If you are in the U.S. as a temporary visitor (on what’s known as a “nonimmigrant visa,” such as a B-2 tourist or F-1 student), you are normally expected to leave by the date shown on your Form I-94. (Before April 2013, all U.S. visitors received a white card in their passports at the U.S. border, airport, or other point of entry. Now this form is automated for most visiting nonimmigrants and can be accessed online.)
But what if that date is approaching and you’d like to stay longer? You may be able to apply for an extension, as described here. If you’re not in a visa category that requires direct sponsorship by an employer, the form to use for this is the I-539 Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status, available as a free download from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
U.S. immigration law contains strict rules about how long people on particular types of visas can stay after their initial entry to the U.S., how much more time they may be granted under an extension, and the maximum amount of time they may spend in the U.S. in total. You will need to figure out what rule applies to your particular visa. See How Long Will Your U.S. Visa Allow You to Stay? for a summary of what’s possible under your visa.
You will also need to be sure that you have not violated the terms of your visa, most often a problem when someone works illegally, commits a crime, or simply lets the I-94 expire without first applying for an extension or leaving the United States. Violations such as these automatically cancel one’s visa.
Here are the types of visa holders who can (and must) use USCIS Form I-539 to request an extension of stay:
Let’s make sure that you’re clear on how to fill out the various questions on Form I-539. Some are self-explanatory, but others can be tricky, and it’s important to be accurate and avoid inconsistencies.
This article discusses the version of the form dated 12/23/2016, expiring 4/30/2018.
Generally. There are a few general rules for filling out Form I-539. You should type the information into the form using a computer if you can. Otherwise, write with black ink. For this form, USCIS wants you to enter “N/A” (for “not applicable”) if your answer is "none" or "this doesn't apply to me," rather than leaving a space blank. If you can’t fit your answer in the space provided, attach a separate sheet of paper to the end of the form. Identify this sheet of paper in case it gets detached from your application—at the top, write I-539 Continuation Sheet, your name, and your alien registration number (if you have one). Then make sure USCIS knows which question(s) you’re adding more information for—start your answer with the page number, part number, and item number to which your answer refers. You must date and sign each continuation sheet.
Part 1. Information About You: Much of this part is self-explanatory.
You will have an A-number (an eight- or nine-digit number following the letter “A” for Alien) only if you were placed in deportation or removal proceedings in immigration court or submitted any of certain types of immigration applications, particularly for permanent residence (a green card). If you were in such proceedings or had any immigration applications denied, definitely see a lawyer.
You would only have a USCIS Online Account Number if you previously filed an application, petition, or request online using USCIS ELIS, which is USCIS's Electronic Immigration System. The system issues its users an account number. The USCIS account number is not the same as an alien registration number ("A-number").
You probably won’t have a U.S. Social Security number unless your visa or status allowed you to work. If you used someone else’s Social Security number or worked in the U.S. without authorization, consult a lawyer.
Your I-94 number is either on the small white card that you received at the border or when you changed status in the U.S., or accessible at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website. If the date Form I-94 has passed, you are no longer in status and cannot file this application.
If you entered the U.S. using a passport, you can enter N/A in the Travel Document Number box (11.c.). A travel document is an alternative to a passport—you won't have both. If your passport or travel document expired after you got your most recent I-94, and you now have a new one, enter the old passport or travel document number that you had when the I-94 was given to you. In the box for question 11.e., give the expiration date for that old passport or travel document.
For “Current nonimmigrant status,” enter your visa status, such as “F-1 student” or “G-2, family member of foreign government representative.” The Expiration Date of your status is found on your I-94. If you're a student a J exchange visitor, you may see "D/S" instead of an expiration date. This means you are allowed to be in the U.S. for as long as you need to be to complete your studies or program. Check the box in 12.c. if your I-94 says D/S.
Part 2. Application Type
Form I-539 is used for purposes other than extending status. Because you want to extend your status, check box 1 and leave boxes 2.a., 2.b., and 3 empty.
You have an opportunity to include any spouse and children in your application by checking box 5.a. Also be sure to fill out Supplement A, where you will list their names and other information.
Part 3. Processing Information
Question 1.a.: Enter the date you’d like to leave the U.S., and make sure it’s within the maximum allowed for your type of status. Check How Long Will Your U.S. Visa Allow You to Stay? for a summary of what’s possible under your status.
Questions 2.a. through 3.f.: Some people are eligible to extend their status because they are a dependent of someone else who has extended status. Usually the whole family files their applications together. If this is the case, check the "Yes, filed with this I-539" box in question 3.a.
If your spouse, child, or parent has already extended his or her status (their process is complete), and you're doing it later, check the "Yes" box in question 2.a., and provide the USCIS receipt number in 2.b. The USCIS receipt number can be found on the notice approving the extension (Form I-797).
