I came to the United States on an H-1B visa that was valid for three years. Before the three years expired, my employer petitioned to extend my status for another three years. That was last year.
I now have an I-94 Departure Record that says my status is valid for another two years. Can I use that I-94 to return to the U.S. if I travel abroad? Or will it be a problem that my visa has run out?
There is one limited situation when you don’t need a visa to reenter the United States. If you’re traveling to Canada or Mexico for a maximum of 30 days and are not a citizen of Iran, Sudan, or Syria, you can use your I-94 Departure Record and expired H-1B visa to return to the United States. A special provision called “automatic revalidation” allows you to make such a trip without obtaining a new visa from the U.S. consulate or embassy.
If you do not fall into the limited exception above, you cannot reenter on your expired visa and I-94 alone. Instead, you will need to obtain a new visa from the U.S. consulate or embassy, preferably in your home country.
What happens next depends on whether you are still in the U.S. or have already traveled abroad.
If you’re still in the U.S., this is good, because you’ll have time to arrange the documents you’ll need and then secure a visa interview if you need one. Or, if you will renew your visa by mail, you’ll have everything ready to drop in the mail to the consulate or embassy once you arrive in your home country. You generally need to be present in your home country before mailing your documents. Check with the particular U.S. consulate or embassy where you will apply to determine what documents you need to submit with your application.
If you’re already abroad, you’ll need to work quickly to prepare the materials for the visa application and get everything to the consulate or embassy, so that you will have the visa in time for your return flight. If you need an interview, this might mean you need to change your travel plans, because visa interviews sometimes are not available for several weeks. Whether you renew by mail or through an interview, it usually takes a few days to get your passport back with the visa. If you’re unlucky and get stuck in “Administrative Processing,” it could be much longer to get your visa.
If you will be applying for a visa, be sure to review the particular procedure for the U.S. consulate or embassy where you’ll apply and check the appointment wait times if you will need an interview. This will help you determine how much time you need abroad.
If it somehow happens that you don’t get a new visa and don’t realize it until you’re at the airport, and the airline then somehow overlooks this, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the airport likely will present two options when you arrive. One is for you to take the next plane home and get the visa before returning.
The other, which is more likely, is to admonish you on the need for the visa but still allow you to enter the U.S. by paying an exorbitant fee ($585 as of 2018).