Image of chandelier light


Stay up-to-date on the latest immigration law news, with the Cohen & Tucker team's insights behind the headlines

What Is the Difference Between a Visa and Form I-94?

What Is a Visa? What is an I-94?

U.S. Visa

If you’re planning a trip to the United States, it’s important to know which forms to file with U.S. immigration agencies to make your arrival documented. There are many pathways for documented entry into the United States, and most of them require you to file a special form and seek approval before your arrival. 

So, what is the difference between a visa and I-94 form? Here’s what you need to understand before your trip.

What Is a Visa?

A visa is proof of special clearance that shows you’ve been approved to enter the country for a specific purpose. There are many types of visas you may need to choose from based on the purpose of your trip. 

If the U.S. Department of State finds you eligible for the visa, you’ll be granted that visa. Visas are only valid for a specific period of time. The visa will contain a date of issue and a date of expiry. You may use the visa to enter the U.S. up until it expires. 

Travelers are required to present their visa when traveling to the United States. A visa doesn’t guarantee entry at the border, but it proves to immigration officers that you’ve sought proper permission to enter.

What Is Form I-94?

The Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record is an official form that shows your most recent entry into the U.S. It includes information such as your name, country of citizenship, date of entry, and date your authorized stay expires. 

In most cases, Form I-94 is automatically generated on your behalf. Any time you enter or exit the country, officers at ports of entry will automatically update your record. Only certain people entering and exiting through a land border will need to make special stops or take extra consideration to ensure that their Form I-94 is updated accurately. 

What Is the Difference Between a Visa and Form I-94?

As explained above, a visa serves as proof that you were given prior authorization to enter the United States for a specific purpose. It doesn’t prove that you actually entered or that you ever left. 

Form I-94 shows when you entered the country and how long you are authorized to stay. Your visa and form I-94 are designed to complement and supplement each other. The information that isn’t readily available by looking at one of them will be readily available by looking at the other. They work together to create a complete picture of your immigration and travel history.

What Is the Difference Between Form I-94 and Form I-94W?

Form I-94W Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Record serves the same purpose as an I-94, but it’s used by people who visited from countries that participate in the United States non-immigrant visa waiver program

Some people who intend to temporarily visit the United States don’t need a visa to enter the country. They’re allowed to enter on good faith with their passport. They’ll still receive their own version of a Form I-94, called the I-94W, to track their arrivals and departures.

Although these forms are technically different, the terms are used interchangeably. Since the forms will serve the same official purpose, it’s best to assume immigration authorities will want copies of both records if they ask for your travel record documents.

Why Do You Need Form I-94?

Form I-94 is important when you have an open case with USCIS. If you’re applying for a change of status, extension of status, or adjustment of status, USCIS wants to consider many factors before they agree to approve the petition. Similarly, if you are applying for a nonimmigrant visa or immigrant visa through a U.S. Embassy or Consulate, they will want to verify prior compliance with the terms of your previously issued visa(s) and prior admission(s). 

If you’ve overstayed your authorized stay in the past and you didn’t have a legitimate reason (I.E. being granted Temporary Protected Status because it was unsafe for you to return home or being locked down in the United States when the COVID-19 travel pause happened), immigration institutions may find you to be less trustworthy. They know that they’ve given you permission to visit or work in the United States, and they have evidence that you didn’t abide by the terms of that visit. Your prior overstay may also statutorily bar you from other immigration benefits. 

Do You Already Have a Form I-94?

If you’ve entered and exited the United States through the proper channels, you have a Form I-94, although the form won’t be in your possession. If you’re beginning an immigration process that requires you to provide your form I-94, you’ll have to request a copy. Schools, employers, and some government offices may also request an official copy of your Form I-94. 

You can request a copy of your Form I-94 through the I-94 website or through the CBP One mobile app. The copies you view online are official copies of your documents. They contain specific number codes that people can use to verify that the document is legitimate. You can print a copy and present it whenever you’re required to verify your arrivals and departures.

Do You Need Help With Your Visa or a Form I-94 Conflict?

If your Form I-94 shows that you departed the United States after your visa expired, you can face difficulties obtaining future immigration benefits. It’s important to have the help of an experienced immigration attorney if your Form I-94 doesn’t match the dates on your visa or ESTA authorization. 

The Cohen, Tucker + Ades immigration law team has experience successfully assisting applicants for immigration benefits in this scenario. Contact us for a consultation regarding your case.


Directory of Visa Categories | US Department of State | Bureau of Consular Affairs

700120 – CBP Form I-94W ENG (1216) – FINAL (SAMPLE) | Customs and Border Protection

Visa Waiver Program | US Department of State | Bureau of Consular Affairs

I-94 | Customs and Border Protection | Department of Homeland Security


Not sure which option is right for you? Request a confidential consultation today.