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Federal Government Begins Allowing Electronic Travel Documents for Nonimmigrant Visitors

I-94_form_front.jpgU.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), began processing certain travel documents for nonimmigrant visitors electronically last year, and it recently made arrival and departure histories available online. CBP used to require all visitors to fill out a Form I-94 or I-94W, the Arrival/Departure Record, in paper format upon their arrival in the U.S. The agency hopes that electronic processing will improve efficiency and reduce costs. For individuals who are in the U.S. on an H-1B or L-1 visa, quick access to travel records may help them recapture time spent out of the country in order to extend their visas.

The I-94, in its paper form, was simply a two-part form (PDF file) with a section for “Arrival” and one for “Departure.” Upon arriving in the U.S., a nonimmigrant visitor would complete the “Arrival” section, which asks for the person’s name, country of citizenship, passport information, flight information, and contact information in the U.S. A CBP officer would review the form and give the final approval for admitting the person as a nonimmigrant visitor. Upon his or her departure from the U.S., the person would surrender the “Departure” section to a CBP officer in order to create a complete record of the person’s stay.

DHS expanded the definition of Form I-94, via a new rule published in the Federal Register in March 2013, to include an electronic format. Instead of requiring visitors to fill out the form when they arrive, DHS says that it can create an electronic version of the form with information obtained during the inspection by CBP officers, as well as information DHS already obtains from airlines, other carriers, and the Department of State. People who arrive at border points of entry by land, as opposed to air or sea, must still submit paper I-94’s. CBP says that it will continue using paper forms for refugees, asylees, and certain other classes.

People using the electronic I-94 system can obtain their I-94 numbers, which they may need to obtain a driver’s license and for other purposes, on the CBP website. They can also obtain a summary of their arrival and departure history via the website. Since any new computer system is prone to bugs and errors, nonimmigrant visitors should check their records on the website to confirm that everything is correct. A factsheet (PDF file) provided by CBP includes instructions on correcting errors in one’s records.

The new electronic system may be particularly helpful for people who are in the U.S. on H-1B or L-1 visas and want to “recapture” time spent outside of the U.S. An H-1B visa holder may not stay in the U.S. beyond six years, while the term is either five or seven years for L-1 visa holders. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1184(g)(4), 1184(c)(2)(D). A memo (PDF file) issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in October 2005 addresses how H-1B and L-1 visa holders can extend their visa’s expiration date by the length of time spent outside the country during the term of the visa. Electronic records have the potential to be far more precise and efficient than paper I-94’s and passport stamps, making it easier for visa holders to establish when they left and returned to the U.S.

Immigration lawyer Samuel C. Berger practices in the New York and New Jersey areas, representing individuals who wish to immigrate to this region through family or employment, people who want to bring a family member here, and businesses who are seeking to hire foreign workers. To schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our legal team, please contact us today online or at (212) 380-8117.

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Photo credit: By Alon at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.