Can I Get a U.S. Visa If I'm Already in the United States?

If you are a non-citizen who is already in the United States, whether you can renew or extend your status depends on the type of visa you received and entered the country on.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

If you are a foreign-born person currently within the United States, whether legally or not, a visa is at this point not entirely relevant to you. That's because, in technical terms, a visa is simply a U.S. entry document. It is issued only by an overseas U.S. embassy or consulate, so as to allow someone to come to the United States, present it at the border or port of entry, and be admitted.

But few people understand this narrow meaning of the word "visa." So we're going to assume that there's a broader question being asked here, regarding whether someone who's in the United States on one particular immigration status can extend or change it. We'll look into this issue below, including:

  • how to renew or extend your immigration status in the United States
  • how to change your immigration status in the United States, and
  • how to adjust your status to permanent resident.

Renewing or Extending Your Immigration Status in the U.S.

Whether you can renew or extend your existing status in the U.S. depends on the type of visa you received and entered the U.S. on. Tourists with B-2 visas, for example, are allowed to ask U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a renewal. (But 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-based visas can be renewed by USCIS at least once, assuming the employer wants to keep that person on in the same job and is willing to file the appropriate paperwork.

People on F-1 student visas don't normally have to worry about renewals or extensions for as long as they continue with the same academic program, unless they graduate or finish their course of study and plan to start a new program, or need more time than was allotted on their original I-20 from the school. That's because students are admitted for "duration of status" (D/S), meaning for the amount of time it takes to complete their studies. (See How to Extend Your F-1 Student Visa.)

Check on the terms of your current visa, or talk to an attorney for details. Most renewals and extensions are applied for on USCIS Form I-539. And note that you'll need to apply for extension or renewal before your permitted stay in the U.S. runs out, and can be denied a renewal or extension if you have violated the terms of your original visa or committed a crime in the United States.

Changing Your Immigration Status in the U.S.

Whether you can change from your current immigration status to another one while in the U.S. depends on the type of visa you originally received.

For example, many students successfully switch to employment-based temporary visas. However, some visa categories don't allow changes of status to student. Most notably, B-2 tourists can't change status to F-1, unless they were given a notation in their visa that they were coming to the U.S. as prospective students.

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 or VWP (meaning they came from a country whose citizens aren't required to obtain a U.S. for short visits), won't be eligible to change status. In a few cases, however, Visa Waiver entrants can actually adjust status to permanent resident, namely if they are the immediate relative, such as the spouse, parent, or child of a U.S. citizen, and they didn't use the visa waiver inappropriately, 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 Immigration Status to Permanent Resident

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. This is known as adjustment of status.

If your permitted stay has expired and you haven't left the United States, however, you most likely can't apply to adjust status. Exceptions do exist, though, such as for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (spouses, minor unmarried children, and parents of citizens who are over age 21).

If you are in the United States illegally after having entered the U.S. 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 narrow exceptions.

Talk to an Immigration Attorney

The U.S. 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 be able to point you toward possibilities you didn't know were available, or help you with the application process.

Talk to an Immigration attorney.
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