Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Glossary of Visa Terms

If you're in the process of obtaining a visa, you should become familiar with the terminology. Terms used in the visa process have specific meanings, often distinct from those in everyday language.

Accompanying Visa: A visa that is given to immediate family members of the primary visa applicant. This allows the family member to accompany the primary visa applicant to the host country.

Adjustment of Status: To adjust one's status is to change from one visa status to another or to adjust from visa-holder to lawful permanent resident or green card holder. The status can also be adjusted from noncitizen to U.S. citizen.

Admission: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers with the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) authorize entry, or admission, into the U.S. CBP officers determine whether you can be admitted into the country and for how long, based on your visa and other factors. Visit the CBP's Admission into United States page for more details about admission.

Adopted Child: According to U.S. immigration law, an adopted child is a person under 16 years of age who spent two years of legal custody and residence with the adoptive parent. The two-year residency and legal custody requirements could be met before or after the adoption. An adopted child has a similar status as that of legitimate natural children.

Advance Parole: A travel document that allows certain noncitizens permission to re-enter the U.S. without an immigrant or non-immigrant visa after traveling abroad. DHS officials must grant noncitizens advance parole before leaving the U.S. Aliens on a K-1 visa, parolees, asylum applicants, those with temporary protected status (TPS), and some trying to adjust their status may need to obtain advance parole before leaving the country.

Advisory Opinion: This is an opinion from the Office of Visa Services in the U.S. Dept. of State that answers a question by an embassy or consulate about the interpretation of immigration law or the legal basis of a visa refusal. Immigration Judge refers to these opinions in an Immigration Court in making decisions. An Advisory Opinion can also be obtained to determine if a J1 visa holder is subject to the two-year residency rule.

Affidavit of Support: A document pledging that the signee agrees to support the corresponding visa applicant in the U.S. Family-based financially and some employment-based immigration cases use Form I-864. Other cases use Form I-134 (PDF).

Agent: An individual who receives all visa-related correspondence and pays the application processing fee. The agent may be anyone the applicant chooses, as well as the applicant himself or herself.

Alien: An outdated term for an individual who is not a U.S. citizen, replaced by others such as noncitizen. Noncitizens either have permanent resident status (green card) or are in the country on a temporary visa.

Applicant: A non-resident noncitizen who is applying for a visa. For petition-based visas, the applicant may be referred to as the beneficiary.

Appointment Package: Correspondence, forms, and related documents informing the applicant of the immigrant visa interview date. This includes forms that must be completed before the interview and preparation instructions.

Approval Notice: This is a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) form, Notice of Action Form I-797, indicating that the USCIS has approved a request for a stay extension or change of status. This is also used when USCIS approves any immigration benefit.

Asylee: A foreign national who cannot return to their home country for fear of persecution. The well-founded fear of persecution is often due to their race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or being a member of a particular social group. Visit the USCIS Asylum page to learn more or to file for asylum status.

Arrival-Departure Card: A form previously given to all foreign visitors upon arrival to the U.S. (usually a small white card), inquiring about the visitor's immigrant classification and period of stay. This is more commonly known as Form I-94. See the CBP's primer on filling out Arrival-Departure Records for more information. These cards are no longer used unless the electronic I-94 system is down. The form I-94 can now be electronically accessed at the CBP website.

Beneficiary: The individual named in a visa or adjustment-of-status petition from the USCIS (the applicant).

Biometrics: Biologically unique data sets, such as fingerprints and iris scans, are used to authenticate someone's identity and run background checks.

Canceled Without Prejudice: When an embassy or consult stamps a visa to indicate a mistake in the visa or that it is a duplicate. It neither affects the validity of other visas associated with the passport nor means the passport holder will not get another visa. The term "without prejudice" means a technical error that needs to be addressed.

Case Number: A number with three letters and ten numeral digits given by the Department of State's National Visa Center (NVC) to each immigrant petition case. The three letters represent the overseas consulate or embassy responsible for processing the visa (for example, KGN stands for Kingston, Jamaica). The digits represent the date the case was created. The case number is different than the USCIS receipt number.

