International students who plan to attend an academic program or English language program at a U.S. college or university may do so by obtaining an F-1 Visa. To maintain their status, F-1 students must take a full course of study each term. Students on F-1 Visas may remain in the U.S. for up to an additional 60 days beyond the length of time it takes to complete their academic program. If necessary, international students may request an extension of stay through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Students may also remain in the U.S. after completing their academic program if they are approved to stay and work under a practical training program. A visa interview is required to determine whether an international student is qualified to receive an F1 student visa. Once approved, F-1 students may enter the U.S. no more than 30 days before the start date of their course of study.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) electronic system for maintaining information on international students and exchange visitors. The first step in the student visa process is to apply to a SEVP-approved school in the United States. Once the approved school accepts the student’s enrollment, the student will pay the SEVIS I-901 fee and register into the SEVIS system. Next, the school will send the student the Form I-20 to complete. Then, the student may apply for a student visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate or if already in the United States, apply with USCIS to change to or extend their student status. Data in a student’s SEVIS record can be taken into account when the government determines eligibility for immigration benefits. Government entities will also look to SEVIS status as a primary source in determining a person’s immigration status. Thus, it is crucial that the student—with the help of the student’s principal designated school official (PDSO) and other designated school officials (DSO)—keep the student’s SEVIS updated to ensure that the student is maintaining their student visa status. Schools and exchange visitor programs are responsible for creating and maintaining SEVIS records and are subject to numerous reporting requirements.
F-1 students may also engage in valuable work experience related to their area of study in the U.S. during or after their program ends. Students in English-language training programs are not eligible for practical training.
There are two types of practical training: Curricular practical training (CPT) and Optional practical training (OPT).
Curricular practical training is an activity that is “an integral part of an established curriculum.” This type of training may take the form of a work-study program or internship and can be either part-time or full-time. A cooperative agreement between the school and the employer or a letter from the employer is required. Students who use a full year of full-time CPT are ineligible for OPT at the same academic level.
Optional practical training must relate to the student’s major or area of study. Pre-completion OPT is available to F-1 students on a part-time basis (not to exceed 20 hours per week) during school sessions, and on a part-time or full-time basis during school breaks. Post-completion OPT is available after the student completes their academic program or, for bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral students, after completion of all requirements for the degree. A student’s start date for post-completion OPT may not be more than 60 days after completing their academic program, and—unless they obtain a STEM extension—must finish their training within 14 months of the completion of their academic program. Lastly, students do not need a job offer to apply for OPT. Instead, students need a DSO recommendation, must be issued Form I-766 (EAD), and must submit Form I-765 and any other documents to USCIS.
Furthermore, OPT students in the STEM field are subject to additional benefits. F-1 students with a degree in the STEM field who work for employers that participate in E-Verify may be eligible for an extension of post-completion OPT for up to 24 months, for a total of up to 36 months of OPT. This is a one-time benefit and is usually obtained through a DSO recommendation.
Unless a student qualifies for some on-campus work experience or curricular practical training, F-1 Visa students are not allowed to work off-campus. If a student is approved for OPT, they should note that extended periods of unemployment constitute a violation of status.
DURATION OF STATUS
In September 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a proposed rule that would eliminate the practice of Duration of Status (D/S). Under current law, foreign nationals applying for an F-1 Visa enter with a set “duration of status” that can last anywhere between a matter of weeks to multiple years, depending on the length of the program. The new rule would limit the maximum amount of time to four years, and two years for individuals from certain countries—not long enough for some to complete their programs. F-1 students who are unable to complete their program in the allotted time frame would need to apply for and receive an extension of stay by USCIS or U.S. Customs and Border Protection to remain in the United States. Currently, school officials have the authority to extend F status. The proposed rule would make it more difficult for individuals to complete their programs and apply for extensions—which are both expensive and not guaranteed. For now, this is a proposed rule and is not final. Should this rule be finalized, there is a possibility that it could be stopped through legal action after it is implemented, as in the case of the USCIS policy on accrual of unlawful presence for students that went into effect in August 2018 but was subsequently enjoined by a permanent nationwide injunction.