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International students in the U.S. are subject to certain federal immigration regulations that are important to be aware of and comply with. OIP is here to help, but please know that it is your responsibility to maintain your legal F-1 status. That said, as long as you keep focused on your academic goals, follow the requirements listed below, and let OIP know immediately when an issue or question arises, you should be able to avoid problems that could interfere with your immigration status.
What is ‘Status’?
Customs officers at U.S. Ports of Entry admit individuals into the U.S. in a particular immigration ‘status.’ There is a whole alphabet of possible immigration statuses that differ depending on the purpose of the visit to the U.S. Immigration statuses correspond to the various visa categories.
Though people often use the terms ‘visa’ and ‘status’ to mean the same thing, they are in fact quite different. A visa is a travel document pasted into your passport by a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad, granting permission to travel to the U.S. for a specific purpose. However, possession of a valid visa does not guarantee entry to the U.S. The actual admission decision is left to the discretion of the examining immigration officer at the Port of Entry.
When an immigration officer admits you into the U.S., they admit you into a particular immigration ‘status.’ Status refers to the conditions of legal presence in the U.S. Each status has its own set of rules that align with the purpose of the visit, and it’s these rules that must be complied with in order to remain in the U.S. for the duration of the visit. Status also determines the length of time an individual can remain in the U.S.
Individuals in F-1 status are admitted for ‘duration of status’ or D/S. This means that there is not a concrete expiration of the status. Your visa (travel document) does NOT determine how long you can stay in the U.S. Instead, as long as you are continuing to comply with the F-1 regulations (referred to as ‘maintaining status’), then you may remain in the U.S. legally until you are finished with your academic pursuits and any associated practical training. The U.S. government’s Study in the States website has more details about maintaining F-1 status.
Requirements for Maintaining F-1 Status
- I-20 Certificate of Eligibility. Do not let your I-20 expire. If you will not complete your studies before the Program End Date on your I-20, please contact OIP BEFORE the I-20 expires to apply for an extension. Also, if you change your educational level or program of study (major), or transfer to another school, you must contact OIP to update your I-20. As you may receive multiple I-20s during your time in the US, it is important that you keep every I-20 for your records.
- Passport. Your passport should always be valid for at least six months into the future. You can renew your passport through your home country’s embassy or consulate in the U.S. or on a trip home.
- I-94. The I-94 is your official arrival record. To access your I-94, visit U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)’s website and follow the ‘Get your most recent I-94’ link at the top of the page.It is recommended you print and keep a copy for your records after each entry to the US. The I-94 should indicate “F-1” as the Class of Admission and “D/S” (duration of status) as the ‘Admit Until’ date. If you have an expiration date or another visa status listed on your I-94, please speak with OIP immediately.
- Visa. Since the visa stamp is a travel document only, it is okay for your F-1 visa to expire while you are in the U.S.; however, you will need to renew the visa if you travel abroad and plan to re-enter the U.S. Also, do not enter the US on a tourist (B) visa, the visa waiver program, or on a border-crossing card. If you do so, you will no longer be in F-1 status and will lose all the student benefits, such as work authorization.
Each F-1 student has an electronic record in the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS is a database used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to maintain information regarding all international students and scholars in the U.S. International students are required to keep their SEVIS record up-to-date by reporting any changes to the following information:
- Address and Phone Number. Your SEVIS record must always reflect your current international address, local (US) address, and phone number. Any changes are required to be reported to OIP within 10 days of a change, so that we can update your SEVIS record accordingly. To report an address or phone number change, please update this information in Self-Service, and OIP will then update SEVIS.
- Academic Changes. Your I-20 and SEVIS record reflect the details of your current academic program (what you’re studying, where you’re studying, for how long you’re studying, etc.) and must therefore be kept up to date. Some academic changes may simply need to be reported in SEVIS (for example, when you declare or change your major, contact OIP so that we can update your I-20). Other academic changes require authorization in SEVIS before pursuing the change (for example, if you need to change schools, you need more time to complete your program, or you need to take a leave of absence, contact OIP right away to discuss your eligibility for and the process of getting the change approved in SEVIS. After SEVIS has been updated with any required authorization, you can pursue the academic change requested.
- Immigration Status. If you are planning on changing to another immigration status or if you become a permanent resident (‘green card’ holder), please contact OIP so that we can close your F-1 SEVIS record accordingly.
F-1 students must pursue a “full course of study” each fall and spring semester. Full-time enrollment for undergraduate students is 12+ credit hours and full-time enrollment for Graduate students is 6+ hours each semester.
- Online Classes. Only one online class per semester may count towards the F-1 full-time enrollment requirement. Additional online classes may be added on top of the ‘full course of study’ as long as the minimum requirement (12 credits undergrad; 6 credits grad) is met with mostly in-person coursework.
- Summer. Summer is considered vacation time if it is not your first or last session at Meredith, and you are therefore not required to take classes for the purposes of maintaining F-1 status. If Summer is your first session or last session, you must enroll full-time unless you qualify for a Reduced Course Load (see below).
- Reduced Course Load. If you need to take fewer than the required number of credits, please contact OIP right away. There are three exceptions to the F-1 full-time enrollment requirement in which case a Reduced Course Load (RCL) may be authorized. These exceptions relate to medical issues, early academic difficulties, and few credits remaining in your final semester. Note that an RCL must be approved by OIP and authorized in SEVIS before you drop below full-time enrollment in order to maintain F-1 status.
- Leave of Absence. If you are considering a leave of absence, please contact OIP right away. In most cases, it’s not possible to remain in the U.S. in F-1 status during a leave of absence – you would instead need to spend the leave period outside of the U.S. or change your immigration status. If the leave of absence is due to a medical condition, an RCL might allow for you to remain in the U.S. in F-1 status during the leave. Please contact OIP to explore your options.
- On-Campus Employment. As long as you are in F-1 status, you are automatically authorized to work on campus for up to 20 hours per week during the Spring and Fall semesters. You are eligible to work more than 20 hours per week on campus during vacation periods. This authorization ends if you withdraw or when you graduate.
- Off-Campus Employment. Work off-campus requires special authorization and generally is only possible after being in your program for one academic year. Working without the proper authorization is considered a serious violation of F-1 status, so please check with OIP to see if an opportunity is allowable. Information about the off-campus employment authorization options for F-1 students is available on our employment pages.
It is important that your immigration documents (see above) are up-to-date and unexpired in order to avoid any problems when you are returning to the U.S. Note that your I-20 will need a current “travel signature” on the bottom of page 2. This signature is a confirmation of your good standing in F-1 status at Meredith College. Make sure that your I-20 was signed by a Designated School Official (DSO) in OIP within six months from your anticipated date of return to the U.S.. More information about F travel requirements is available on our travel page.
If You Lose Status
Violating the F-1 requirements listed above causes an individual to ‘lose status.’ This means that your legal permission to stay in the U.S., as well as your ability to return in the future, may be in jeopardy. Regaining legal status by traveling abroad or applying to USCIS for reinstatement can be time-consuming, expensive, and risky (meaning there is no guarantee for approval). OIP can provide basic information about the options, but you may also need to obtain legal advice from a trusted immigration attorney since the processes and implications can be quite complicated.