Your Guide to F-1 Student Visas
What is an F-1 student visa, what does it allow you to do in the United States, and how do you get one?
This guide to F-1 student visas explains.
If you’re like many people, you’ve heard of F-1 student visas – but what are they, and could you use one to come to the United States? This guide explains student visas, how to get them, and what they allow you to do while you’re here, as well as whether you should consult with an Austin immigration attorney to get one.
The F-1 Student Visa Guide
F-1 student visas are designed for people who want to pursue full-time academic studies in the United States. Not everyone is eligible for them, though – you (and your school) must meet certain criteria. In some cases, an F-1 visa isn’t the right choice; another type of student visa may be a better solution for you. One thing’s for certain, though: You can’t come to the United States to study without a visa.
What is an F-1 Visa?
An F-1 visa grants you permission to come to the United States as an academic student. You must be a full-time student in an accredited college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic high school, elementary school or other academic institution, or in a language training program. Additionally, you must be enrolled in a program or course of study that culminates in a degree, diploma or certificate – and your school must be authorized to accept international students by the U.S. government.
Can You Work if You’re in the United States on an F-1 Visa?
You are eligible to work if you’re in the United States on an F-1 visa under certain circumstances. You can’t work off-campus during your first academic school year, but you’re allowed to accept on-campus employment. After you complete your first academic year, you can take a job under one of these three types of off-campus employment:
- Curricular practical training
- Optional practical training
- Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) optional practical training extension
What About Exceptions to the Work Permissions?
There are some exceptions to the type of employment you can have if you’re in the U.S. on an F-1 visa. For example, if you can show the government that you’re suffering severe financial hardship or need special student relief, you may be able to get a different type of job. However, generally – and outside special circumstances – you must work in a field that’s related to your area of study. You must also be authorized to work by the designated school official and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
SEVP and SEVIS
Before you can come to the United States on an F-1 student visa, you must be accepted at an SEVP-approved school. That means that the school is part of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, or SEVP, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Security Investigations Division. SEVP administers the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS.
SEVIS is a web-based system that maintains information on nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors in the United States.
What Happens After You’re Accepted in an SEVP-Approved School?
After an SEVP-approved school accepts you, you’ll be registered in SEVIS. You must pay the SEVIS fee, and the school will issue you a Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. The Form I-20 lists your program’s start date, and you’re allowed to enter the United States 30 days prior to that date. (However, F-1 student visas may be issued up to 120 days before your course starts – so that may be something you wish to discuss with your immigration attorney.)
You must have your original Form I-20 on-hand when enter the United States so you can present it to the customs official when you arrive.
Can You Change to M Status if You Come to the U.S. on an F-1 Visa?
In some cases, you can change your F-1 visa status to an M-1 student visa. The M-1 visa is for nonacademic or vocational studies, and it has some key differences (such as no work authorization) from the F-1 visa. If you wish to change your F-1 visa to an M-1 visa, you should speak with an attorney about your options.
An M-1 visa requires you to be involved in a full course of study, which generally means being enrolled for at least 12 semester or quarter hours (or an equivalent program such as a vocational school).
Can You Change to F-1 Visa Status if You Come to the U.S. on Another Type of Visa?
You may be able to change your visa to an F-1 visa if you are in the U.S. for a purpose other than to attend school. However, you must:
- Have been lawfully admitted to the U.S. in a nonimmigrant status
- Have a valid nonimmigrant status
- Not have violated the conditions of your status
- Not have committed any crimes or engaged in any other actions that would make you ineligible for a change of status
You can’t simply assume that USCIS will approve your petition, either – and that means you can’t enroll in school until you have proof of the change in your hand.
To switch your current visa to an F-1 visa, you must apply to and receive acceptance from an SEVP-certified school, fill out and file Form I-20, pay the I-901 SEVIS fee, and file Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status with USCIS. However, keep in mind that not all nonimmigrant classifications can switch to student status. You should talk to an Austin immigration attorney to find out about your options when it comes to changing your nonimmigrant status.
What Are Exchange Visitors?
Exchange visitors hold a different type of visa than standard academic students do. Most students hold an F-1 or M-1 visa, while exchange visitors fall under the J-1 classification. The J-1 classification is for people who intend to participate in an approved program for the purpose of:
- Instructing or lecturing
- Conducting research
- Demonstrating special skills
- Receiving training
- Receiving graduate medical education or training
Some examples of exchange visitors are some types of students, professors and scholars, research assistants, trainees, teachers, specialists, au pairs and camp counselors. If an exchange visitor visa would be a better fit for you than an F-1 visa would, your Austin immigration attorney can let you know – and help you apply for the right type.
Can You Bring Your Family on an F-1 Visa?
In some cases, you may be permitted to bring your family to the United States with you if you’re here on an F-1 visa. However, if you intend to bring your children, you need to know that they must generally be unmarried and under the age of 21 to come with you.
You may bring your spouse to live with you when you come to the United States. Your family members will each need an F-2 visa to be permitted to join you in the United States, which your attorney can help you apply for.
Do You Need to Talk to a Lawyer About Getting an F-1 Visa to Study in the United States?
If you want to come to the U.S. on an F-1 visa, you may benefit from speaking with an attorney. Call our office to schedule your free consultation now – we may be able to help you.