F-1 Student Visa

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Under U.S. immigration laws, a foreign student can enter the United States as a full-time student at an accredited college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic high school, elementary school, or other academic institution or in a language training program. You must be enrolled in a program or course of study that culminates in a degree, diploma, or certificate and your school must be authorized by the U.S. government to accept international students. Schools can obtain authorization from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to admit a foreign student and to issue documentation allowing the student to obtain F-1 nonimmigrant visa classification. Dependents are allowed to accompany students in F-2 visa classification.

A foreign student in F-1 classification may stay in the United States for extended periods of time to complete degrees or other academic goals, and, under certain circumstances, may be allowed to work in the United States.


F-1 is a student non-immigrant visa that is the most common type of visa for non-U.S. citizens who wish to engage in academic studies in the United States. Generally, you can apply for an F-1 visa if you wish to attend an accredited academic institution in the United States, such as a university, college, high school, private elementary school, seminary, conservatory or other academic institutions, including a language training program.

You will also need a student visa if you are traveling to the U.S. to attend seminars, conferences or a program of study for academic credit. If you are going to the U.S. primarily for tourism, but want to take a short course of study that is recreational, and the course is less than 18 hours per week, you may be able to do so on a visitor (B) visa. However, if your course of study is 18 hours or more a week, you will need a student visa.


If you want to study in the United States, the first step you will need to take is applying to a school. The school you are applying to must be a participant of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) and be approved by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is designed to help the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of State (DOS) better monitor school and exchange programs as well as visitors who hold F, M and J category visas. Exchange visitor and student information is maintained in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS is an Internet-based system that maintains accurate and current information on non-immigrant students (F and M visa holders), exchange visitors (J visa holders), and their dependents (F-2, M-2, and J-2 visa holders). SEVIS enables schools and program sponsors to transmit mandatory information and event notifications over the Internet, to the DHS and Department of State throughout a student or exchange visitor’s stay in the United States.

Application Process

Once you have been accepted to a SEVP school, you will need to obtain Form I-20 from your school in order to prove the record of your information in the SEVIS database. You will need to submit Form I-20 when you are applying for your student visa. F-1 principal applicants also need to pay a SEVIS I-901 fee to the DHS. Once you have completed these steps, you can apply for F-1 visa at any American Embassy or Consulate.

If you are 14 through 79 years old, you will be scheduled to arrive for an interview at the embassy consular section. Applicants who are under 13 and older than 80 years of age usually are not required to have an interview, unless specifically requested by embassy or consulate. Because waiting time for an interview appointment for applicants can vary, it is important to apply for a visa in advance.

How to Qualify

During your interview at an Embassy or Consulate, the consular officer will determine whether you qualify for the visa. Usually, applicants must demonstrate that they properly meet student visa requirements, including:

• Have a residence abroad, with no immediate intention of abandoning that residence;
• Intend to depart from the United States upon completion of the course of study;
• Possess sufficient funds to pursue the proposed course of study.

Required Documentation

In order to obtain F-1 student visa, you will need to submit the following forms and documentation:

• Form I-20A-B, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status; and SEVIS generated Form, I-20, provided to you by your school and signed by you and your school official;
• Online Nonimmigrant Visa Electronic Application, Form DS-160;
• Passport valid for travel to the United States and with validity date at least six months beyond your intended period of stay in the United States (unless country-specific agreements provide exemptions). If more than one person is included in the passport, each person desiring a visa must complete an application;
• One (1) 2×2 photograph;
• Fee receipt to show payment of the visa application fee;
• SEVIS I-901 fee receipt.

Applicants with dependents must also provide:

• Proof of the student’s relationship to his/her spouse and/or children (e.g., marriage and birth certificates);
• If the spouse and children apply separately at a later time (although it is preferred that the principal applicant and his or her dependents apply at the same time), they should bring a copy of the student visa holder’s passport and visa, along with all other required documents.

All applicants should also be prepared to provide:

• Transcripts and diplomas from previous institutions attended;
• Scores from standardized tests required by the educational institution such as the TOEFL, SAT, GRE, GMAT, etc.;
• Financial evidence showing that you (or your parents who are sponsoring you) have sufficient funds to cover your tuition and living expenses during the period of your intended study. For example, if you or your sponsor is a salaried employee, you should bring income tax documents and bank statements. If you or your sponsor owns a business, you should bring business registration, licenses, tax documents, etc., as well as original bank statements.

