Student Visas: Staying "In Status" (or How to Avoid Trouble)

Once your program begins, you’ll have plenty to do and not a lot of time to think about much other than studying so here’s a cheat sheet for how to avoid trouble with the USCIS while you are a student in the United States.   Your eligibility for employment, transfers, program changes and reentry depends on maintaining lawful status so this is not something to take lightly.  

Most campuses will have an International Student Office and at least one International Student Advisor/Designated School Official.  When in doubt, always be sure to check in with this office for the most up-to-date information and specific school/program requirements.

To maintain lawful status: 

  • Check in with your International Student Advisor each term/semester to be registered in the SEVIS system.
    All of you will likely take part in a new student orientation but if not, be sure to visit your advisor within 30 days of beginning of your program and at the beginning of each new term/semester.
  • Pursue a full-time course of study at the school listed on your Form I-20 or DS-2019 during every academic term/semester except during official school breaks or unless approved under a specific exception.                          
    The USCIS requires that all international students be enrolled in a full-time academic program while in the U.S.   Keep in mind that “full-time” means different things depending on your school/academic program/visa type so do be sure to check in with your advisor to find out how many courses you must take each term.    There are usually two official school breaks, a shorter one in the winter and a longer one over the summer months and during these periods you do not have to enroll in courses.

    There are certain cases when an exception can be made, but again, you will need to get proper authorization from your advisor for these exceptions before dropping any courses.   Exceptions include a medical condition/illness, initial difficulty with studying in English, or if it’s your final semester/term of study before completion of your degree.

  • Consult your advisor before making any changes to your academic program (change of major/school transfer/change of degree level).
  • If you are an F-1 student and are bringing your spouse and/or children with you, they may not work and spouses may only enroll in a vocational or recreational course of study. 
  • If you are a J-1 student, you are required to maintain medical insurance for yourself and your dependent(s). 
    Most F-1 students are also required to maintain such insurance coverage, but the school, not the USCIS, usually enforces this regulation.
  • Do not travel outside of the U.S. without proper authorization.
    Should you want/need to leave the U.S. (including going to neighboring Canada or Mexico), be sure to get the proper travel authorization signatures from your advisor before you depart. In order to re-enter the U.S. after a trip abroad, you will need a valid passport, a valid visa stamp, and a valid I-20 or DS-2019 with the recent signature from your advisor. 
  • Do not accept work (paid or non-paid, on or off campus) without proper authorization.
    With prior authorization from an advisor, both F-1 and J-1 students who are in good status and who have finished at least one academic year of coursework are eligible to work in a field of study related to their major.  During the summer months and winter break, students can work up to 40 hours a week and during the academic year, students can work up to 20 hours a week. 

    In some cases, your academic department can have additional limitations on the number of hours you can work, so in addition to meeting with your advisor, also check with your department about any restrictions.

    More information about work authorization options for both F and J students will be posted in the coming weeks.

  • Always inform your advisor of any address changes within ten days of your move.
    Should you move or get a new phone number, always give this information to your advisor within ten days so that they can update this information in SEVIS.
  • If you know you will not be able to complete your program by the expiration date on your I-20 or DS-2019, at least four-six weeks before, you must consult your advisor and apply for a program extension.
  • Keep your passport valid. 
  • If you are not transferring to another program or doing authorized training, after completing your academic program, J-1 students must leave the U.S. within 30 days of the end date on the DS-2019 and F-1 students must leave within 60 days of the end date on the I-20. 

** Please note that USCIS regulations are subject to change and you should always check with the International Student Advisor at your school for the latest information and requirements. **

Next week:   Employment Authorization during your degree program (F-1 students)