Studying in the United States

Two visa categories are designed specifically for students: the F category for academic students, and the M category for vocational students. However, these are not the only nonimmigrants who are allowed to study in the U.S. The J Exchange Visitor category is an alternative for many students. B visitors are allowed to engage in brief or incidental study, including recreational programs. H, L, E, O and P nonimmigrants and their dependents are allowed to enroll in school, as are F-2 and J-2 dependents. The advantage of enrolling in these categories is that you do not need to maintain a full-time course load. However, except for J-2s, you will not be able to take advantage of the work opportunities available to Fs (or Ms).

Academic institutions, including high schools, community colleges, and universities, may apply for and receive DHS accreditation to accept foreign students. Students must apply to and be accepted by such a school. The school then issues an I-20 to the student. The student must then obtain an F visa abroad, except in the case of Canadians, who need I-20s but do not need visas. An F student must have a foreign residence which she does not intend to abandon, and must have means to pay for her education and support in the United States. It is also possible to change status to F in the United States. However, USCIS will frequently deny a change of status from B to F, unless the B visa is annotated “prospective student.” Any B visitor who has applied for a change of status may not begin studies until the change of status has been approved.

An F student must maintain a full-course of study. This means a 12 hour undergraduate course load. Graduate study is more flexible, but the student must be making normal progress towards a degree. The Designated School Officer (DSO) may authorize less than full-time study under exceptional circumstances, such as illness or difficulty in adapting to the U.S. academic environment. F students are admitted for “duration of status” known as “D/S.” This includes a final 60 day grace period.

F students may engage in part-time on-campus employment up to twenty hours a week, and full time on-campus employment during school vacations, as soon as they enroll. The DSO may authorize full or part-time off-campus Curricular Practical Training (CPT) as well. This is work that is an integral part of the school’s curriculum. Undergraduates must be enrolled for nine months before they are eligible for CPT. There is no limit on the duration of CPT, but if you engage in 12 months of full-time CPT, you are no longer eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT). Optional Practical Training is additional work experience related to your course of study. It is usually taken after study is complete. Students must be approved by the DSO, and must then apply for an EAD using form I-765.

In April 2008 USCIS announced several important changes to the OPT program. Students with “STEM” degrees (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) are now eligible for an additional 17 months of OPT. Only e-verify employers can hire students on a STEM extension. Click here for a list of current STEM degrees. Also, students caught in the “H-1B Cap Gap” can now get an automatic extension until the following October 1 if they have an approved or pending H-1B petition when their EAD expires. Finally, periods of unemployment will now be limited to three months in the first year of OPT, with another three months allowed during the 17 month extension.

The M-1 category for vocational students is much more restrictive. It is available for a maximum of one year at a time, although extensions are permitted. No change of program is allowed after six months. The only employment permitted is a maximum of six month’s post-completion practical training. There is only a 30 day grace period after the program is complete. You cannot change status to F, nor can you change status to H-1B status based on credentials acquired as an M.

There is much concern today with tracking foreign students in the U.S., to make sure they report to school and remain in status. An Internet-based system for tracking all foreign students, known as SEVIS, has now been implemented. All events in a student’s immigration history are now documented through SEVIS.

Be sure you have the student visa that is right for you, and that you maintain your student status.