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F-1 : Academic Student

In the last 15 years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has revised its F-1 regulations (which govern the admission of foreign students into the U.S.) several times. A lawful nonimmigrant in a status other than F-1 may or may not be permitted to engage in study depending upon the regulations governing her or his status and the facts of the case. For example, an H-1 temporary worker would violate conditions of that status if he or she ceased employment and began studies without processing a timely application for change of status from H-1 to F-1. That same worker, however, would be permitted to study on a part-time basis provided he or she continued to perform the employment activities for which H-1 status had been granted. Without F-1 status, any foreign national who undertakes study risks violating nonimmigrant status. Such situations should be carefully evaluated, preferably in advance of enrollment. Furthermore, these individuals cannot take advantage of benefits afforded to lawful F-1 students by regulation, such as long-term duration of status and certain employment opportunities.

THE STATUTORY DEFINITION

A foreign student seeking to come to the U.S. for nonvocational study under the F-1 visa classification must satisfy each element of the statutory definition at INA §101(a)(15)(F):

  1. The alien must have a residence abroad that he or she has no intention of abandoning;
  2. The alien must be a bona fide student;
  3. The alien must be coming to the U.S. solely to pursue a full course of studies;
  4. The alien must be qualified to pursue a full course of studies;
  5. The alien must be seeking admission to the U.S. temporarily and solely to pursue those studies; and
  6. The school to which an alien seeking classification is destined must be among those authorized by the Attorney General.

Qualified dependents may accompany (or follow to join) the principal F-1 alien, in which case they are classified in F-2 status. A nonimmigrant student and the student's dependents also must be able to overcome the presumption of immigrant intent.

HOW TO OBTAIN A VISA

To obtain F-1 student status (and F-2 for accompanying spouse and unmarried minor children) a foreign student must present:

  1. SEVIS Form I-20 issued in his or her own name by a school approved by the Service for attendance by F-1 foreign students. (In the alternative, for a student seeking admission prior to August 1, 2003, the student may present a currently-valid Form I-20A-B/I-20ID, if that form was issued by the school prior to January 30, 2003);
  2. Presents documentary evidence of financial support; and
  3. Intends to enroll in the school indicated on the visa issued by the consul, if a visa is required, or intends to enroll in the school indicated on the I-20 if the student is exempt from the visa requirement.

When an alien is admitted initially as an F-1 student and presents a properly completed and executed SEVIS Form I-20 to the inspecting INS officer at a port of entry, the inspector writes the alien's I-94 arrival-departure number on the I-20 form and endorses all copies to indicate the alien's admission. The inspector will return the endorsed and completed I-20 ID to the alien, and will forward the I-20 school copy to the INS's data processing center.

A bona fide nonimmigrant, who entered the U.S. in other than F-1 status, may apply to the INS to change her or his classification to that of an F-1 student.

TERM - DURATION OF STATUS

Except for border commuter students an F-1 student is admitted for duration of status. Duration of status is defined as the time during which an F-1 student is pursuing a full course of study at an educational institution approved by the Service for attendance by foreign students, or engaging in authorized practical training following completion of studies, except that an F-1 student who is admitted to attend a public high school is restricted to an aggregate of 12 months of study at any public high school(s). An F-1 student may be admitted for a period up to 30 days before the indicated report date or program start date listed on Form I-20. The student is considered to be maintaining status if he or she is making normal progress toward completing a course of study.

If a student fails to complete her or his stated academic objective within the time estimated on the I-20, the student must apply for a program extension and an extension of stay.

EMPLOYMENT

F-1 foreign students right to be employed in the US is very limited. An F-1 student may have the following options for employment: (i) on-campus employment; (ii) off- campus work authorization; (iii) employment due to severe economic hardship; (vi) international organization internships; (v) practical training. Each of these categories is discussed below.

