F-1 visas are for those who wish to study in the U.S. at an academic institution that has been approved and certified by the Department of Homeland Security under the SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Program). Such academic institutions include universities, colleges, high schools, private elementary schools, seminaries, conservatories, and language training programs. The list of SEVP-approved schools can be found at: http://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/school-search. When you are eligible for an F-1 visa, your dependent family members---spouse and children (under 21 and unmarried)---are eligible for F-2 visas. Dependents in F-2 status can enroll in elementary and secondary school or any avocational or recreational studies, but cannot enroll full-time in a degree granting course of a post-secondary school. F-2 dependents are not allowed to work in the U.S.
I-20 is a form that is issued to you by the school that has accepted you, stating:
1. What course of study you have been accepted for;
2. Expected duration of the course of study;
3. Whether you have met the English proficiency requirement and whether you would need training;
4. Estimated funds needed as tuition and living expenses;
5. Any CPT or OPT (explained later); and
6. Whether you are the principal student or his/her dependent family member.
In order to be eligible for an F-1 visa, you must:
1. Have a valid and legitimate educational purpose;
2. Have been accepted by one of SEVP-approved schools, and the school has issued individual Form I-20's to you and all of your dependents;
3. Have paid the SEVIS I-901 fee (only you, and not your dependents, pay this fee);
4. Have sufficient funds to support yourself and your dependents while studying in the U.S., so that you or your dependents will not become a "public charge" (who is financially dependent upon the U.S./state government) or engage in unauthorized employment;
5. Be proficient, or receive training to become proficient, in English; and
6. Intend to depart the U.S. at the conclusion/completion of your studies.
How to apply
You can apply for an F-1 visa at a U.S. Embassy/Consulate. Or, if you are already in the U.S. in a different legal status, you can apply for a change of status at USCIS. Generally, you and your dependents have to submit:
1. On-line Non-immigrant Visa Application (DS-160) from each person;
(-----> If you are in the U.S. and are applying for a change of status at USCIS, two I-539 applications have to be submitted: one by you, and one by all your dependents combined)
2. Visa application fee for each person;
3. Valid passport and photos for each person;
4. I-20 for each person;
5. Receipt for payment of SEVIS I-901 fee;
6. Documents showing your educational purpose and study plan;
7. Documents showing you have enough funds;
8. Documents supporting your intent that you will depart the U.S. and return to your home country when your studies are completed; and
9. Documents proving your family relationship (if applying for F-2 visas as well).
How early can I enter the U.S. with my F-1 visa?
With an F-1 visa, you are not permitted to enter the U.S. more than 30 days before the start date of your program as noted in your I-20.
D/S (Duration of Status)
Once you are admitted into the U.S., or once your application to change status is approved, you will be given an F-1 status that is valid for "D/S (Duration of Status)" instead of a fixed length of time. "D/S" means your F-1 status will be valid for the period of time required to complete the course of study. Generally, you are maintaining your F-1 status if you have a current I-20, you are enrolled and attending school pursuant to the I-20, and you have had no gap in doing so. As long as you meet these requirements, you can maintain your F-1 status---without applying for renewal at the U.S. Embassy/Consulate or USCIS---even if you transfer to another school, start a new course at the same or a different school upon the completion of your current course, or the school grants extension of your current course under certain circumstances such as illness or change in your major or research topic. As for extension, you must make a request for extension to the school prior to the end date on your I-20.
OPT (Optional Practical Training)
After you have been enrolled for one full academic year ("pre-completion"), and/or upon completing the course of your study, you can request---usually through the international student office of your school---work authorization from USCIS so that you can gain work experience in the field of your study. This is called OPT (Optional Practical Training), and is for a maximum of total one year. Once USCIS approves your request, you will receive an EAD (Employment Authorization Document) card from USCIS. During OPT, you must work within the field of your study. Students in pre-completion OPT must work part-time while school is in session, but may work full-time when school is not in session (e.g., during summer vacation). Students in post-completion OPT must work at least 20 hours per week to maintain a valid OPT. Students in post-completion OPT are deemed to remain in their F-1 status.
You may be eligible to extend your OPT for 17 months (making the total OPT 29 months), if you receive a degree in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM) that is included in the STEM Designated Degree Program List (http://www.ice.gov/sevis/stemlist.htm) and if you are employed by employers in E-Verify system.
When it comes to OPT (including STEM extension), timing of application is critical. Please contact the international student office of your school in advance to find out the details.
CPT (Curricular Practical Training)
CPT also must relate to your major and, most importantly, CPT must be part of your program of study. Therefore, CPT is given only as "pre-completion." Unlike OPT, CPT does not require USCIS's approval; when you enroll at a graduate level, your designated school official (DSO) may authorize CPT during your first semester if your program requires this type of experience, in which case you will receive an updated I-20 showing the details of the approved CPT. Another difference is that CPT requires a job offer (signed cooperative agreement or a letter from your employer). During CPT, you can work either full-time or part-time, depending on the terms authorized by your DSO. But keep in mind that your full-time CPT will be deducted from the possible OPT; for example, if you have accumulated 12 full-time months of CPT, then you will no longer have OPT. Part-time CPT (20 hours or less per week) is not accumulated for this purpose and will not be deducted from OPT. Please consult your DSO for details.
After your F-1 status expires (i.e., upon completing your course of study or at the end of OPT, whichever is later), you have a 60-day grace period, during which you can prepare to depart the U.S. or, under limited circumstances, seek change of status. If you obtain authorization from your school to withdraw before completing your course of study, you receive a 15-day grace period.
Reduced Course Load
In general, F-1 students are required to maintain full-time enrollment during the school year. A reduced course load may be acceptable to maintain F-1 status, however, if it is subject to prior approval by the school and includes at least 6 semester or quarter hours, or half the clock hours required for a full course of study. A reduced course load for less than half time is only acceptable for certain medical reasons defined in the federal law (214.2(f)(6)(iii)(B)), or for the final term of study if the school determines that fewer courses are needed to complete the course of study (214.2(f)(6)(iii)(C)).
Reinstatement of Student Status
Under limited circumstances, you can seek to reinstate (recover) your F-1 status that you had failed to maintain. You must apply for reinstatement not more than 5 months after being out of status (if the reinstatement application is outside of the 5-month limit, you must establish that failure to timely file the application was the result of exceptional circumstances). To have a reinstatement approved, you must show either:
--- That the violation of status resulted from circumstances beyond your control; or
--- That the violation relates to a reduction in your course load that would have been within the designated school official's authority and a failure to reinstate would result in extreme hardship to you.
If you think you might not be able to maintain your F-1 status for any reason, please consult the school official and the international student office as soon as you can.