The F-1 nonimmigrant visa allows foreign individuals to study in the United States; work is allowed on-campus part-time, and off-campus in only certain situations requiring government approval.

The F-1 nonimmigrant visa is for foreign students to study “at an established college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic high school, elementary school, or other academic institution or in a language training program in the United States.”1  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. State Department oversee the F-1 visa program.  Schools apply for designation to be able to enroll foreign students, and once they enroll, schools are responsible for updating all pertinent information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a data base administered by DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement which tracks foreign students.2 The DHS’s Customs and Border Patrol oversees every admission to the U.S. at the border and other ports of entry.

Indeed, the F-1 visa has come to be widely recognized as another temporary work program for jobs ranging from low-wage retail clerks to skilled information technology positions. F-1 students are allowed to work off-campus when they show economic hardship or through practical training programs.  Some students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields may stay and work in the United States for more than two years after graduation. Students working post-graduation do so only with authorization from DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The U.S. Department of Labor does not regulate the program at all despite its affects on U.S. labor markets. DHS spends considerable resources tracking foreign students, and their enforcement efforts center on finding and removing foreign students who violate the terms of their visa. There is a gap, however, in achieving justice for the students who fall victim to predatory schools that recruit them, charge exorbitant fees, and upon enrollment, immediately farm them out in low-wage jobs that double as curricular training programs.  When the U.S. government discovers these visa mill schemes, the schools and officials are punished, and the students simply deported.
While DHS and the U.S. State Department reveal the number of F-1 students, neither agency regularly releases information about F-1 students who work. A non-governmental organization, the Institute of International Education, annually estimates the number of participants in post-graduation work programs based on an extensive surveys, and that number alone has tripled in the span of a decade, from 22,745 participants in 2002 to 85,157 in 2012.

A. Duration

The F-1 visa is valid for the duration of the academic program, as long as the student is in school full time or is doing authorized practical training following graduation.3  A student may be admitted for a period up to 30 days before the program start date.4  F-1 students are “considered to be maintaining status if he or she is making normal progress toward completing a course of study.”5

B. No Annual Cap

There is no limit to the number of F visas that may be issued annually. 

C. F-2 Visa For Dependents

An F-1 student’s spouse and minor children are eligible to apply for F-2 visas.6  The duration of an F-2 visa is the same as the principal F-1 student’s.7 Unlike with spouses of J-1 and L-1 visas, F-2 spouses are not eligible to work in the United States.8 F-2 spouses may not “engage in full time study” but minor children may attend elementary or secondary school.9 An F-2 spouse who wants to study full time must apply for and obtain a change of nonimmigrant classification to student status (F-1, J-1, or M-1).10  F-2 spouses and children who study without permission are in violation of their immigration status.11

  • 1. 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(15)(f)(i).
  • 2. SEVIS is a computer database designed to track information about students and exchange visitors, which include workers with a J-1 visa. See 22 C.F.R. Part 62, Subpart F.
  • 3. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(5)(i). F-1 students who attend public high schools are restricted to an aggregate of 12 months of study.
  • 4. Id.
  • 5. Id.
  • 6. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(3); 9 FAM 41.54 N21.
  • 7. 9 FAM 41.54 N21.1 a.
  • 8. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(15)(i); 9 FAM 41.61 N13.3.
  • 9. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(15)(ii); 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(15)(ii)(A). However, the F-2 spouse and child may engage in study that is vocational or recreational in nature
  • 10. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(15)(ii)(B).
  • 11. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(15)(ii)(C).

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