A student visa may be granted to a person who wishes to take an ESL course or get an academic degree in the U.S. The student visa is distinguished from an M visa which is granted to students who wish to study in a vocational school in the U.S. The student visa is also distinguished from the J-1 exchange visitor visa which is administered by the U.S. Information Agency.

School selection

The student visa allows foreign students to enroll in educational institutions in the U.S. ranging from elementary schools and secondary schools to colleges and graduate schools for academic studies. Institutions include seminary schools or language schools, but do not include vocational school since it is non-academic coursework. Not every elementary or secondary school and college issues I-20s, but permitted schools by the USCIS can provide I-20s. Therefore, foreign students must find the schools that issue I-20s and start the admissions process.

According to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, there is a restriction on admission to public elementary and secondary schools for F-1 visa holders. An international student who has an F-1 visa through private school admission can not transfer to and attend public schools for more than one year; otherwise such action would violate the F-1 visa status. However, the children of non-immigrant visa holders such as F-2, L-2, E-2 and A-1 are allowed to study at public schools.

Admissions Process

In general, one must submit an application for admission if he or she wishes to enroll at elementary or secondary schools, colleges, and graduate schools. Since the academic year starts with the fall semester in the U.S., one should start the admissions process at least a year before he/she plans to start studies. Most students submit applications to approximately ten schools and choose one among the admitted schools.

Admission Requirements

In order to pursue study and gain admission in the U.S., one must pass an English proficiency test such as the TOEFL. Generally speaking, graduate schools and Ivy League schools require relatively higher TOEFL scores compared to other colleges. To study in the U.S., one must prove financial ability to pay for at least one year of all tuition expenses. One should show availibility of sufficient funds to cover academic expenses by submitting proof of financial funds, bank statements and current sources of income. If a student is admitted, the school will issue an I-20. With the I-20, students can apply for an F-1 visa at the U.S. embassy.


SEVIS is an acronym for ‘Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.’ It is a system to track and monitor individuals who hold F-1, M, and J visas. Following the September 11 attack, it was mandated in January 2003 to track international students and J-1 visa holders. According to SEVIS, all schools and programs must report admissions, transfers, graduations, the OPT, in-school status (full time or part time enrollment), and entry to the U.S.

Once an F-1 student safely arrives in the U.S., the student must first meet an international adviser to report his/her arrival and start the program within 30 days of the initial admission into the U.S. As long as the student enrolls for a full course of study, the student can maintain the F-1 visa status. However, there may be circumstances in which a student wishes to transfer to another school. In order to transfer, a student must maintain current F-1 visa status and report to both the transfer-out school and transfer-in school. The transfer-out school needs to report to SEVIS about the process of the transfer and set an ending date of the current session. The transfer-out school keeps students’ records until the end of the current session or the transfer release date. After the transfer release date, the transfer-in school reports the transfer and then issues the I-20. The student must report to the advisor of the transfer-in school no later than 15 days prior to the program start date. After the report, the student registers at the school and the school reports to SEVIS to end the transfer process.

On-Campus Employment

On-Campus employment includes work on campus such as at a school library, bookstore, or cafeteria. On-Campus employment is allowed to F-1 visa students with no prior completion of course. Students can work for up to 20 hours a week while school is in session and full-time during vacation periods. Work performed on an off-campus location is still considered on-campus employment if the job is performed in a relevant facility of the school or the job is educationally affiliated with the course of study.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

CPT is an employment authorization for F-1 visa students if the employment of the students is an integral part of the academic program. CPT is allowed for students who have been enrolled on a full-time basis for one academic year and have a good academic record. However, there is an exception for graduate students with less than one year of enrollment whose programs require immediate CPT. CPT is allowed when the training employment is required for earning degrees or credits. Students can engage in CPT either on a part-time or full-time basis. However, when students participate in 2 or more years of part-time CPT or in one or more years of full-time CPT, such students will not be eligible for post-completion optional practical training.

OPT is a work authorization available to F-1 visa students to allow employment for practical training in their field of study. OPT is available to full-time students who have enrolled for at least two consecutive semesters. OPT is available both before and after completing the degree program. OPT that takes place before graduation can be used for up to 20 hours per week during the semester, but post-completion OPT can be used for up to 12 months of full-time employment.

A student may apply up to 90 days before the program end date and up to 60 days after the program end date. No more than 90 days of unemployment is allowed from the start date of OPT and unemployment greater than 90 days results in cancellation of OPT.

A STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) student may apply for an extension prior to the expiration of the first 12 month OPT and his employment authorization is extended automatically for 180 days.

F-1 visa students may change their status to other non-immigrant visas. Students who are employed after graduation may apply for an H-1B visa, and they may eventually obtain permanent residency through employment.