Student Visas

There are three types of visas available to foreign national students who wish to study in the U.S. The F visa is for students who will study or conduct research at an accredited U.S. college or university. The M visa is for students who will study or train at a non-academic institution in the U.S. The J visa is for used for educational and cultural exchange programs and is discussed in its own article.

I. F-Academic Students and M-Vocational Students Requirements

Foreign students seeking to study in the U.S. may enter in the F-1 or M-1 category provided they meet the following criteria:

  • The student must be enrolled in an “academic” educational program, a language-training program, or a vocational program;
  • The school must be approved by USCIS/ICE in compliance with the SEVIS Program;
  • The student must be enrolled as a full-time student at the institution;
  • The student must be proficient in English or be enrolled in courses leading to English proficiency;
  • The student must have sufficient academic credentials to attend the particular institution or vocational program;
  • The student must have sufficient funds available for self-support during the entire proposed course of study; and
  • The student must intend to depart the U.S.

II. What is a “Full-Time” Student?

A full-time student is one who is “maintaining a full course of study”. The regulations regarding students define a “full course of study” as:

  1. Postgraduate study which is certified by the school as a full course of study;
  2. Undergraduate college or university – 12 semester/quarter hours if all undergrads are enrolled for 12 hours and charged full tuition or considered full-time;
  3. Post-secondary non-vocational (i.e., junior college or fine arts school) – 12 hours and credits must be accepted by at least 3 schools;
  4. Study in other language, liberal arts or fine arts non-vocational program – 18 hours in classroom or 22 hours if mostly in lab;

A. Online Classes

Only F-1 Students are allowed to take online classes and may only take a maximum of one class or three credits online. No online language programs are allowed.

B. Reduced Course Loads

F-1 students may reduce course loads below a full course of study when:

  • They have obtained permission from the Designated Student Official (“DSO”) and then, they may only reduce to a minimum of 6 semester/quarter hours or half the clock hours of a full course of study; or,
  • It is his/her final term to complete his/her studies.

M-1 Students are allowed to take a reduced course load only for medical reasons and only for a maximum aggregate of 5 months.

III. What is SEVIS and SEVP?

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is designed to help the USCIS and Department of State better monitor school and exchange programs and F, M and J category visitors. 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), exchange visitors (J visa), and their dependents (F-2, M-2, and J-2). SEVIS enables schools and program sponsors to transmit mandatory information and event notifications via the Internet, to the USCIS and Department of State throughout a student or exchange visitor’s stay in the United States.

All student applicants must have a SEVIS generated Form I-20 issued by an educational institution approved by USCIS, which they submit when they are applying for their student visa. The consular officer will need to verify the Form I-20 record electronically through the SEVIS system in order to process the student visa application. Unless otherwise exempt, participants whose SEVIS Form I-20 was issued on or after September 1, 2004 must pay a SEVIS I-901 Fee to the Department of Homeland Security for each individual program. The fee may be paid either through a special website, via Western Union, or by mail.

IV. Application Procedures, Visa Issuance and Entry to the U.S.

A. When to Apply

June, July and August are the busiest months in most consular sections and interview appointments are the most difficult to get during that period. Students are encouraged to apply for their visa early to provide ample time for visa processing. Students may apply for their visa as soon as they are prepared to do so.The consular officer may need to get special clearances depending on the course of study and nationality of the student. This can take some additional time.

Embassies and Consulates are only able to issue the visa 90 days or less, in advance of the course of study registration date. Applications filed more than 90 days prior to the start date or registration date as provided on the Form I-20 will be held until the consular official is able to issue the visa. Consular officials will use that extra time to accomplish any of the necessary special clearances or other processes that may be required.

The regulations only allow initial or beginning students to enter the U.S. 30 days (or less) in advance of the course of study start/report date as shown on the Form I-20.A student who wants to enter the U.S. earlier than 30 days before the course start date must qualify for, and obtain, a visitor visa. A prospective student notation will be shown on his/her visitor visa and the traveler will need to make the intent to study clear to the U.S. immigration inspector at port of entry. Before beginning any studies, he or she must obtain a change of non-immigrant status to F-1. To do so, students must file a Form I-539, Application for Change of Nonimmigrant Status, filing fee and supporting documents with the appropriate USCIS Regional Service Center. Students awaiting a change of status may not begin studies until the change of status is approved by the USCIS.

