Every year, the United States opens its doors to international students from around the world. For students, it’s important to be mindful of the requirements to maintain legal status while studying in the United States.
Above and top far right: International students are offered a variety of educational and cultural programs, including discussions on immigration regulations, at Florida State University (above right). Photographs courtesy Florida State University
Studying in the United States is a great opportunity for international students to interact with a different culture and gain invaluable learning experiences. During the 2020-2021 academic year, more than 900,000 international students were enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities, representing 4.6 percent of the total student population at these institutions, according to the 2021 Open Doors Report. Indian students comprised nearly 20 percent of this number, with 167,582 students.
Students accepted to study at a U.S. higher education institution are typically issued an F-1 visa, or less frequently a J-1 or M-1 visa, which enables them to be legally present in the United States for the purpose of studying at a university, college or vocational school.
Once in the United States, with their passports and visas in hand, international students need to report to their school’s international student advisers—the Designated School Official (DSO)—within 10 days of arrival. From then on, it is fairly simple to maintain legal status during the course of their studies. It is important, however, to ensure all the requirements necessary to maintain legal status are kept in good standing.
“The programs of study in the United States are an opportunity intended to provide the student with a rich and rewarding experience, along with a degree issued by a U.S. university that reflects a superior achievement. The program is designed to facilitate, with the greatest ease, the learning, cultural and social offerings of study in the United States for all who abide by the intent and rules of the program,” says an official at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Attaché Office in the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. “The student needs to be vigilant in following the program guidelines and rules. The risk of operating outside of the program remains a constant temptation, regardless of the motivation. The student is strongly advised to maintain adherence to the programs and the conditions of the visa issued to them as the penalties of violating those terms may jeopardize future visas and opportunities to visit the United States.”
One of the key elements of maintaining legal status is to be enrolled in a full course of study and to make progress toward completion of the degree. Failure to do so can jeopardize the student’s status. According to Kristen Hagen, associate director at the Center for Global Engagement at Florida State University, students fail to maintain their legal status when they do not enroll in a full course of study without obtaining advance authorization from their international student adviser. Students must be enrolled in classes, or have prior authorization to not enroll in classes, to maintain status. This is true except during an annual vacation.
The CBP Attaché Office says it understands that the “life of an international student can be difficult with challenges posed by living conditions, American culture, language (even though it still may be English), being far away from family and home, etc.” If students encounter difficulty in their studies, they can apply for a reduced course load with authorization from their international student adviser. “The international student adviser can authorize a reduced course load when a student has a documented medical condition or when a student has initial difficulties with English language or reading requirements, is unfamiliar with U.S. teaching methods, or encounters improper course level placement,” says Hagen.
She also advises to keep grades from falling too low, as this can jeopardize a student’s legal status. “If a student’s grades are too low, they can be dismissed from the program and not allowed to continue, leading to a loss of legal status,” she says.
Students on F-1 visa are allowed to work up to 20 hours per week on campus and more during the holidays and vacations. If a student works for more than 20 hours on campus, or engages in work off campus without prior authorization from their international student adviser, they seriously violate their legal status.
According to the CBP Attaché Office, “Penalties may include cancellation of the visa and even removal from the United States. In cases of violations, a student who is penalized may not be able to re-enter the United States at a later date. In all cases, and certainly if the student has any question or doubt about working in the United States, the student is strongly encouraged to consult the Designated School Official.”
Extending your stay
After completion of their studies, students on F-1 visa can remain legally in the United States for 60 days, and students on J-1 and M-1 for 30 days. It is, however, possible to extend one’s stay in the United States after graduation in several ways.
Students on F-1 visa can apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) after graduation. “Students who complete their studies can apply to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for up to 12 months of employment authorization to work in their field of study through OPT,” says Hagen.
When applying for OPT, students should submit their applications on time. “USCIS must receive the application before the end of the 60-day grace period,” says Hagen. Students should also avoid “submitting the application for OPT without the recommendation from the student’s international student adviser, engaging in work that is not related to the student’s program of study, exceeding the allowed days of unemployment, working before or after the dates on the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) issued by USCIS,” she adds.
Besides the OPT, or even after OPT, students may be able to maintain their legal status in the United States by enrolling for another degree or applying for employment. “Some circumstances do allow for a student to extend his/her stay in the United States and these circumstances typically involve the transfer to another school, change in the education level—like pursuing a higher degree—or applying to change from the F-1 or M-1 status to another visa classification status. For example, H-1B (temporary worker), O (extraordinary ability in science, art or business), or P (athlete),” the CBP Attaché Office explains. “A student who wishes to extend his/her stay in the United States is strongly recommended to consult with the Designated School Official to learn more about possible opportunities and required actions for maintaining legal status in the United States after completing the initial program of study.”
The key element in maintaining your legal status at a U.S. higher education institution is working closely with your international student adviser. “These advisers—the designated school officials—can issue I-20s and are responsible for maintaining a student’s immigration record in the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) database. These advisers inform international students about the important regulations that are integral to their F-1 nonimmigrant status, and they advise students on how to take advantage of the benefits of their F-1 status,” says Hagen.
Using the opportunities made available within the community of international students can also provide much-needed support. “Our Center for Global Engagement provides a variety of educational, social and cultural programs for all students throughout the year,” says Hagen.
Such a support network can come in handy when navigating complexities. “Our international student advisers work hard to make sure that international students understand the F-1 student immigration regulations, so students maintain legal status while in the United States,” she explains. “We offer an online immigration module, we discuss immigration regulations during orientation, and we regularly communicate with students through email, newsletter and automatic alerts.” With this level of support and range of opportunities, studying abroad can be an exciting adventure.
Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.