During your visit to the U.S. on a B-1 or B-2 visa (as a visitor for business, pleasure, or medical treatment), your plans could change. Perhaps you will be given the opportunity to stay in the U.S. longer than you initially expected, or even a chance to work or study in the U.S. for a temporary period of time.
If this is the case, you might be able to extend or change your lawful stay. If so, the appropriate procedure is to file Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Whether USCIS approves your application is, however, completely within its discretion. So, you must show them plenty of evidence that you originally intended to remain in the U.S. for only the authorized period of time, and that you entered with the sole intention of being a visitor for business, pleasure, or medical treatment, but that your plans have since changed.
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Ideally, you'll want to submit your request to USCIS as soon as you learn you might need to change your nonimmigrant classification or stay in the U.S. for a longer period of time. USCIS recommends filing at least 45 days before your permitted stay expires. (The expiration date is shown on your Form I-94, which was prepared for you upon entry to the United States, and which you can download from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website.)
However, submitting this far in advance could be impossible for you if the reason why you need to stay in the U.S. for longer than expected arose at the last moment. Even if you file after you're within the 45 window, go ahead and get that application in, and it will automatically extend your lawfully permitted stay while it's pending.
If you try to file after your B-1 or B-2 status has expired, however, you are considered "out of status." In order to successfully change your status or extend your stay at that point, you will need to show that there were extraordinary circumstances beyond your control that caused you to delay filing your request and that the time elapsed was reasonable given the circumstances.
Examples of "extraordinary circumstances" are medical emergencies, loss or theft of your passport or other travel documents, or proof that you attempted to file your request and USCIS returned it because it was unknowingly "defective" due to it missing information, the correct filing fee, or particular documents.
If you cannot give USCIS a convincing reason for why you fell out of status, you will be unable to change or extend your B visa classification and should consult with an immigration attorney for advice on whether or not it's in your best interest to immediately depart the U.S. and apply for the visa that you need from your home country.
Be aware that if you remain in the U.S. for 180 days or more after your B status expires, you could be barred from applying for future immigration benefits for many years. For more on this, see Consequences of Unlawful Presence in the U.S.--Three- and Ten-Year Time Bars.
To extend your stay in the United States or change your immigration status here, you will need to provide USCIS with much of the same evidence as you did when you initially applied for your B-1 or B-2 visa. This includes evidence that you can support yourself financially during your time in the U.S. and a written statement explaining the reasons for the extension request.
Also provide detailed information to prove that you intend to return to your home country, that you still have economic and social ties abroad, and that you have enough money to remain in the U.S. for this longer period of time.
Some examples of the types of evidence that USCIS will want to see are:
To learn more about the basic types of evidence USCIS is looking for, read Application Process for a B-1 or B-2 Visitor Visa.
To change your status, you cannot simply submit Form I-539 and wait for your application to be approved. You must also meet all of the eligibility requirements for the new visa and submit the appropriate petition to USCIS.
For example, if you are changing to change to F-1 (academic student) or M-1 (vocational student) status, you must be accepted into a full-time program by a U.S. school and meet other requirements such as having a "prospective student" endorsement noted on your visa. For more information, see Application Process for an F-1 or M-1 Student Visa: Changing Status if Already in the U.S.
If you hope to work in the U.S. temporarily, a visa for that purpose must be available (there can be long waits depending on your level of education and expertise) and your employer must comply with all necessary procedures, such as obtaining labor certification.
The necessary forms, fees, and evidence you should provide depend on the type of visa for which you are applying. For a comprehensive list, see the Forms page of the USCIS website. Ideally, you will submit Form I-539 and the other necessary forms together so that USCIS can give you a decision around the same time.
There is a difference between "changing status" and asking for protection from the U.S. government. Most people who change their status from a B visitor do so after getting the opportunity to work or study in the United States. If you hope to avail yourself of the protections of the U.S. government because of emergency conditions in your home country or because you fear persecution based on a protected ground, you can potentially apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or asylum. You do not need to file Form I-539 along with a petition for humanitarian and protective remedies such as TPS or asylum.
If filing Form I-539 to change to F or M nonimmigrant visa classification, be aware that you cannot enroll in classes until your status change request has been approved by USCIS. If USCIS discovers that you have already enrolled in school, you will be found ineligible to change your status from a B-1 or B-2 visitor.
The same caution applies to various work-related visas. Make sure not to accept unauthorized employment while in the U.S. in B status!
If you have filed Form I-539 to extend your visa or change your status and the date of your authorized stay on your I-94 Arrival/Departure record has passed, don't panic. USCIS cannot place you into removal proceedings until your application has been decided upon.
In addition, you will not accrue unlawful presence while your application is pending. However, if you receive notice that your I-539 application has been denied, even if the date on your I-94 has not yet passed, your B visa will become void and you will be required to depart the U.S. immediately.
The advice in this article is for people who actually obtained a visa in order to visit the United States. If you traveled to the U.S. using the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), you are not traveling on a visa, so you won't be able to change your status within the United States.
In addition, you can't extend your VWP stay except in an emergency situation. If an emergency does occur and you need to stay in the U.S. longer than the 90 days authorized, reach out to the USCIS Contact Center and ask its help in granting you a period of satisfactory departure (the standard is 30 days or less). You might be eligible for other protections such as asylum or Temporary Protected Status if you qualify.
Or, you could try requesting an in-person appointment directly, via USCIS's online "My Appointment" portal. This is new as of late 2023, so it's impossible to assess whether it will be faster than going through the Contact Center, or what happens if you try both methods at once. Also, getting an appointment isn't guaranteed; the agency will evaluate your need after you submit the request.
If you are at all confused about your eligibility to extend or change your immigration status, or need help with the paperwork, you wouldn't be the first. This is a highly complex area of law, and the consequences of mistakes can be dire. You'd be wise to contact an experienced immigration attorney.