If you're filing your I-539 after your parent, child, or spouse, and USCIS hasn't made a decision on their extension application yet, check the "Yes, filed previously and pending with USCIS" box in question 3.a.and provide the USCIS receipt number in 3.b. You'll also need to fill out 3.c. through 3.f. to identify your relative's petition for USCIS. Your relative was issued a "Form I-797C Notice of Action" that contains the date of filing. Asking you where the petition was filed isn't very fair—your relative most likely sent it to a centralized "lockbox" facility, and from there it was sent to a USCIS office to be worked on. That's the location USCIS wants to know. Check the I-797C notice—at the bottom it should contain the address of the USCIS office that is working on the case.
Part 4. Additional Information
Questions 1a and 1.b.: Enter your passport country and number, even if it has expired. If the expiration date is within the period of extension that you’re asking for, you should have it renewed. You can usually do this at a consulate of your home country in the United States. Your passport must remain valid for at least six months beyond your date of departure from the United States. If your passport has expired at the time you file your I-539, attach an explanation telling USCIS why and what you're doing about it.
Question 3: An "immigrant visa" is a visa that allows you to come to the U.S. and live here as a permanent resident. If you or any members of your family included in your application have applied for an immigrant visa, it indicates that you are seeking to stay in the U.S. permanently and get a green card. USCIS will probably conclude that you have no intention of returning home after your visit and will deny this extension application accordingly. There is no a solution for this—and hiding your immigrant visa application from USCIS is impossible.
Question 4: An "immigrant petition" is something that a family member or employer files for you as the first step in the process of getting you permanent resident status in the United States. It's not the same as your immigrant visa application. Some petitions will place you on a waiting list that will last many years before you yourself can take an active role in applying for an immigrant visa. Nevertheless, USCIS may deny your extension application if your answer to this question is yes.
Question 5: Form I-485 is simply the U.S. version of a green card application, used during an application process called “Adjustment of Status.” USCIS asks about this for the same reason it asks questions 3 and 4.
Questions 6 through 18 are designed to see whether you are inadmissible to the U.S., as described in Inadmissibility and Waivers. Think carefully before entering your answers, and keep reading for details. If no good solution is provided below, you will need to consult an experienced immigration lawyer.
Question 6: If you were simply arrested for a crime and not charged (for example, the police picked up the wrong guy), you are safe entering “yes” here and attaching a written explanation and a copy of the police report. But for anything more serious, or for any of the other activities described in this question (terrorist, genocide, and more), you must consult a lawyer before going any farther. Many criminal convictions will render you inadmissible to the United States. Sometimes, no conviction is even required. For example, USCIS merely has to suspect that you a drug trafficker in order to find you inadmissible.
Question 17: To determine whether you have violated your current immigration status, consider the type of visa you are on and what you agreed to do to get that visa. For example, if you came to the U.S. as a student but worked without authorization, this would be a status violation. USCIS will probably deny your extension application.
Question 18: If you are now in “removal proceedings” (formerly known as exclusion or deportation proceedings), talk to a lawyer immediately—it’s likely that the USCIS has no power over this extension application. Your entire immigration situation is now in the hands of the immigration court. You can use page 6 of the form to add more information about your removal proceedings.
Question 19: If you have worked in the U.S., it needs to have been permissible under the visa or status that you held at the time. You may also have been required to obtain an employment authorization card (EAD) from USCIS. If your work wasn’t permitted, talk to a lawyer pronto. If your work was permitted, look at the paragraph below the question to see what additional information you will need to supply. You can use page 6 of the form for that. Add a photocopy of both sides of your work permit if you had one.
Question 20: As an applicant to extend status, you probably don't need to worry about what your answer will mean here. USCIS wants to know if you have ever had a J visa or J status because some such people are not eligible for H or L status without going back to their home country for two years. But if you're trying to extend your H or L status, it's likely USCIS already determined you didn't have a problem when it gave you an H or L visa or status in the first place. Use page 6 of the form to add information information if you need to.
After you’ve filled out the form, you’ll need to come up with supporting documents and a fee. The necessary documents depend on which type of status you're trying to extend. See the instructions for Form I-539 on the USCIS webiste.
There is a filing fee, which as of December 2016 is $370. Certain applicants are exempt from the filing fee. See the "special instructions" on USCIS's I-539 page to know exactly how much to pay.
When you’re finished, make a complete copy of every item, including the check, for your records and to protect against the very real possibility of loss in the system. Mail your application to the appropriate address shown on USCIS's I-539 filing addresses page. USCIS no longer allows I-539 forms to be filed online (despite what you might read in the form instructions).
If you have questions about your eligibility, or how to fill out the form and prepare the application, an experienced immigration attorney can help.