Certificate of Citizenship: DHS-issued document proving that an individual is indeed a U.S. citizen by birth or derivation and not by naturalization.

Certificate of Naturalization: DHS-issued document proving that an individual became a U.S. citizen (was naturalized) after immigrating to the U.S.

Change of Status: Transitioning from one nonimmigrant status to another while in the U.S. is permitted for certain types of visas, subject to approval by the USCIS. Requests must be submitted to the USCIS by the visa holder. To learn more about changing one's status, see Extend Your Stay at the USCIS Website.

Charge/Chargeable: When applying for immigrant status, there are limits on the number of immigrant visas granted to noncitizens from any foreign country. To be charged means to be counted towards a country's limit. For example, an immigrant born in Guatemala is charged to Guatemala and thus counted towards that country's numerical visa limit. An immigrant sometimes may charge to another country other than their country of birth for immigration purposes. See the U.S. Dept. of State's Foreign Affairs Manual for more information.

Child: For the purposes of immigration law, a child is an unmarried person under the age of 21. For stepchildren, the marriage between the U.S. citizen and the parent must have taken place when the child was 16 or younger and the child must have lived with and been in legal custody of the parent for two years. An orphan who has either been adopted abroad by a U.S. citizen or has the U.S. citizen parent file an immediate relative petition to take the orphan to the U.S. may qualify as a child.

Common-law marriage: A marriage agreement in the absence of a religious or civil wedding ceremony. For immigration purposes, it may not be recognized as a marriage.

Conditional residence visa: A visa granted to the spouse of a lawful permanent resident (LPR) or a green card holder if the couple has been married for less than two years when the green card was issued. The conditional status must be removed after two years with the DHS. The EB5 or T5/C5 visa, referred to as an investor visa, also is a conditional residence.

Current/non-current: There are limits on the number of immigrant visas granted to noncitizens from any single foreign country, which is the same for all countries (based on place of birth, non-citizenship). Because of these limits, the granting of an immigrant visa is subject to waiting times. To be current means the date of a visa application is before the cut-off date in accordance with the Visa Bulletin. See the Visa Bulletin at the U.S. Dept. of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs website for more information about cut-off dates.

Cut-off Date: This is the date that determines when an immigrant visa applicant may be scheduled for a visa interview in a given month. See the Visa Bulletin at the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs website for more information about cut-off dates.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS): DHS comprises the USCIS, CBP, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These agencies regulate the flow of immigrants, visitors, and U.S. workers.

Department of Labor/DOL: Cabinet-level agency in the U.S. government that oversees all labor-related matters, including whether or not foreign workers can work in the U.S.

Derivative Status: An individual who gets a visa (status) through another applicant is said to have derivative status. For example, an H-1B visa holder's spouse and children would be granted derivative status.

Diversity Visa/DV Program: Under this program, as many as 55,000 immigrants may enter the U.S. annually from countries that have low rates of immigration to the country. The U.S. Dept. of State has more information about the Diversity Visa Program.

Documentarily Qualified: An applicant who has returned Form DS 2001 to the visa-issuing post or has notified the post that they have all of the required immigrant visa application documents is said to be documentarily qualified.

Domicile: An individual's primary place of residence. Applicant must intend to keep that residence for the foreseeable future. An immigrant visa applicant's sponsor must have a domicile in the U.S. for the visa to be issued.

Duration of Status: Some visa categories, including diplomats and students, allow visa holders to stay in the U.S. for as long as it takes to complete a given activity. For example, a student might need more than four years to complete a degree program. As opposed to admission into the country for a specific period of time, such visa holders are admitted for the duration of status. This is typically the case with student visa holders, who may need more than four years to complete a degree.

Exchange Visitor: A foreign national who travels to the U.S. to participate in an educational, training, or otherwise authorized exchange visitor program. See the Bureau of Consular Affairs Website to learn about exchange visitor visas and the Exchange Visitor Program.

Family First Preference: A family immigration category (F1) for unmarried sons and daughters (21 years of age or older) of U.S. citizens.

