Many people who intend to visit or stay in the United States ask: What is a visa and how does a visa differ from a passport?
A passport is a legal document that is issued to citizens of a country or state, which gives that citizen the potential to travel outside of their home country while enjoying certain rights and protections.
A travel visa is another type of legal document that is usually issued by a nation state to a foreign citizen, which may permit the foreigner to enter, stay, work or travel within the territory.
So you may hold a passport (or multiple passports, for example if you are a national of more than one country), as well as multiple visas, whether for the same country or different countries.
A visa may specify a limit on the length of time the alien may reside in the territory, or set the dates between which they may enter and leave.
In the past, visas were usually stamps added to the visitor’s passport at the border or port of entry. Today, it is much more common to require a visa in advance, before the alien intends to travel. The process for obtaining a visa can vary depending on the type of visa in question. Some may be obtained relatively informally, simply by filling in forms at the border or consulate. Other visa types may require significant preparation, often by a qualified attorney, and can involve a significant financial cost.
When asking what is a visa, for the United States, you need to understand that there are two main types of visas: resident and non-resident visas.
What is a Resident Visa?
A U.S. resident visa gives the alien indefinite permission to live in the United States. Just like U.S. citizens, permanent residents automatically have the right to work in the United States without an EAD (Employment Authorization Document).
However, a permanent resident is not the same as a U.S. citizen. A citizen has many other rights that a permanent resident does not, and the permanent resident will remain a citizen of their home country and still hold a passport issued by that country. A permanent resident may of course apply for United States citizenship. A visa may also be revoked by the host country under certain circumstances, whereas revocation of citizenship is a legally far more serious and difficult process.
In the Unites States, resident visas are commonly known as “green cards” and are recognized as the most desirable types of visas as they give more rights than temporary or non-resident visas.
What is a Non-Resident Visa?
A non-resident visa does not give the visa holder permission to remain indefinitely in the U.S., and does not give them the rights of a permanent resident, such as being able to work without authorization. Most non-resident visas have a fixed end date, after which the visa will expire requiring the foreign national to apply either for an extension or a new visa.
There are many different types of non-resident visas for the United States. They are often awarded to foreign workers who wish to join the U.S. workforce in unskilled or skilled roles (e.g., H-1B visa). Other types, such as the L1 visa, allow multi-national businesses to transfer personnel from overseas offices to offices in the U.S. There are many other visa types, which cover a range of uses from short vacations or visits to sporting events, religious or charity work, media, and education.
Some other countries also have agreements with the United States to make travel easier for their citizens, either due to treaties (e.g., the TN visa for NAFTA professionals, which is based on a trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada or the E3 visa that is specifically for Australian citizens).