B. Visa Application Procedures and Consular Interview

Once a student has been issued the SEVIS Form I-20, he/she may apply for the visa at the U.S. Consulate having jurisdiction over his/her residence. In most countries, first time student visa applicants are required to appear for an in-person interview. Consulates set their own interview policies and procedures regarding student visas. Be sure to check the consulate’s website for their specific instructions.

Applicants will be required to provide:

  • Non-immigrant visa application
  • Original SEVIS Form I-20
  • Passport valid for at least six months after the proposed date of entry to the U.S.
  • One 2×2 photograph

In addition, applicants should 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.; and
  • Financial evidence showing sufficient funds to cover tuition and education costs and living expenses during the period of intended study. Students can provide support for themselves, or their parents or a sponsor can provide the support. Be prepared to submit tax returns, bank statements, and/or evidence of sponsor’s employment. Applicants are encouraged to provide an I-134 Affidavit of Support if he/she is being sponsored by a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the U.S.

No assurances regarding the issuance of visas can be given in advance. Therefore, final travel plans or the purchase of nonrefundable tickets should not be made until a visa has been issued.

What Items Do Returning Students Need?

All applicants applying for renewals must submit:

  • Non-immigrant visa application;
  • A passport valid for at least six months; and
  • A new Form I-20 or a Form I-20 that has been endorsed on the back by a school official within the past 12 months.

In addition, applicants should be prepared to provide:

  • A certified copy of your grades from the school in which you are enrolled; and
  • Financial evidence showing sufficient funds to cover tuition and education costs and living expenses during the period of intended study.

Students Away from Classes More Than Five Months

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

C. Entering the U.S. – Port of Entry

Please be aware that issuance of a visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has authority to deny admission at the port of entry to any applicant who is inadmissible under INA, even if the applicant has a visa. Also, the CBP, not the consular officer, determines the period for which the bearer of a temporary work visa is authorized to remain in the United States. Student visitors must have their Form I-20 in their possession each time they enter the United States. At the port of entry, CBP officials issue Form I-94, Record of Arrival-Departure, which notes the length of stay permitted. Upon arrival (at an international airport, seaport or land border crossing), students will be enrolled in the US-VISIT entry-exit program. In addition, some travelers will also need to register their entry into and their departure from the U.S. with the Special Registration program.

D. Length of Stay for Student Visa Holders

Students entering the U.S. in F-1 student status are admitted for the duration of student status (annotated on I-94 as “D/S”). That means he/she may stay as long as he/she is a full time student, even if the F-1 visa in the passport expires while in the U.S. An example of duration of status is:

  • A student has a visa that is valid for five years that will expire on January 1, 2012. He is admitted into the U.S. for the duration of studies and may stay in the U.S. as long as he is a full time student — even if January 1, 2012 passes and his visa expires while in the U.S. he will still considered to be in legal student status. However, if he departs the U.S. with an expired visa, he will need to obtain a new visa before being able to return to the U.S. and resume his studies.

Students entering the U.S. M-1 student status are admitted for the time necessary to complete the course plus 30 days, or for one year — whichever is less. M-1 students whose I-94 records are notated “D/S” and fail to maintain his/her non-immigrant status may be subject to the 3/10 year bar because the SEVIS form is issued with a specific “end date”.

Students who have completed the course of studies shown on the Form I-20, and any authorized practical training, are 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-1 student may receive extensions up to three years for the total program.

V. How to Extend Student Status While in the U.S.

A. F-1 Students

An F-1 student is eligible for program extension if he or she has continually maintained status, is making normal progress toward completing the educational objective and delay in completion is “caused by compelling academic or medical reasons, such as changes of major or research topic, unexpected research problems, or documented illnesses.” Delays caused by academic probation or suspension are not acceptable reasons for program extensions.

F-1 students are not required to apply for extension of status with the USCIS and do not need a formal extension of stay. An F-1 student seeking an extension of status must submit completed Forms I-20A-B and I-538 to his/her DSO within a 30-day period before the expected completion date noted on the initial Form I-20A-B. The DSO will verify eligibility criteria and update the student’s record in the SEVIS database.

Students who fail to apply for an extension before the end-date on his/her program will be considered out of status and must apply for reinstatement to resume studies. Students who are unable to complete the program within the specified period of time and are not eligible for an extension are also considered out of status and must apply for reinstatement to resume studies.

B. M-1 Students

M-1 Students can cumulatively obtain extension up to 3 years (+30 days) from the original start date to complete the program. However, unlike F-1, M-1 students must file a request for an extension of stay with the USCIS because they are admitted until a specified period of time on their SEVIS Form I-20. In order to maintain their lawful nonimmigrant status, the USCIS must approve the request and issue a new I-94 Arrival/Departure Record.