Entering the United States

Please be advised of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regulation which requires that all initial or beginning students enter the United States 30 days or less in advance of the course of study start/report date as shown on the Form I-20. Please consider this date carefully when making travel plans to the U.S. If you want to arrive in the United States earlier – more than 30 days prior to the course start date – you will need to obtain a visitor visa and then make all necessary changes in your status before you can begin your studies.

If you are a continuing student, you can apply for a new visa at any time, as long as you have been maintaining student status and your SEVIS records are current. As a continuing student, you can also enter the U.S. at any time before your classes start.

When you enter the United States, the authorized duration of your stay is determined by the specified end date on your Arrival-Departure Record, Form I-94. Staying beyond the period of time authorized by the DHS causes you to be out-of-status in the United States, which is a violation of U.S. immigration laws. This may cause you to be ineligible for U.S. visas in the future.

Student Status

When you enter the United States on a student visa, you will usually be admitted for the duration of your student status (often abbreviated in your passport or on your I-94 card as “D/S”). That means you may stay as long as you are a full time student, even if the F-1 visa in your passport expires while you are in the United States. For a student who has completed the course of studies shown on the I-20, and any authorized practical training, the student is allowed the following additional time in the U.S. before departure:

• F-1 student – An additional 60 days, to prepare for departure from the U.S. or to transfer to another school;
• M-1 student – An additional 30 days to depart the U.S. (Fixed time period, in total not to exceed one year). The 30 days to prepare for departure is permitted as long as the student maintained a full course of study and maintained status. An M student may receive extensions up to three years for the total program.

For example, if you have a visa that is valid for five years and expires on January 1, 2012, and you are admitted into the U.S. for the duration of your studies, you may stay in the U.S. as long as you are a full time student. Even if January 1, 2012 passes and your visa expires while you are in the U.S., you will still be in legal student status. However, if you depart the United States with an expired visa, you will need to obtain a new one, applying at an Embassy abroad, before being able to return to the U.S. and resume your studies.

Break in Studies

Students in or outside the United States who have been away from classes for more than five months will likely need a new visa to enter the United States.

Under immigration law, a student who is in the United States on F-1 or M-1 visa may lose that status if they do not resume studies within five months of the date of transferring schools or programs. If a student loses status, the student’s F or M visa would also be invalid for future return to the U.S. after travel, unless USCIS reinstates the student’s status. If you have lost your student status, you will need to request reinstatement of status by filing Form I-539 – Application for Extend/Change of Nonimmigrant Status.

Students who leave the U.S. for a break in studies of five months or more may lose their F-1 or M-1 status unless their activities overseas are related to their course of study. If you are leaving the U.S. for more than five months and you are not sure whether your activity outside the United States is related to your course of study, please check with your designated school official before leaving the United States.

If you are traveling to the United States to return to your studies after an absence of more than five months that is not related to your course of study, you will need to apply for a new visa at an embassy or consulate abroad before leaving for the United States. Otherwise, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) immigration inspector at port of entry may find you inadmissible for not possessing a valid nonimmigrant visa.

Extending or Changing Your Status

Students who wish to stay beyond the date indicated on their Form I-94 are required to have approval by USCIS. You must file a request with USCIS on the Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status before your authorized stay expires. If you remain in the United States longer than authorized without the approval of the USCIS, you may be barred from returning and/or you may be deported from the United States. The USCIS recommends that you apply to extend your stay at least 45 days before your authorized stay expires.

You may apply to extend your stay if:

• You were lawfully admitted into the United States with a nonimmigrant visa;
• Your nonimmigrant visa status remains valid;
• You have not committed any crimes that make you ineligible for a visa;
• You have not violated the conditions of your admission;
• Your passport is valid and will remain valid for the duration of your stay.

If you want to change the purpose of your visit to the United States while you are present in the country, you must file a request with USCIS on the appropriate form before your authorized stay expires. The USCIS recommends that you apply as soon as you determine that you need to change to a different nonimmigrant category. Until you receive approval from USCIS, you should not assume the status has been approved, and you should not change your activity in the United States. If you fail to maintain your nonimmigrant status, you may be barred from returning to and/or removed (deported) from the United States.

