F-1 Student Visas
This guidance is addressed to potential and current VCU international students seeking information about F-1 visas.
Regulatory citation: 8 CFR 214.2 (f) Academic and Language Students
F-1 is a U.S. nonimmigrant status granted to an international student by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the primary purpose of:
- Studying full-time in a degree or certificate program at a U.S. university that has been certified (authorized) by DHS to sponsor F-1 visas, or
- Working in the U.S. after receiving post-completion OPT or STEM OPT authorization from USCIS.
Nonimmigrant means you must maintain a permanent residence abroad and not intend to remain in the U.S. beyond the completion of your degree or certificate or authorized OPT or STEM OPT.
No. F-1 may be the most common status for international students but it is not the only status that permits studying in the U.S.
F-1 is a true student status in that if you are in F-1 status you are legally required to engage in full-time study in a degree or certificate program prior to program completion.
Some other U.S. immigration statuses (for example: H-4 dependent of an H-1B visa holder) permit international students to study in the U.S., but if you are in one of these statuses you are not legally required to study.
An VCU F-1 student is an international student who is in the U.S. in accordance with:
- A valid I-20 issued to them by VCU, and
- An I-94 record marked for Class of Admission F-1 and Admit Until Date D/S.
A VCU F-1 student’s basic immigration documents are:
- Passport issued by your country of citizenship
- F-1 visa stamp placed in the passport by a U.S. consulate abroad
- I-20 issued by VCU
- I-94 record created or updated by DHS
Citizens of Canada (only) are not required to obtain an F-1 visa stamp from a U.S. consulate abroad.
I-20 is shorthand for Form I-20 Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, a controlled DHS document that is available only from a U.S. university that has accepted your application for admission to the school for full-time study in a degree or certificate program.
An I-20 does not, by itself, grant F-1 status to you. Rather, an I-20 allows you to:
- Obtain F-1 status, and
- Demonstrate, in conjunction with an I-94 record marked for Class of Admission F-1 and Admit Until Date D/S, that you are in the U.S. in F-1 status.
There are three ways to obtain F-1 status.
- Consulate processing
- Border processing
- USCIS processing
The three options are discussed in detail below.
Consulate processing can be a fast, and despite travel expenses, cost effective way to obtain F-1 status.
To obtain F-1 status via consulate processing:
- Obtain a VCU I-20
- Pay the SEVIS fee
- Use the VCU I-20 to apply for an F-1 visa stamp at a U.S. consulate abroad.
- Travel to the U.S. and, upon arrival, request admission in F-1 status from Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
F-1 visa stamps are available only from U.S. consulates abroad. They are not available inside the U.S. To apply for an F-1 visa stamp, follow the instructions online at the U.S. consulate you will be applying at.
The U.S. Department of State (DOS) manages all U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. The official DOS list of U.S. embassies and consulates with links to their websites is online at https://www.usembassy.gov/
Follow the consulate’s online instructions as they appear on their website.
Citizens of Canada (only) do not require F-1 visa stamps in their passports.
Border processing is an option for citizens of Canada only (traveling to the U.S. on a Canadian passport).
- Obtain a VCU I-20
- Pay the SEVIS fee
- Travel to the U.S. and, upon arrival, request admission in F-1 status from CBP.
As a citizen of Canada, you:
- Are not required to obtain F-1 visa stamps in your passport from a U.S. consulate abroad before traveling to the U.S. You are required to obtain an I-20 from VCU and to pay the SEVIS fee before traveling to the U.S.
- Can border process by air, land, or sea arrival—regardless of where your travel to the U.S. originates. You can border process by traveling to the U.S. directly from Canada, or you can border process by traveling to the U.S. from any other country.
USCIS processing is an option only if you are currently in the U.S. in a non-F-1 status (such as H-4) and want to obtain F-1 status without the international travel required by consulate processing.
To obtain F-1 status via USCIS processing:
- Obtain a VCU I-20
- Pay the SEVIS fee
- Submit the I-20 as part of a Form I-539 Application to Change Nonimmigrant Status filed with USCIS.
- When USCIS approves your I-539 application, they will send a Form I-797 F-1 approval notice to you. You will be in F-1 status on the effective date noted on the USCIS F-1 approval notice.
USCIS does not permit VCU to become a legal party to the I-539 process. Therefore GEO’s support for the I-539 process is limited to providing the VCU I-20 for change of status to you and recommending that you either:
- Review USCIS’ official I-539 guidance at https://www.uscis.gov/i-539 and prepare and file the I-539 on your own, or
- Hire an immigration lawyer to prepare and file the I-539 with USCIS for you
GEO cannot answer any questions about the I-539 process, including:
- The advisability of USCIS processing vs. consulate processing
- When, where, and how to file the I-539 application
- What answers to provide to questions on the I-539 application
- What materials to submit to USCIS with the I-539 application
- USCIS I-539 filing fees, filing address, or processing times
GEO cannot help you develop a timeline to file an I-539 application in order to:
- Avoid becoming subject to out-of-state VCU tuition charges
- Pursue a U.S. immigration process unrelated to F-1
If USCIS approves your I-539 F-1 application, they will send a Form I-797 F-1 approval notice to you by U.S. mail at the residential address you indicated on the I-539 application form.
The USCIS F-1 approval notice will include an I-94 record updated from your most recent admission to the U.S. by CBP. The USCIS-issued I-94 record will reflect your new status (F-1) and an effective date for the start of your F-1 status.
You will become immediately subject to the F-1 regulations and responsible for complying with the regulations while you are in the U.S. as of the I-94 effective date of the start of your F-1 status.