Family Second Preference: A family immigration category (F2) for spouses and unmarried sons and daughters of lawful permanent residents (those with green cards).

Family Third Preference: A family immigration category (F3) for the married children of U.S. citizens, including their spouses and children. This was known as the Fourth Preference (P-4) before 1992.

Family Fourth Preference: A family immigration category (F4) for the siblings of U.S. citizens, including their spouses and children. The U.S. citizen must be 21 years old before he or she may file a petition. This was known as the Fifth Preference (P-5) prior to 1992.

Federal Poverty Guidelines: Published by the Dept. of Health and Human Services annually, these guidelines establish the minimum income for families of a given size to be considered living at or above the poverty level. This is used to determine whether or not a visa applicant's sponsor has the means to support a new immigrant. See the USCIS' Poverty Guidelines page for details.

Fiscal Year: For the U.S. government, the fiscal year, or budget year, begins on Oct. 1 and ends on September 30 the following year.

Following to Join: Type of derivative visa status in which a family member receives a visa after the principal applicant.

Full and Final Adoption: Legal adoption that grants the child all the rights of a natural-born child.

Green card: Also known as a permanent resident card or I-551. This is a wallet-sized card indicating permanent resident status. The card was once green in color, hence the name.

Homeless: Foreign nationals whose country of origin does not have a U.S. embassy or consulate are said to be homeless.

Immediate Relative: For immigration purposes, a spouse, widow, or widower; unmarried children under the age of 21 and, if the U.S. citizen is 21 years old, a parent.

Immigrant Visa (IV): This is for individuals who plan to live in the country permanently and/or indefinitely, as opposed to a visitor or employment-based visa, which is typically for a set period of time.

Immigration and Nationality Act (INA): Public Law No. 82-414 was created in 1952 and consisted of the basic framework for U.S. immigration law.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS): A now-defunct branch of the Department of Justice (DOJ), the INS was renamed as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) and folded into the DHS.

Ineligibility: Individuals who are prevented from entering the U.S. based on specific actions or conditions are said to be ineligible for entry. Such conditions and actions are referred to as ineligibilities. Examples include suspicion of terrorism, fraud charges, and having active tuberculosis. For specifics, see Ineligibilties and Waivers on the U.S. Dept. of State Website.

In status: Individuals who follow specific requirements as visa holders are said to be in status. Meanwhile, those who fail to meet these requirements are considered out of status and can result in deportation or removal proceedings.

Joint Sponsor: A U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident over 18 who accepts legal responsibility in support of an immigrant applying for a visa. To qualify, joint sponsors must complete an Affidavit of Support (Form I-864) and meet the 125 percent income requirement, based on the federal poverty level.

Jurisdiction: This is the authority to apply the law in a particular region. The INS district office in Los Angeles, for example, has the jurisdiction to handle a family-based petition filed by an individual living in the Los Angeles area. Some immigration matters fall under the specific jurisdiction of a law enforcement agency in every state.

Kentucky Consular Center (KCC): A facility in Williamsburg, Kentucky, operated by the U.S. Dept. of State, which manages the Diversity Visa (DV) Program and supports the worldwide affairs of the Bureau of Consular Affairs Visa Office.

Labor Certification: First step in the process of getting permission to work in the U.S. as a foreign national. It is the employer's responsibility to obtain a labor certification from the Department of Labor. The labor certification ensures that U.S. workers have legal rights and legal status to work for a U.S. employer.

Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR): An individual who is not a U.S. citizen but has immigrated legally and possesses a Permanent Resident Card (also called a green card or Form I-551). These individuals have undergone immigration reviews and were given immigration benefits such as work permits and lawful permanent residency in the United States.

Lay Worker: Someone who works for an organization affiliated with a religion but who is not a member of the clergy.

Legitimation: A legal process by which a father formally acknowledges his children born outside marriage. An illegitimate child must be legitimized to be considered a child for immigration law purposes.

LIFE Act: The Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act allows foreign spouses of U.S. citizens and their children, plus the spouses and children of some lawful permanent residents, to enter the U.S. to complete permanent residence processing. The LIFE Act took effect in 2000.

