The tourist visa (B-2 visa) allows foreign nationals to come to the U.S. to engage in typical tourism activities, such as visiting Disney World or the Grand Canyon, or spending time with family. Every year, millions of tourists enter the United States.
However, many end up remaining in the U.S. longer than their period of authorized stay. This is called "overstaying." This article explains how to avoid an overstay, the penalties of overstaying (in terms of its impact on your ability to return to the U.S.), and how it's sometimes possible to reenter the U.S. even after an overstay.
One reason that many people overstay is because they do not know the difference between two of the key travel documents showing expiration dates, namely the visa and the Form I-94, and thus end up overstaying unintentionally.
Your visa is a U.S. entry document, nothing more. It gives you permission to show up at a U.S. border, airport, or other port, and ask to be let in. (Keep in mind that the border officer can refuse to allow you into the U.S. even if you have a valid visa, however.) Your visa might be valid for several years. For example, if you are an Indian national, your B-2 visa is most likely valid for ten years, so its expiration date is far into the future.
However, the expiration date on the visa does not govern your authorized stay in the United States. it merely allows you to enter the United States during that time period. Thus, a visa that's valid for ten years does NOT allow you to stay in the U.S. for ten years. Instead, the "Form I-94" sets out your authorized stay in the United States.
Form I-94 used to be a paper card given to all nonimmigrant visitors to the United States by the border officer who processed their documents when they entered More often now, U.S. visitors must instead access their I-94 from the Customs and Border Protection website.
The expiration date shown on your Form I-94 is the last day you are permitted to remain in the U.S., and might not be valid for anywhere near as long as your visa is. You must depart the U.S. by the date on your Form I-94, or you will have overstayed.
For example, let's say you are an Indian national. You have a B-2 visa that is valid from April 1, 2022 through May 31, 2032. You want to come to the U.S. to visit national parks. You enter the U.S. on April 5, 2023. Your Form I-94 states your visa status is B1/2 and that your status expires on October 4, 2023. You must leave the U.S. by October 4, 2023 (or request an extension or a change to another nonimmigrant status by that date) or you will be considered to be overstaying.
Overstaying your permitted time in the U.S. can be a serious matter. This is particularly true if it was a long overstay; that is, months rather than days.
If you overstay by 180 days or more (but less than one year), after you depart the U.S. you will be barred from reentering for three years. If you overstay by one year or more, after you depart the U.S., you will be barred from reentering the U.S. for ten years. This is because unlawful presence is one of the many U.S. grounds of inadmissibility, with built-in penalties.
If you overstayed for less than 180 days, leaving the U.S. will not trigger any bars to reentry. And if you have a visa that's still valid, there's nothing to stop you from booking travel to the United States.
But when you try to enter the U.S., the border officer will be able to see that you overstayed your permitted time on your previous stay. Be ready with an explanation of what happened. Border officers always have the discretion to not allow someone U.S. entry. If you overstayed by only a few days or a couple of weeks, the officer will probably let you in. But if you overstayed for several months or close to 180 days, it is likely the officer will think you plan to overstay again, and will not let you in.
One plausible explanation is if you were facing personal health concerns or travel restrictions, such as during the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic. But if, for example you claim that you were ill, you would want to bring a doctor's letter confirming this, if possible.
If your visa runs out and you visit a U.S. consulate to apply for a new one, the consular official might deny you the visa based on your past overstay, even if it was short. There is no appeal from a consular denial, though you can try again another time. But you'll need to show convincing proof that you won't repeat your past behavior and overstay. See Steps to Take Following Denial of a B-1 or B-2 Visa.
Overstaying your permitted time on a U.S. visa can jeopardize your ability to come to the U.S. in the future. If you find yourself in this situation, it is highly recommended that you contact an immigration lawyer who can assist you.