What to do if you're stuck because of COVID-19 and your visa is expiring

*If your legal stay in the United States is expiring and you can’t leave because of COVID-19, this may be impossible.

Do not just ignore your deadline and plan to tell them afterward. This is illegal. Obviously in a global emergency, a sane government would let this slide, but the United States government is kind of crazy right now. There’s no telling what they might try to do. At the very least, having been an “illegal immigrant” will make it harder to come back into the country if you ever want to.

If you came to the U.S. with a visa, file a form I-539 (visa extension) here. Do this before your authorized stay expires.

If you need any kind of publicly-funded benefits—a lot of people do in the middle of the global emergency—file the visa extension before you apply for those. They ask whether you are receiving any public benefits and you want to be able to say no. For Medicaid (depending on why you needed Medicaid) it might matter whether you ever applied; for every other benefit they they ask whether you are receiving it.

You can file online here or sign and mail it to addresses listed here. There is a $370 filing fee and an $85 biometric services fee. You can send a fee waiver application based on financial hardship for the biometric services fee. You can’t get a fee waiver for the visa extension itself unless you are a trafficking victim or a foreign investor.

If you came to the U.S. under the ESTA visa waiver program, then you don’t have a visa to extend. You need to apply for “Satisfactory Departure,” where you tell Customs and Immigration Services that you were unable to leave and that you will when you can. Do this before your authorized stay expires.

There is no single procedure for this. It depends on where you were planning to leave from. Find the contact information for the USCIS office at your port of entry here. Call them and wait on hold for a very long time. That directory will list a lot of phone numbers. You want the Deferred Inspection Unit or if not that, anything that sounds like it’s for immigration problems.

Depending on which office, the application may have to be submitted close to the time your authorized stay expires. Like within a few days of when you’re required to leave. Expect it to involve proving that you entered the country legally, with ESTA approval or a passport stamp. Some USCIS offices will want proof that you were unable to leave. You may need to show a canceled airline itinerary. If they are especially perverse, you may have to prove you can afford a replacement ticket.

Most USCIS offices will let you send the application by email. Two offices (Albuquerque and Raleigh) are still requiring in-person applications. If you are unlucky enough to need an emergency appointment, contact the USCIS contact center.

More Information

All this is true as of late March/early April, but it is changing quickly. If you need more information, Google “Covid satisfactory departure.” Whatever you find may be more up to date.

Links that are still useful as of early April:

USCIS response to coronavirus

A law firm’s description of visa waiver difficulties

Update May 26: This is still mostly true. USCIS does say they may be flexible if you file an extension after the deadline, which is good. (Their page last updated May 1.) Staying without an extension is still illegal, but they might make exceptions. This is in their discretion. That means you should not count on it. Still file early if you can.

If you came in under the ESTA program, you still need to apply for Satisfactory Departure. Your ports of departure may have changed their procedures and hopefully aren’t requiring anything in person.

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