Local Educational Agency (LEA): The term, which refers to a school or school district, is used for deciding the tuition charges for students with F-1 visas. F-1 visas are given to adults or minor children who want to pursue studies in the United States.

Lose status: To become "out of status" with respect to one's permission to stay in the U.S. Reasons people lose status include overstaying one's visa, staying in the U.S. after the visa's expiration date, or failing to comply with the terms of the visa. This could lead to inadmissibility for future visa applications.

Machine Readable Passport (MRP): A passport with certain biographical information required for traveling with a visa on the Visa Waiver Program (U.S. Dept. of State). The issuance of MRP makes the visa application much faster.

Machine Readable Visa (MRV): Visa with biometric information about the passport holder, such as fingerprints, read with special machines upon entry to the U.S.

Means-Tested Public Benefits: Government assistance such as Medicaid and food stamps. The Immigration Reform and Control Act added some restrictions on these benefits for certain noncitizens.

NAFTA: North American Free-Trade Agreement. The Agreement contains provisions on the issuance of TN visas to professional workers from Mexico and Canada. This allows Canadian and Mexican professionals to enter the U.S. for business temporarily.

National Interest Waiver: For physicians working in Veterans Affairs facilities or areas lacking adequate health care. Eligible physicians may file visa petitions without applying for a labor certification first.

National Visa Center (NVC): Dept. of State facility in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, processes immigrant visa petitions from the DHS for individuals who apply at embassies and consulates overseas. See the NVC's Website for details.

Native: Anyone who was born in a particular country is a native of that country.

Naturalization: The legal process by which a foreign national becomes a citizen of a country where they were not born. The continuous amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act shape the current naturalization process.

Nonimmigrant Visa (NIV): Visas obtained by U.S. visitors for a purpose other than permanent residence, such as tourists and students. NIV documents could also include visas given for specific purposes. For instance, artists, coaches, athletes, or entertainers are given NIV.

Notice of Action: An official document (Form I-797) declaring that the USCIS has either received a submitted petition, taken action, approved, or denied a petition.

Orphan: A child without parents due to death, abandonment, or disappearance. Adoptive parents must use Form I-600 to petition for an orphan.

Out of Status: A visa holder is considered out of status if they overstay the visa, disregard the visa's requirements, or engage in prohibited activities.

Overstay: Staying in the U.S. longer than is permitted, as shown on the Arrival/Departure (I-94) card.

Panel Physician: A physician selected by a given visa-issuing embassy or consulate to conduct medical examinations for immigrant visa applicants.

Port of Entry: The place where an individual requests entry into the country, such as airports, border crossings, etc.

Post: A U.S. embassy, consulate, or similar diplomatic mission outside of the U.S.

Poverty Guidelines: Published by the Dept. of Health and Human Services annually, these guidelines establish the minimum income for families of a given size to be considered living at or above the poverty level. This is used to determine whether or not a visa applicant's sponsor has the means to support a new immigrant. See the USCIS' Poverty Guidelines page for details.

Preference Immigration: A system for determining which and when people can immigrate to the United States within the limits of immigration set by Congress. In family, immigration preference is based on the status of the petitioner (American citizen or lawful permanent resident) and their relationship to the applicant. In employment, immigration is based on the qualifications of the applicant and labor needs in the United States.

Principal Applicant: The individual named in a petition. Family members of principal applicants get derivative status.

Priority Date: This determines an individual's turn to apply for a visa.

Public Charge: Someone dependent upon the government for basic living expenses like food and shelter. Applicants who become public charges are ineligible for a visa.

Qualifying date: Date used by the U.S. Dept. of State for determining when to send an immigrant visa applicant their Instruction Package.

Rank Order Number: Number given to entries in the Diversity Visa Program as selected by the computer. Winning entries are allowed to apply for immigration in order of their rank order number.

Receipt Notice: DHS Form I-797 (Notice of Action), indicates that the agency has received the petition.

Re-entry Permit: Document issued by the DHS to lawful permanent citizens who plan to live outside the U.S. between one and two years. Visas to foreign countries can be added to a re-entry permit.