  1. On-campus employment. On-campus employment must either be performed on the school's premises, (including on-location commercial firms which provide services for students on campus, such as the school bookstore or cafeteria), or at an off-campus location which is educationally affiliated with the school. Such employment must not exceed 20 hours a week while school is in session. An F-1 student may, however, work on campus full-time when school is not in session or during the annual vacation. In the case of a transfer in SEVIS, the student may only engage in on-campus employment at the school having jurisdiction over the student's SEVIS record. Upon initial entry to begin a new course of study, an F-1 student may not begin on-campus employment more than 30 days prior to the actual start of classes.
  2. Off-campus work authorization. An F-1 student may be authorized to work off-campus on a part- time basis after having been in F-1 status for one full academic year provided that the student is in good academic standing as determined by the DSO. Part-time off- campus employment is limited to no more than twenty hours a week when school is in session.
  3. Severe economic hardship. If other employment opportunities are not available or are otherwise insufficient, an eligible F-1 student may request off-campus employment work authorization based upon severe economic hardship caused by unforeseen circumstances beyond the student's control. These circumstances may include loss of financial aid or on-campus employment without fault on the part of the student, substantial fluctuations in the value of currency or exchange rate, inordinate increases in tuition and/or living costs, unexpected changes in the financial condition of the student's source of support, medical bills, or other substantial and unexpected expenses.
  4. Internship with an international organization. A bona fide F-1 student who has been offered employment by a recognized international organization within the meaning of the International Organization Immunities Act must apply for employment authorization. A student seeking employment authorization under this provision is required to present a written certification from the international organization that the proposed employment is within the scope of the organization's sponsorship, Form I-20 ID or SEVIS Form I-20 with employment page completed by DSO certifying eligibility for employment.
  5. Practical training. Practical training may be authorized to an F-1 student who has been lawfully enrolled on a full time basis, in a Service- approved college, university, conservatory, or seminary for one full academic year. A student may be authorized 12 months of practical training, and becomes eligible for another 12 months of practical training when he or she changes to a higher educational level. There are two types of practical training available:
    • Curricular practical training. Training that is an integral part of an established curriculum. Curricular practical training is defined to be alternative work/study, internship, cooperative education, or any other type of required internship or practicum that is offered by sponsoring employers through cooperative agreements with the school.
    • Optional practical training. Training directly related to the student's major area of study. The student may not begin optional practical training until the date indicated on his or her employment authorization document.

The F-2 spouse and children of an F-1 student may not accept employment.

TRAVEL and TEMPORARY ABSENCES

An F-1 student returning to the United States from a temporary absence of five months or less may be readmitted for attendance at a Service-approved educational institution, if the student presents:

  • (i) A current SEVIS Form I-20 (or, for readmission prior to August 1, 2003, a current Form I-20ID which was issued prior to January 30, 2003), properly endorsed by the DSO for reentry if there has been no substantive change to the most recent Form I-20 information; or
  • (ii) A new SEVIS Form I-20 (or, for readmission prior to August 1, 2003, a new Form I-20ID which was issued prior to January 30, 2003), if there has been a substantive change in the information on the student's most recent Form I-20 information, such as in the case of a student who has changed the major area of study, who intends to transfer to another Service approved institution or who has advanced to a higher level of study.

SCHOOL TRANSFER

A student who is maintaining status may transfer to another Service approved school. However, an F-1 student is not permitted to remain in the United States when transferring between schools or programs unless the student will begin classes at the transfer school or program within 5 months of transferring out of the current school or within 5 months of the program completion date on his or her current Form I-20, whichever is earlier.

BORDER COMMUTER STUDENTS

"Border commuter student" means a national of Canada or Mexico who is admitted to the United States as an F-1 nonimmigrant student to enroll in a full course of study, albeit on a part-time basis, in an approved school located within 75 miles of a United States land border. A border commuter student must maintain actual residence and place of abode in the student's country of nationality, and seek admission to the United States at a land border port-of-entry.

GENERAL INFORMATION REGARDING STUDENTS

International Students: Information on U.S. Study (State Department)
How Do I Become an Academic Student in the United States? (INS)
How Do I Become a Vocational Student in the United States? (INS)
Student Visas (Tips from the State Department)
Students in the Public Schools (State Department)

GUIDES TO STUDYING IN THE U.S.

Embark.com
International Education Service
International Student Organization in America
Kaplan
Journal of Academics for Non-U.S. Students

SEVIS (Student & Exchange Visitor Information System)

SEVIS Home Page (INS)
Interim Student and Exchange Authentification System (ISEAS)
(State Department Regulations (PDF File) - September 18, 2002)