Frequently Asked Questions: Visas, Green Cards & Immigration Law
As a result of assisting hundreds of immigration clients with various visa matters in past years, our immigration lawyers have compiled a list of frequently asked questions. Be sure to check back often as this list is continually updated. Still have a question? Contact us today to speak with an experienced immigration law attorney.
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Can I switch schools immediately after arriving in the U.S. with an F-1 visa?
Yes, but the process can be tricky. Before you can switch your F-1 visa to a different school, you have to make sure that your program at the new institution meets the requirements of the student visa.
In order to qualify for an F-1 visa, your studies in the U.S. must:
- Be performed at an accredited college, university, academic high school, elementary school, seminary, conservatory, or similar academic institution
- Take place at an institution that is authorized to accept international students by the U.S. government
- Be full-time
- Include a language training program
- Award you with a degree, diploma, or certificate upon completion
If your new program of study meets these requirements, you can transfer your visa almost immediately. When you arrive in the U.S., you must report to the school you initially chose (listed on your Form I-20). The Designated School Official (DSO) will activate your SEVIS record before transferring it to the new school you wish to attend.
Even if you have been terminated from a current or previous school, the school is obligated to transfer your SEVIS record to any institution you choose. U.S. schools are prohibited from withholding SEVIS records for financial or business reasons. If the school refuses to transfer your SEVIS record, you can contact the DSO at your new school for assistance or seek legal advice to expedite the process.
I previously overstayed a student F-1 visa. Will this affect my future visa applications?
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Yes. If you overstayed a student F-1 visa for more than 180 days, you will be barred from returning to the United States for either three or ten years, depending the length of overstay. Even if you are approved for another type of visa, you will be prohibited from returning to the U.S. until the time period that you have been banned has past.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only punishment aliens may face when overstaying a visa. Even after the three or ten year ban to re-entry has passed, USCIS will examine and evaluate the fact that you previously overstayed a visa when determining your “nonimmigrant intent” for future visa approval. Any period of overstay could result in the denial of future visa applications.
As trusted immigration attorneys, we know there are many reasons F-1 students may not be able to avoid overstaying the length of their visa. For example, a student may be able to extend his or her stay and avoid a ban on reentry to the U.S. if they:
- Have pending good faith asylum applications at USCIS at the time of visa expiration
- Qualify for asylum due to personal danger—such as battered spouses and children
- Applicants who are awaiting decisions on pending change of status, extension, or adjustment of status petitions
I’m studying in the U.S. under an F-1 visa, but I need to go back home right away. Can I leave if there’s an emergency?
Yes. The F-1 visa program will allow you to return to your native country, but you must communicate your intentions to your school and the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services. You will also need to carry several items and important documents with you when you exit and re-enter the country, which may include:
- A valid passport
- Your student visa
- Form I-20, "Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status"
- Form I-94, "Arrival/Departure Record"
- Your Social Security card
- Plane tickets or travel itinerary
- Form I-765, "Employment Authorization Document" (EAD)
- Contact numbers or email addresses of your designated school officials (DSOs) or responsible officers (ROs)
Customers and border patrol officers may ask for additional school information, so it is wise to carry your Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) contact information with you as well.
If you fail to possess the necessary documents, you may have trouble re-entering the United States after your trip home is complete. If you are gone longer than the term of your visa, your status may become invalid, leaving you to begin the application process all over again.
What is considered a full course of study under the F-1 visa requirements?
In order to qualify for an F-1 student visa, you must enrolled in a full course of study and be a full-time student. But what exactly does this mean?
Whether you are a full-time student or a part-time student is a distinction made by the school that you are attending. However, you can follow some general guidelines to determine whether or not you are studying full time. For example, most full-time students are working toward a specific degree or objective, such as:
- An Associate's degree
- A Bachelor's degree
- A Master's degree
- A doctorate
Attending a primary school or secondary school also constitutes full-time study, as you are working toward a diploma and graduation.
Generally, full-time study at an undergraduate program involves taking 12 credits per semester. Full-time study at the graduate level usually requires 9 credits per semester. However, these requirements may differ, depending on the degree and the learning institution.
It is important to understand that full-time study still involves and allows regular vacations and breaks, such as summer vacation and winter vacation. However, your full-time study status may be in jeopardy if you miss classes or go on personal vacations.
