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. (The I-94 is either a white I-94 card put in your passport at the U.S. border, airport, or other entry point, or a notation in a database, accessible at the CBP website.)
But what if your departure date is approaching and you need or want to stay longer? More people than ever have reasons to avoid travel, in light of the global pandemic of coronavirus, or COVID-19.
Fortunately, you might 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 you. See How Long Will Your U.S. Visa Allow You to Stay? for a summary of what’s possible.
You will also need to be sure that you have not violated the terms of your visa, most often a problem when someone:
Violations such as these automatically cancel one’s visa.
Nevertheless, USCIS can make exceptions, or show leniency, in "special situations" such as natural catastrophes or illness. USCIS is reportedly aware of the challenges faced by foreign visitors to the U.S. in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including cancellation of flights home. The agency is taking this into account when making decisions on extension applications.
Here are the types of visa holders who can (and must) use USCIS Form I-539 to request an extension of their U.S. 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. It’s important to be accurate and avoid inconsistencies. This article discusses the version of the form dated 10/15/19, expiring 10/31/2021.
General guidelines. 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, use Part 9 of the form.
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's electronic immigration system (at one time, called ELIS). The system issues its users an account number. It's not the same as an 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 on your 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. 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. 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 might see "D/S" on your I-94 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 Question 16 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 2 and leave the boxes empty.
You have an opportunity to include any spouse and children in your application (if they have the same status as yours or are derivatives on your original application) by checking box 5.a. Also be sure to fill out the I-539 Supplement A, where you will list their names and other information.
Part 3. Processing Information
Question 1: 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.b.: If you have family dependents and want the whole family to file their applications together, 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 (look on the notice approving the extension, called 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 4 and 5 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.
Part 4. Additional Information About the Applicant
Questions 1a through 1.c.: Enter your passport country, number, and expiration date, 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 one 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 might conclude that you have no intention of returning home after your visit and deny this extension application accordingly. There is no solution for this, unless the type of visa you're on allows "dual intent"—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 can 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 15 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 so on), 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 12: 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 13: If you are now in “removal proceedings” (also known as 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 part 8 of the form to add more information about your proceedings.
Question 14: 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 part 8 of the form for that. Add a photocopy of both sides of your work permit if you had one.
Question 15: 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 part 8 of the form to add information information if you need to.
Part 5: Public Benefits
As part of new USCIS regulations regarding who is inadmissible as a likely public charge, applicants must answer a relatively new set of questions about any need-based government assistance received in the United States. If you've received any such benefits, consult an attorney, as your ability to extend your status in the U.S. is in doubt.
EXCEPTION: If you are reading this during the coronavirus epidemic, you need not fill this section out. A federal court put a hold on USCIS's ability to add such public-charge related questions during this difficult time.
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 website.
There is a filing fee, which for in late 2020 was $370, plus $85 for biometrics (fingerprinting), no matter the applicant's age; so, a total of $455.
But USCIS plans to change its fees, to $400 for paper filings and $390 for online filings. Originally, that change was to happen on October 2, 2020, but lawsuits and court injunctions have put the change on hold for now.
The only applicants exempt from the filing fees are people changing to or from A-1, A-2, A-3, G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, G-5, NATO-1, NATO-2, NATO-3, NATO-4, NATO-5, or NATO-6 status.
See the "special instructions" on USCIS's I-539 page to know exactly how much to pay. You can pay by check, money order, or by filling out and submitting USCIS Form G-1450, Authorization for Credit Card Transactions.
For many applications, the only method for submission is to mail it to the appropriate address shown on USCIS's I-539 filing addresses page. If that's the route you go, be sure to make a complete copy of every item, including any check or money order, for your records. This will protect against the very real possibility of loss in the bureaucratic system.
However, USCIS allows I-539 forms to be filed online for applicants in certain categories.
You can file online to extend your stay if you are applying on your own (without co-applicants and without the representation of a lawyer or accredited representative) and if you hold status as either a:
If you have questions about your eligibility, or how to fill out the form and prepare the application, an experienced immigration attorney can help.