Refugee: A foreign national who has a legitimate fear of being persecuted in their home country upon return. The individual applies for a visa to the U.S. in another country and enters the U.S. as a refugee.

Retrogression: This occurs when an immigration case that is current one month becomes non-current the next, typically when the numerical limit for a particular type of visa is reached. This often happens near the end of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

Returning Residents: Lawful permanent residents returning to the U.S. after living in another country for more than a year or beyond the expiration of a re-entry permit.

Revalidation/Renewal of Visa: Nonimmigrant applicants who currently possess a visa and want to revalidate or renew their visa for travel to the U.S. must do so in their country of residence. Exceptions: A, G, and NATO diplomatic and official visas (excluding A-3, G-5 and NATO-7).

Revocation of a Visa: Cancellation, meaning the visa is no longer valid for travel to the U.S..

Schedule "A" Occupations: Occupations for which the DOL has given the USCIS authority to approve labor certifications. They include physical therapists, nurses, and people determined to have "exceptional ability" in the arts or sciences.

Section 213A: A section of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) states that sponsors are legally responsible for supporting immigrants they want to bring to the U.S. Sponsors must complete an Affidavit of Support (Form I-864 ).

Son/Daughter: A child is considered a son or daughter, for the purposes of immigration law, upon their 21st birthday or marriage. Also, the individual must have once met the immigration law definition of a child.

Special Agricultural Worker (SAW): Agricultural workers (in perishable products) who could adjust their status as lawful permanent residents after working for a specified period.

Special Immigrant: Immigrant visa category for individuals who lost their citizenship through marriage or service in foreign armed forces; certain graduates of foreign medical schools; immigrants from the Panama Canal Zone; and others.

Sponsor: An individual who submits a petition for an immigration visa or an affidavit of support (Form I-864).

Sponsored Immigrant: An immigrant applying for a visa for whom an affidavit of support has been filed.

Spouse: A legally married partner (does not include a cohabitating partner; may or may not include a common-law spouse).

State Workforce Agency: Entity in each state that handles employment and labor matters.

Surviving Parent: The living parent, if not remarried, when a child's other parent is no longer living.

Temporary Worker: Foreign national who works in the U.S. for a specified period of time. Visas for temporary workers include H, L, O, P, Q, and R. For those seeking to come to the U.S. as temporary workers, their prospective employer is required to file a petition with the USCIS. This petition must be approved before a visa application may be filed.

Termination of a Case: A visa application case will be terminated if the applicant does not reply to inquiries sent by their embassy or consulate. Before the termination of a case, though, applicants are sent a follow-up letter. A termination letter is sent if the applicant fails to respond within one year.

Third Country National: Individuals who are neither U.S. citizens nor a citizen of the country in which they are applying for a visa. For example, you are considered a third-country national if you are a Russian citizen applying to visit the U.S. while in Costa Rica.

Upgrade a Petition: You may request an upgrade to your visa petition if you become a U.S. citizen to change the status of family members. For example, a petition for a spouse would be upgraded, and the applicant would no longer have to wait for their priority date. While an immediate relative petition is favorable for a spouse, it does not permit derivative status to children.

Visa: An authorization for foreign nationals who are not legal permanent residents to enter the U.S. Immigration law dictates the type of visa noncitizen visitors must obtain based on the reason for the visit, duration, and other factors. Visa applicants apply overseas, usually in their country of residence.

Visa Numbers: The Visa Office issues visas according to preference and priority date, which are reflected in the visa number.

Visa Waiver Program (VWP): Citizens of countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) who meet the program's requirements may enter the U.S. for up to 90 days for business or pleasure without obtaining a visa.

Voluntary Service Program: Participants in voluntary service programs, projects organized by nonprofit or religious organizations to provide assistance to the poor or needy, may qualify for B visas.

Waiver of Ineligibility: Despite certain ineligibilities, such as criminal activity or medical conditions, some such applicants still may apply for permission to enter the U.S. This special permission is called a waiver of ineligibility.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help you with visa procedures.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select
Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options