According to the USCIS, you may apply to change your nonimmigrant status if:

• You were lawfully admitted to the United States with a nonimmigrant visa;
• Your nonimmigrant status remains valid;
• You have not violated the conditions of your status;
• You have not committed any crimes that would make you ineligible.

The USCIS does not allow some individuals to change their nonimmigrant status if they were admitted to the United States in certain categories. For example, if you are a vocational student (M-1), you may not apply to change your status to:

• Academic student (F-1);
• Any H status (Temporary worker), if the training you received as a vocational student in the United States provided the qualifications for the temporary worker position you seek.

On the other hand, you do not need to apply to change your nonimmigrant status if you wish to attend school in the United States, and you are the spouse or child of an academic (F visa) or vocational (M visa) student. In that case, you may attend elementary, middle or high school; however, if you want to attend post-secondary school full-time, you must apply for a change of status.

Employment Opportunities

On-campus employment

F-1 students may be employed on campus as long as the student works no more than 20 hours a week while school is in session. Students may be employed full-time during vacations and recess periods as long as they intend to register for the next term. On campus employment means employment performed on the premises of the school or at an affiliated off-site location. It includes a type of employment normally performed by students, such as work in the school library, cafeterias, or a student store, or employment that is part of a student’s scholarship, fellowship, or assistantship.

Off-campus cooperative programs and internships

Cooperative (or co-op) training programs and paid internships (called “circular practical training”) are work-study programs that are part of or related to a student’s degree. A student cannot qualify for curricular practical training until he or she has completed nine months of study or is enrolled in graduate studies that require immediate participation in curricular practical training. Curricular practical training can be either part-time or full-time. Once students work in full-time curricular practical training for 12 months or longer, they will be ineligible for post-completion practical training at that academic level.

Pre-completion training

Off-campus pre-completion practical training in a field related to studies is permitted for F-1 students as long as the work is no more than 20 hours a week while school is in session. Full-time employment under this category is allowed during vacations and recess periods as long as the student intends to register for the next term. Time spent in pre-completion practical training will be deducted from the 12 months full-time employment available for post-completion practical training at that academic level.

Employment authorization based on severe economic hardship

Where unforeseen circumstances lead to a change in the student’s economic situation, the student may apply for permission to work off-campus in any job of the student’s choice for 20 hours per week and full-time when school is not in session. Employment based on necessity is not deducted from time allowed for post-completion practical training, but the student must have completed one academic year in F-1 status to qualify. The student must be in good academic standing.

Internship with an international organization

Student in F-1 status may be granted employment authorization to work for an “international organization” that is recognized under the International Organization Immunities Act.

Post-completion optional practical training (OPT)

An F-1 student is eligible for up to one year of post-completion practical training. However, students who have received one year or more of full-time curricular practical training are ineligible for post-completion practical training. Time spent in pre-completion practical training is deducted from the 12-month maximum. Authorization for post-completion practical training may be granted for a maximum of 12 months and takes effect only after the student has graduated or completed a course of study. In any event, practical training must be completed within a 14-month period following the completion of studies. An F-1 student may be authorized to engage in post-completion practical training after each higher educational level.


An F-1 student’s dependent spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 may be granted F-2 status. These F-2 dependents may not be employed while in the United States. Moreover, F-2 spouses are prohibited from engaging in full-time studies at any level. A dependent child in F-2 status, on the other hand, may attend primary and secondary schools full-time, but may not (without changing from F-2 to F-1 status) proceed to any post-secondary schooling on a full-time basis.

Application procedures

All categories of employment for F-1 students require a prior approval of the college or university’s international advisor. Additionally, students seeking pre- or post- completion practical training, hardship-based employment, or an internship with an international organization need to apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a work permit by submitting a Form I-765, along with a fee, and an I-20 endorsed by the school within 30 days prior to applying. The student may work only after USCIS issues the work permit. When applying for post-completion OPT, the application must be submitted to USCIS before completion of studies.

Attorneys at I.S. Law Firm have helped many international students to obtain, extend or change their F-1 status. To learn more about our services and for consultation please contact us at (703) 527-1779 or via e-mail:law@islawfirm.com.

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