Many types of visas to the United States are temporary, with a date listed before which you must return to your home country. There are many situations in which you may over-stay your visa accidentally -- from family emergencies to simple oversights. In any case, should you find that you have overstayed your temporary visa, it is important to tread lightly. Follow these dos and don'ts to minimize your risk of criminal prosecution and other unwanted consequences.
Do: Make sure you have actually overstayed.
Some types of visas, such as student visas, do not have an actual departure date. Rather, they allow you to remain in the United States as long as you are fulfilling the requirements associated with that visa. For example, you may be issued a student visa with the acknowledgement that the visa is good for as long as you remain a student -- whether that be for the next year or five years. The date that is seen on such a visa is not the date by which you must leave the U.S. Rather, it is the last date that you could have used that visa to enter the U.S. Read your visa and the associated paperwork carefully to ensure the date you think is the visa's expiration date really is such.
Don't: Attempt to leave the U.S.
In some countries, your best bet when you have overstayed your visa is just to leave and hope that border patrol does not notice. This is a bad strategy in the U.S. where border patrol and immigration agents are very vigilant. Chances are, someone will notice that you overstayed your visa, and you will then be officially deported back to your home country--often resulting in a several-year ban from returning to the U.S.
Do: Contact an immigration attorney.
Rather than just leaving, contact an attorney that specializes in immigration law. Describe to them why you are still in the U.S. despite your visa having expired. They may be able to help you file paperwork to request an extension of the visa, even though you're doing so late. They may know if your reasons for overstaying your visa are ones that immigration officials are likely to overlook. Usually, family circumstances and medical hardships are overlooked, but only when these hardships are presented in a certain careful way to the authorities. Do not attempt to draft a letter requesting a late visa renewal yourself; your lawyer will know how to do this with the least chance of criminal charges.
Don't: Ignore letters or communications from the authorities.
If you get a letter or an email from the U.S. government, do not just ignore it and hope nothing comes of it. The penalties for overstaying your visa get worse the longer you over-stay and if you fail to respond to certain demands. Take the paperwork to your attorney. They can help you make sense of the government's requests and supply any necessary paperwork.
Do: Look into other visa options.
It's possible that you won't be able to renew the same type of visa you previously had. If you wish to remain in the U.S., your lawyer may recommend that you apply for a different type of visa this time around. Be open to this possibility, and do your research about other visa types that you may be eligible for considering your nationality and lifestyle. For example, if you were previously on a student visa that expired because you are no longer a student, you might consider getting a nanny job and applying for an au pair visa.
Overstaying your visa is a crime, but in most cases, an attorney can keep you from being penalized and help you find a way to stay in the U.S. if that is your goal.