The I-539 is a handy form issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) allowing people in the U.S. on nonimmigrant (temporary) visas to apply to switch to another type of visa (change status) or to extend their stay in the United States.
A nonimmigrant visa allows a foreign national to enter and stay in the United States for a specific purpose and a limited amount of time. But what if that time runs out, and you are not ready to leave?
For example, you may be a visitor who is still having a great time touring the U.S. and wants to see the Grand Canyon and the Florida Everglades before going home -- or you may have had some medical trouble while you were here, necessitating a longer stay. Or perhaps you are here on a work visa, and the project is lasting longer than anticipated, such that your employer would like you to stay on. Or you may have come to the U.S. on a student visa, and with graduation approaching, found an employer to offer you a job and help you obtain H-1B status.
One important thing to understand about a visa is that it is first and foremost an entry document, issued by a U.S. consulate in another country. While you might think, if your current permitted stay visa under your visa is running out and you wish to stay longer, "Oh, I'll just stay in the U.S. and apply for a new visa," that's technically impossible. If you literally want another visa, you have to actually leave the United States and visit a consulate, most likely in your home country.
But wouldn't it be easier to just stay in the United States and apply for what you need from there? If so, that's where Form I-539 comes in. It allows you to stay in the United States and ask USCIS to change or extend your status.
Important note: If and when you do leave the U.S., you will need another visa in order to return. You will have to stop by a U.S. consulate to pick up that visa, though approval should be a cinch, given that USCIS has already approved you for a change of status.
Not every nonimmigrant visa holder can apply for an extension or change of status. First off, most nonimmigrant visas come with a maximum time you can spend in the U.S., allowing at most one or two extensions. Second, the immigration laws prohibit certain types of changes of status. For example, if you came to the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), you cannot extend or change your status at all. If you came on a B-2 tourist visa, you cannot change to student status (F-1 or M-1) unless you previously got a notation in your visa saying you'd be looking at schools. If you came on a J-1 visa, you may need to comply with a two-year home residency requirement before returning to the United States.
Research the terms of your particular visa carefully before proceeding, or talk to an attorney. For information on the various nonimmigrant visas, see Alllaw’s section on temporary visas.
You should file for an extension or change at least 45 days before the expiration date on your visa and keep proof of your application with you to show you have followed the proper procedure regarding your visa in case your status is questioned by authorities.
See Applying for an Extension of a U.S. Visa or Change of Status for tips on completing the form and other required steps.
If you came to the U.S. on a nonimmigrant visa but have become eligible for a green card -- for example, have married a U.S. citizen or found an employer to sponsor you for a permanent job -- Form I-539 will not help you. With any luck, you will be able to seek "Adjustment of Status," which uses Form I-485 and allows you to complete all of your processing without leaving the United States. Unfortunately, not everyone can use this procedure -- some people need to apply for their green card through "consular processing," which does require leaving the U.S. for an interview at a U.S. consulate in their home country. See Immigration Options if Your U.S. Visa is Expiring for a comparison of AOS and the I-539 options, and consult an immigration attorney for details on your specific situation.