  • you would have met the date but for circumstances beyond your control
  • the length of the delay was reasonable
  • you haven't violated the terms of your visa status in any other way, and
  • you aren't just looking for a way to stay in the United States permanently.

Checking Your Eligibility for the Extension or Change of Status in the U.S.

Many categories of U.S. visa allow at least one extension, depending on your reasons for needing it, and on your being able to prove your continued "nonimmigrant intent"; that is, that you still plan to leave the U.S. on your designated departure date, not to try to live here permanently. And, provided you have maintained valid visa status (and not violated its rules or terms), chances are good you're allowed to apply for a different status.

But don't assume anything until you've researched the terms of your own visa. Many rules are visa specific—for example, someone on a B-2 tourist visa cannot change to student status unless they got a specific notation on the visa ahead of time. (See, for example, How Long Will Your U.S. Visa Allow You to Stay?.)

Preparing the USCIS Form I-539 Application

Form I-539 is used by a variety of applicants for a variety of requests, so you'll need to read the instructions and questions carefully to narrow in on the requirements that apply to you.

A few questions on the form require extra attention, as follows (referring to the 05/31/22 version of the form):

Part 1, Information About You. If you don't have a USCIS online account number, don't worry about this question; you'd only have such an account if you filed certain types of application and registered for this. For the questions on "Current Nonimmigrant Status" and "Expiration Date," you should be able to find this information on your I-94. For example, if you entered as a vocational student, your "status" would be "M-1." The I-94 will also show a date in most cases; though it might say "D/S" for duration of status if you're an F-1 student. That simply means that you can stay until your studies are completed. But if you're no longer studying or participated in approved optional practical training (OPT), then you are out of status and expected to leave the United States.

Part 2, Application Type. This should be self-explanatory, but make sure to mention your family members if they received visas to accompany you to the United States (for example, if you received an F-1 visa and they received F-2s). They too can receive extensions through your filing of this form, but they each need to attach a separate Form I-539A.

Part 3, Processing Information: Do your research ahead of time and make sure you're not asking for more time than will be allowed on your visa extension or new visa. Your request must also be realistic given your needs in the U.S.—and you'll have to back it up with documentation of why you need to stay longer or receive a different visa.

Part 4, Additional Information About the Applicant: If your passport will expire while you are in the U.S. after being granted the extension or change of status, you will need to renew it. The passport must remain valid for at least six months beyond your departure date. And it's important to be able to enter a foreign address here, so that USCIS doesn't think you have pulled up roots and are attempting to live permanently in the United States (a violation of the required "nonimmigrant intent").

In Part 4 Questions 3-15, you should be able to answer "No" to all the questions. If you answer "Yes" to any, you might be inadmissible, and you might not qualify for the change or extension of status. One exception is that certain visa categories allow dual intent for people seeking labor-based visas, including the H-1B, L, and O-1 visas. Consult a lawyer for any other situation where your answer is yes, particularly for the criminal background questions and question about having worked in the United States. Note that E and L spouses are authorized to work based upon being present in the U.S. in that status, but H-4 spouses first must obtain an Employment Authorization Document before they are authorized to work.

If you are in the U.S. on a J-1 visa, you should also consult a lawyer, as your rights to change your status are complex and limited.

If including family members in your application, be sure to submit a separate I-539A form for each.

Preparing Materials to Accompany Form I-539

Again, you'll need to pay careful attention to USCIS's instructions. In most cases, you'll need to supply:

  • a copy of your I-94 (including separate I-94s for everyone included in your Form I-539.)
  • full English translations of every document submitted in another language
  • a copy of your passport (including copies of passports for other family members who are included in your Form I-539 and are submitting Form I-539A)
  • the appropriate fee (starting April 1, 2024, that's $420 for online filing and $470 for paper filing, with biometrics costs included)
  • for dependents (spouses or children), birth or marriage certificates proving the relationship to the main visa holder or applicant, and
  • documents showing your need for the extension of change in status, such as a letter of explanation from people on a B-2 or B-2 visitor visa.

Submit your application electronically and upload the supporting documents or mail your application to the address shown in the USCIS instructions.

Professional Legal Help Can Be Valuable

If you have any questions about your eligibility, or how to fill out the form and prepare the application, consult an immigration attorney. The attorney can both make sure you are on safe legal ground in requesting an extension and help you prepare and submit the paperwork, as well as monitor USCIS follow-up.

Talk to an Immigration attorney.
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