I am applying for an F-1 student visa and my school collected a Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) I-901 fee, does this cover the fee paid to the government?
Not necessarily. An immigration lawyer can help distinguish between a fee collected by the college or university and the required I-901 fee to be paid to the government. Please read through the following scenarios and recommendations:
- Some colleges and universities collect a fee to help with the costs that support international students. This may be called an I-901 fee, but does not cover the mandated paperwork and costs that you need to pay the US government prior to applying for an F-1 visa.
- Other colleges and universities collect the SEVIS I-901 fee and pay on your behalf.
- If your college or university has charged a SEVIS I-901 fee, you must ask whether this is the government fee or a school fee.
- If this is a government fee, the school will provide you with a written receipt on a Form I-797 for proof of payment or separate confirmation of payment.
Call our California immigration attorneys if you have any questions, as a properly completed SEVIS I-901 form will allow the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to:
- Determine the appropriate fee (which is usually $200)
- Post payment to the SEVIS record
- Mail the receipt
- Provide for expedited delivery, if you have requested and paid extra for this service
Proof of payment of the SEVIS fee is required prior to processing your F-1 visa application and prior to your interview. If you are enrolled in or have been accepted to an approved college or university in California, or elsewhere throughout the United States, our F-1 immigration attorneys in California can provide assistance throughout the process.
How May I Prove My Clear Intention To Return Home After Graduation On My F-1 Visa Application?
During the F-1 application process, officials will be interested in determining whether or not you intend to return home once your course of study is complete in the United States. Your application has a better chance of being approved if you can verify that you have important ties to your country and long-term plans to reside there.
While there are no specific documentation requests, you may wish to prove through documentation that:
• You own a home in your country or have a long-term rent agreement.
• You have immediate family members residing in your home country, such as a spouse or children.
• You have a bank account or have investments in your home country.
• Your or your family own a business in your home country.
• You have a job you plan to return to in your home country.
• Your future degree will lead to employment opportunities near your home.
• You are involved in ongoing cultural activities or organizations in your home country.
• If you do not currently live in your home country, that you visit home frequently.
Proving your intent to return to your country of origin after school is over is one of the most difficult and confusing aspects of an F-1 Visa application.
Am I Allowed To Find Work If I Have F-1 Student Status?
Unless specifically authorized by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), students with F-1 student status have limited opportunities to work in the United States.
Legally, those holding F-1 student visas may only work 20 hours a week and may only hold on-campus jobs. In addition, students with F-1 status generally may not displace employees who are United States citizens and may not work for commercial firms on campus that do not directly provide student services. If school is not in session, such as during summer months or over holidays, students can work full-time (40 hours per week) at their on-campus job.
Working on campus requires students to fill out an I-9 Employment Verification Authorization form and often requires approval from your International Student Office.
International students with F-1 status who are facing severe economic hardship may be authorized to seek off-campus employment. To qualify for this authorization, students must prove a significant change in their financial situation since their application for an F-1 visa.
International students who are out of F-1 status are not eligible for either on-campus or off-campus employment.
Do I need a new visa if I transfer schools?
The answer to this depends on whether your F-1 student visa stamp in your passport is still valid or not. Note that this only becomes an issue if you as the student decide to leave the U.S. and you then seek to re-enter.
If you have already been admitted to the U.S. then your I-94 controls how long you can stay in the U.S., and for students it normally states D/S for duration of stay. However, if you transfer schools and you are going to travel, then read the following sections to determine if you need to go to the U.S. consulate/embassy in your home country before attempting to re-enter.
Do I Need to Go to the U.S. Consulate Before Re-Entering the U.S.?
1. Valid Visa Stamp: A student can re-enter using the old visa stamp that has the old school's name on it as long as the visa stamp is not expired and the student has a new I-20 and other supporting documentation. It is always a good idea to take financial support evidence as well when presenting yourself at a port of entry.
2. Expired Visa Stamp: If, however, the visa stamp itself has expired then, as with all visa categories, the student will need to get a valid visa stamp allowing entry. This stamp will then have the new schools name on it. Have the student take the new I-20, financial support evidence, and the other documents required by the particular consulate/embassy to get the new visa stamp from consulate.
The only exception to having to present a valid visa stamp for students is if travel will be to a neighboring U.S. country like Canada or Mexico.