F-1, Student Status
In order to legally accept F-1 foreign students, a U.S. college or university must be enrolled in the government’s SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) program. Each school must designate a school official to enter information into the SEVIS database about F-1 students, including the student’s arrival, enrollment, and registration at the school, as well as a student’s dropping below a full course load without authorization.
Duration of Status
Students admitted to the U.S. in F-1 status are issued I-94 Arrival/ Departure cards valid for “duration of status,” which is annotated “D/S”. This means that as long as the student maintains a full course of study at an educational institution approved by USCIS for attendance by foreign students, or is engaged in Optional Practical Training, he remains in status. An F-1 student is considered to be in status during summer vacations if the student is eligible and intends to register for the next term.
An F-1 student who is admitted for duration of status is not required to apply for extensions of stay as long as the student is maintaining status and making normal progress toward completion of his or her educational objective.
Full Course of Study
In order to maintain F-1 status, a college or university student must engage in a full course of study, the successful completion of which will lead to the attainment of a specific educational or professional objective. Immigration regulations at 8 C.F.R. 214.2(f)(6)(i) list the following options for maintaining a “full course of study:”
- Postgraduate study or postdoctoral study at a college or university, or undergraduate or postgraduate study at a conservatory or religious seminary, certified by a DSO as a full course of study;
- Undergraduate study at a college or university, certified by a school official to consist of at least twelve semester or quarter hours of instruction per academic term in those institutions using standard semester, trimester, or quarter hour systems, where all undergraduate students who are enrolled for a minimum of twelve semester or quarter hours are charged full-time tuition or are considered full-time for other administrative purposes, or its equivalent (as determined by the district director in the school approval process), except when the student needs a lesser course load to complete the course of study during the current term;
- Study in a postsecondary language, liberal arts, fine arts, or other non-vocational program at a school which confers upon its graduates recognized associate or other degrees or has established that its credits have been and are accepted unconditionally by at least three institutions of higher learning which are either:
- A school (or school system) owned and operated as a public educational institution by the United States or a State or political subdivision thereof; or
- a school accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting body; and which has been certified by a designated school official to consist of at least twelve clock hours of instruction a week, or its equivalent as determined by the district director in the school approval process;
- Study in any other language, liberal arts, fine arts, or other nonvocational training program, certified by a designated school official to consist of at least eighteen clock hours of attendance a week if the dominant part of the course of study consists of classroom instruction, or to consist of at least twenty-two clock hours a week if the dominant part of the course of study consists of laboratory work.
Reduced Course Load
A student who needs to drop below a full course load must seek prior approval from the Designated School Official (DSO). The DSO may authorize a reduced course load on account of a student’s initial difficulty with the English language or reading requirements, unfamiliarity with U.S. teaching methods, or improper course level placement. The student must then resume a full course of study at the next available term, session or semester.
The DSO may also authorize a reduced course load or no course load due to a student’s temporary illness or medical condition for a period of time not to exceed 12 aggregate months.
Finally, the DSO may also authorize a reduced course load in the student’s final term, semester, or session if fewer courses are needed to complete the course of study.
If reductions in course load make it so that the student is unable to complete the course of study by the completion date on the Form I-20, the DSO may grant an extension of the program completion date. The student must apply for the extension prior to the end of the program completion date listed on the I-20.
An F-1 student may enroll in two different USCIS-approved schools at one time so long as the combined enrollment amounts to a full time course of study. The school from which the student will earn her degree or certification should issue the Form I-20.
F-1 Student Employment
F-1 students are authorized to engage in on-campus employment up to 20 hours per week while school is in session, and full-time when school is not in session or during the annual vacation. On-campus employment must be performed on the school’s premises or at an off-campus location which is educationally affiliated with the school. In any event, the employment must be an integral part of the student’s educational program.
Off-Campus Employment Due to Severe Economic Hardship
If on-campus employment is not available or is insufficient, an eligible F-1 student may request off-campus employment authorization based on severe economic hardship caused by unforeseen circumstances beyond the student’s control (e.g. loss of financial aid or on-campus employment without fault on the part of the student). This option is only available for students who have completed at least one year in F-1 status and are in good academic standing.
Curricular Practical Training
F-1 students may also engage in a curricular practical training program (either on- or off-campus) that is an integral part of an established curriculum. This includes an alternative work/study, internship, cooperative education, or any other type of required internship or practicum that is offered by sponsoring employers through cooperative agreements with the school.
Optional Practical Training
An F-1 student may apply to USCIS for authorization for temporary employment for optional practical training (OPT) directly related to the student’s major area of study. The OPT can be granted for a maximum of 14 months after completion of one’s studies. However, if an F-1 student uses a full year of CPT, OPT will no longer be available. Timing of the expiration date of OPT is often critical for graduating students who wish to change status to H-1B.