As with all nonimmigrant classifications, the most important element in obtaining an F-1 visa is the demonstration of nonimmigrant intent. The student must maintain a home abroad that they have no intention of abandoning. The student must be coming to the US to pursue a full course of academic study, and must demonstrate that they possess the financial resources to allow them to study without the need to engage in unauthorized employment. The prospective student must also show that they have been accepted by a US school accredited by the USCIS.

Step 1: Find a School

A prospective student must first identify a school that is qualified to sponsor a student for a visa. A school that wishes to have foreign students enroll must first make an application with USCIS. For a school to become qualified to participate in the F-1 process, it must 1) demonstrate that it is a legitimate educational institution, 2) appoint a designated school official (DSO) who will sign all necessary forms, 3) institute a record keeping and reporting system satisfactory to USCIS.

Step 2: Get an I-20

For a foreign student to obtain F-1 status they must first receive a Form I-20 issued by the school that provides information about the school and the student. Before the school can issue an I-20 the following conditions must be met:

  • The student must have made a written application to the school
  • The school must have received the student’s academic record and evidence of financial support
  • The student must meet the school’s qualifications for admission, including any English language proficiency
  • The student must have been accepted by the school

Step 3: Apply for a Visa at a US Consulate

After the school issues the I-20, it sends it to the student abroad, who then applies for a visa at their local US consulate. To make the visa application the student must present the I-20, their passport, the necessary visa fee (which varies from location to location), Form OF-156 Application for a Nonimmigrant Visa, documentation of sufficient ties to the home country and evidence of financial support. Unless there are unusual circumstances, the visa will generally be issued on the day the application is submitted, or only a few days afterward.

A prospective student who has not yet decided on a school can request a B-2 prospective student visa, and once in the US they can seek F-1 status. Note, however, that if a prospective student does not make his or her intentions clear at the time of applying for the visa and have the visa properly annotated, USCIS could very well deny the prospective student. Prospective students who enter the US on a tourist visa and do not mention the possibility that they may seek to attend school in the US are often deemed to have made their entry under false pretenses, regardless of the individual circumstances.

When the student seeks a change of status within the US, he of she submits an application for the change of status, the I-20, a copy of their passport, and evidence of financial support to USCIS. If USCIS approves the change of status, it mails one copy of the I-20 and an approval notice to the student. The other copy of the I-20 is sent to a USCIS processing center where they keep track of foreign students. After the information is collected, the I-20 is mailed to the school.

Step 4: Entering the US

After receiving the visa, the student makes an application for admission at a US port of entry. The student must present their passport, visa, evidence of support and the I-20. If admission is granted, USCIS will keep one copy of the I-20 and return the second to the student. The student is issued an I-94 Arrival/Departure Record that contains a unique control number. This number is noted on the I-20, and becomes a sort of permanent identifier. For example, if an F-1 student leaves the US, upon reentry they are given a new I-94. However, the number on it is crossed out and replaced with the initial number noted on the I-20.

Step 5: Maintaining Status

In light of the bars on admission created in 1996, and of the increased scrutiny of foreign students since the September 11th attacks, it is very important for the student to maintain their status while in the US. There are eight important things that must be done to maintain status:

  • Keep a valid passport at all times, unless otherwise exempt from the passport requirement
  • Attend the school authorized
  • Participate in a full course of study
  • Leave the US by the completion date shown on the I-20, or within a 60 day grace period, or request a program extension from the school’s designated student officer
  • If the student wants to change from one educational level to another (for example a bachelor’s program to a master’s) they must apply to the designated student officer
  • In most cases, work on campus for no more than 20 hours per week while school is in session
  • Not work off campus without USCIS authorization
  • Report any change in residence to USCIS within 10 days

When the foreign student transfers from one school to another, a notification procedure must be followed. The student must obtain a new I-20 from the new school and inform the designated student officer at the first school of their intent to transfer. After completing the new I-20 the student submits it to the designated student officer at the new school. This must be within 15 days of beginning class at the new school. The I-20 must be endorsed by the designated student officer of the new school who must then send a copy to the officer at the first school and to USCIS. This must be done within 30 days of receiving the I-20 from the student. USCIS will then return one copy of the I-20 to the student, and after collecting information, return the other copy to the new school.

Changing Educational Programs

If a foreign student changes educational programs within the same institution, a similar process is required. The student should obtain a new I-20 and within 15 days of beginning the new program, submit it to the school’s designated student officer. The officer should note on it that the student is changing from one program to another at the same institution, and submit it to USCIS within 30 days of receiving it from the student. Again, USCIS will return one copy of the I-20 to the student and the other to the school.

A change in educational program is not a change in major. Rather, it indicates that the student is pursuing an entirely new degree. If the student changes major, they will need a new I-20 before leaving the US, as the old one will no longer be accurate for reentry purposes. However, USCIS does not need to be notified of this change until the student applies for reentry.


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Disclaimer: This newsletter is provided as a public service and not intended to establish an attorney client relationship. Any reliance on information contained herein is taken at your own risk.

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