The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. State Department are in charge of administering the F-1 student visa program. Within DHS, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is the primary agency which manages both the schools and the students. Foreign individuals who want to study in the United States must apply to and be accepted at a school that is authorized by the SEVP to enroll international students.  After the student receives an official statement of eligibility from the school, he or she will need to pay an online fee, and then apply for the visa abroad.  During the visa application process, the student will have to show that they have paid all necessary immigration fees, have sufficient funds to pay for their tuition and living expenses, and intend to return home after their studies are complete. Obtaining the visa does not guarantee admission to the United States.  DHS’s U.S. Customs and Border Patrol makes that decision on an individualized basis when the F-1 visa holder presents for admission at the U.S. border or port of entry. 
Several employment options are available for F-1 students. Work always requires approval from the school and off-campus work requires approval from DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  Throughout the student’s stay in the U.S., the school is responsible for updating SEVIS with the student’s address changes, academic progress and employment status.  Students who graduate may apply for a visa extension to complete the next degree level.

A. Designated School Organization

Schools in the United States must seek official designation to enroll F-1 students.12  DHS has established a number of different criteria for approval, the most basic of which is the requirement that “it is a bona fide school.”  DHS conducts site visits to ensure that schools are legitimate.13 As of July 2013, DHS has authorized 9,522 schools to sponsor F-1 students.14 Most of these colleges and universities go to great lengths to ensure compliance with the F-1 program, educating students with copious amounts of regulatory data and providing a steady stream of F-1 student updates to DHS’ SEVIS database.  

1. Online coursework allowed

F-1 program regulations suggest that the ability to engage in on-line learning is very limited because an F-1 student’s “physical attendance” for coursework is expected.15   Notwithstanding this requirement, DHS has clarified: 

There is no limit to the number of online classes that can be counted toward a full course of study if the school can confirm the physical presence and participation of students.  SEVP encourages schools to make maximum use of monitored online training as feasible.16


B. Steps for Students

Foreign individuals must apply to and be accepted for enrollment at a school that has been approved to enroll international students. Through SEVIS, school administrators generate Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status - for Academic and Language Students, certifying an applicant’s eligibility for student or exchange visitor status.  The school sends the Form I-20 to the student.  With that form, the student applies for the visa at the U.S. consulate or embassy abroad.20 In addition to this form, students need to have proof that the student has paid the SEVIS fee, statements showing sufficient funds to pay tuition, room and board, preparation for the course of study, and proof of the applicant’s present intent to leave the U.S. at the conclusion of their studies.  A student also must be proficient in English or be enrolled in classes leading to English proficiency.21   If an applicant fails to meet the criteria, the visa will be denied.22 There is a higher refusal rate than with other nonimmigrant visas that authorize work.  Since 2008, the State Department’s adjusted refusal rate for F-1 visas has met or neared 20%.23 Even so, the majority of F-1 visa applications are granted.

1. Maintaining the Form I-20

An F-1 student is expected to maintain possession of the initial Form I-20 bearing the admission number, and any subsequent copies that the school issues when changes are made or employment is authorized.24 Replacement copies are equally valid, however.

2. Paying the SEVIS Fee

F-1 students are required to pay a $200 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee to DHS.25 Students use Form I-901, Fee Remittance for Certain Nonimmigrants, to pay the SEVIS fee.26 At the visa interview, Consular officers verify SEVIS fee payment through the system.  It is generally a one-time fee as long as the nonimmigrant maintains F-1 status.27 A new fee is not required if the student transfers to a different school, extends their stay or leaves the U.S. temporarily and reenters. 

3. Admission to the United States

A visa does not guarantee admission to the United States.  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection will either permit or deny entry after their own inspection and will determine the permitted time allowed in the U.S., which may be less time than what is listed on the visa itself.28  

  • 12. 8 C.F.R. § 214.3 (setting forth requirements for DHS certification for schools).
  • 13. 8 C.F.R. § 214.3(h)(3).
  • 14. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ICE, SEVP, SEVIS General Summary Quarterly Review (July 3, 2013), available at http://www.ice.gov/doclib/sevis/pdf/by-the-numbers.pdf. The number of authorized schools is published quarterly.
  • 15. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(6)(i)(G).
  • 16. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ICE, Decision by SEVP Director, Full Course of Study: California Community Colleges Crisis, (Nov. 12, 2009), available at http://www.nafsa.org/_/File/_/regxii/ca_cc_sevpannouncement.pdf.
  • 20. 9 FAM 41.61.
  • 21. 9 FAM 41.61 N1, N5.1; U.S. Department of Homeland Security, USCIS, Students and Employment, (Aug. 19, 2010), available at http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.eb1d4c2a3e5b9ac89243c6a7....
  • 22. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(1)(i)(a); 8 U.S.C. § 1231(b).
  • 23. U.S. Department of State, Nonimmigrant Visa Statistics, NIV Workload by Category, 2006-2012, available at http://www.travel.state.gov/visa/statistics/nivstats/nivstats_4582.html (last visited June 2013).
  • 24. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(2).
  • 25. 8 C.F.R. § 214.13(a)(1); U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ICE, SEVP, I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, available at http://www.ice.gov/sevis/i901/ (last visited June 2013).
  • 26. 8 C.F.R. § 214.13(g).
  • 27. 8 C.F.R. § 214.13(e). Generally, status is maintained from the time of obtaining the visa through the time when the student completes the academic program, which can include Optional Practical Training (OPT), or when the student stops going to school, changes immigration status, or departs the United States for an extended period of time.
  • 28. 8 U.S.C. §1225; 8 C.F.R. Part 235, Inspection of Persons Applying for Admission; see also Austin T. Fragomen, Jr., Alfred J. Del Rey, Jr., and Sam Bernsen, Immigration Law and Business § 2:11 (2010) (“The issuance of a nonimmigrant visa gives the alien permission to apply for admission to the United States at a port of entry…The visa does not assure an alien that he or she will be admitted to the United States, however; it merely indicates that a consular officer has found the alien eligible for temporary admission to the United States and not inadmissible under § 212(a) of the INA, 8 U.S.C.A. § 1182(a).”).

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