To apply for an extension of M-1 status, students file Form I-539, Application to Change/Extend Nonimmigrant Status, with filing fees, Form I-201D, Form I-20M-N (if applicable), and the Form I-94 of dependents (if any) to appropriate USCIS Regional Service Center having jurisdiction over the student’s current school not less than 15 days or more than 60 days before the student’s authorized stay expires. The student should not send his Form I-94 or passport to USCIS. While the application for extension of stay is pending, the M-1 student is considered to be legally in the United States as long as the student has met and continues to meet all the requirements for maintaining his or her status.

VI. Permission for Foreign Students to Work

There are only certain types of employment legally available to F-1 or M-1 students in the U.S. M-1 students may not work, except for practical training, for which approval from USCIS is required. F-1 students, on the other hand, may accept practical training employment or off-campus part-time employment after having been in status for nine months. F-1 students must apply for USCIS approval for off-campus employment and practical training after graduation. (Note: F-1 students may accept on-campus or curricular practical training when authorized by the designated school official.)

The rules concerning employment for students are strict because F-1 or M-1 visas are not initially approved without proof that the potential students have means of supporting themselves and their education without needing to work. The law bars any F-1 student from any type of off-campus employment during their first 9 months (or first academic year) as a foreign student in the U.S.

Both the F-1 and the M-1 students must use recommendations by the designated school official on Form I-201D, along with Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, to apply for employment authorization from the USCIS. Form I-765 is filed with the appropriate USCIS Regional Service Center along with the filing fee.

Students are barred from accepting any off-campus or practical training employment unless and until he/she receives authorization by the designated school official on Form I-201D or a Form I-688B from USCIS. Students found working without permission, are subject to deportation.

VII. Spouses and dependents

Spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 are allowed to join F-1 and M-1 visa holders in the U.S., under F-2 and M-2 status. F-2 and M-2 visa holders may not attend school without changing status to F-1 or M-1 status, except for children, who may attend kindergarten through 12th grade. F-2 and M-2 visas holders may not work in the U.S.

When applying for an F-2 or M-2 visa, dependents must provide proof of his/her relationship to the F-1 or M-1 Student (e.g., marriage and birth certificates.). It is preferred that families apply for their visas at the same time, but if the spouse and children must apply separately at a later time, they should bring a copy of the F-1 or M-1 student visa holder’s passport, visa, Form I-20 and all other required documents at the time of their interview.

VIII. M-1 Visas: Important Differences from F-1

  • Can only attend school with extension for a maximum of 3 years
  • Can only transfer schools within the first 6 months unless reason for transfer are due to circumstances beyond the student’s control
  • Cannot change educational objectives
  • Cannot take online courses
  • Reduced course load will only be allowed for medical reasons and only for a maximum aggregate period of five months
  • Cannot accept employment — except practical training
  • Cannot change to H status if basis of H was training or education received as M-1 student

IX. Special Rules and Restrictions Regarding Student Visas

Commuter students from Canada and Mexico may attend school part time or full time in the U.S. as F-3 or M-3 visa holders as long as they are not residing in the U.S. As border commuter students, they will be given a specific date on their I-94, rather than D/S (duration of status). Border commuter students are subject to SEVIS, but may not obtain F-2 status for their dependents.

Students visiting the U.S. primarily for tourism, but who wish to enroll in a short course of study of less than 18 hours per week, may be able to do so with a visitor visa. Consult with the appropriate U.S. Consulate to find out if this option is available.

Public School

There are restrictions on attending public school in the U.S. Persons who violate these restrictions may not receive another visa for a period of five years. The restrictions apply only to students holding F-1 visas. They do not apply to students attending public school on derivative visas, such as F-2, J-2, L-2 or H-4 visas. The restrictions also do not apply to students attending private schools on F-1 visas. The restrictions are:

  • F-1 visas are no longer issued to attend public elementary or middle schools (Kindergarten – 8th grade) or publicly-funded adult education programs.
  • Students who attend public high schools are limited to twelve months of study.

Before an F-1 visa for a public school can be issued, the student must show that the school board has been reimbursed for the full, unsubsidized per capita cost of the education as calculated by the school. Reimbursement may be indicated on the I-20. Consular officers may request copies of canceled checks and/or receipts confirming the payment as needed.