Am I required to hire a lawyer to prepare and file the I-539 application?
No. USCIS permits you to file an I-539 application on your own without the support of a lawyer.
Why would I need a lawyer for the I-539 process?
The I-539 F-1 process is complex and the negative consequences of an improperly prepared or filed application can be significant.
For this reason, GEO recommends that students hire a lawyer to prepare and file an I-539 F-1 application for them.
If you would like guidance about how to identify and hire an immigration lawyer for this purpose, please let us know by email.
Lawyers charge for their services, and you would be responsible for paying their fees from personal funds.
It depends on where you are in your VCU student lifecycle.
If you are not yet a VCU student:
- Apply to VCU via International Admissions
- If your application is accepted, International Admissions will provide a VCU I-20 to you
If you are a VCU student but in a non-F-1 status (for example: F-2, J-2, H-4, etc.) and you want to obtain F-1 status
- contact the Global Education Office (GEO) for support.
SEVIS is the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a secure DHS document creation and data management system. For F-1 processing, SEVIS is accessible only by a Designated School Official (DSO) at the school. SEVIS is not accessible to students. Nonetheless, DHS charges F-1 students a fee to off-set the cost of operating SEVIS.
How do I pay the SEVIS fee?
After you receive your I-20, go to the SEVIS fee payment website and follow the instructions.
The technical name of the SEVIS fee is the I-901 fee. The SEVIS fee website uses the terms SEVIS fee and I-901 fee interchangeably, but they mean the same thing.
The terms I-20, F-1 visa stamp, F-1 status, and I-94 record are closely related but they do not mean the same thing or play the same role in F-1 compliance. Please take time to understand the terms and try to use them appropriately.
A visa, or visa stamp, is a sticker that is placed in your passport by a U.S. consulate abroad. Visa stamps are marked with a letter classification, such as F-1. An F-1 visa stamp indicates that you are eligible to travel to the U.S. and request admission in F-1 status from CBP in conjunction with an I-20.
Citizens of Canada (only) are not required to obtain an F-1 visa stamp from a U.S. consulate abroad.
F-1 status refers to your legal standing in the U.S. after you have been admitted by CBP in accordance with an F-1 visa stamp and I-20 or USCIS approval of your I-539 F-1 application.
If you are in F-1 status, you must comply with the F-1 regulations in order to remain in F-1 status. If you do not comply with the F-1 regulations you will lose F-1 status.
A Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Form, or simply I-94 record, is the DHS record of your legal entry to the U.S. in a status such as F-1.
If you obtain F-1 status from CBP upon arrival in the U.S. by air, land, or sea, your I-94 record will be created or updated by CBP.
CBP I-94 records are digital and CBP does not usually provide a hard copy (paper) I-94 record to travelers upon admission to the U.S.
To obtain your I-94 record from CBP, do the following after arriving in the U.S.:
- Go to https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/#/home
- Enter the required information and access your I-94 record
- Save a digital copy of the I-94 for your records
- Print out a paper I-94 your records
If you obtain F-1 status from USCIS following their approval of your I-539 F-1 application, USCIS will provide a new or updated I-94 record attached to the F-1 approval notice.
Although the CBP I-94 system is digital, CBP sometimes issues paper I-94 records to citizens of Canada especially if they enter the U.S. via a land-border crossing.
Your I-94 record shows an Admit Until Date. This is the date that your admission to the U.S. expires. The I-94 Admit Until Date for F-1 admission should read D/S rather than a specific date.
D/S stands for duration of status, which means that CBP has authorized you to remain in the U.S. in F-1 status for as long as you comply with the F-1 regulations.
If you violate any of the F-1, your duration of status (D/S) ends immediately. This is the equivalent of losing F-1 status.
If your F-1 I-94 record does not read D/S for Admit Until Date, please contact GEO for guidance.
However you obtain F-1 status, immediately review your I-94 record to ensure that the following information is correct:
- Your name, birth date, and passport country and number is correct.
- Date of Entry reflects the date you entered the U.S.
- Admit Until Date reads D/S
- lass of Admission reads F-1
If your I-94 record contains any error, please contact GEO for guidance.
Check your I-94 record every time you return to the U.S. from a trip abroad to ensure that CBP admitted you to the U.S. in F-1 status.
My passport expired. Does that affect my F-1 status?
Passport expiration does not directly affect your F-1 status, but your passport must be unexpired at all times while you are in the U.S. If your passport will expire shortly or if it has already expired, contact your country of citizenship’s U.S. consulate to apply for a new one.
My F-1 visa stamp expired. Does that affect my F-1 status?
No. The F-1 visa stamp has only one purpose: it allows you to request admission to the U.S. in F-1 status from CBP in conjunction with an unexpired I-20.
The F-1 visa stamp in your passport is similar to a key to a locked room. You only need the key to unlock the door and enter the room. Once you are in the room, the key has no significance while you are in the room. But if you leave the room you need a key to get back into the room.
It’s similar with an F-1 visa stamp. Once you have used it to enter the U.S., it has no significance while you are in the U.S. But if you leave the U.S., you need to present an unexpired visa (a “key”) to CBP in order to get back into the U.S.
My I-20 expired. Does that affect my F-1 status?
Yes. If your I-20 expires while you are in the U.S. you will automatically lose F-1 status. Your I-20 expires on the Program End indicated on the I-20. Check your I-20 expiration date now and frequently to ensure that it does not expire while you are in the U.S. To request an I-20 extension, contact GEO by email.
- Your passport, I-20, and I-94 record must be unexpired at all times while you are in the U.S. NOTE: The F-1 visa stamp in your passport does not need to be unexpired while you are in the U.S. Please see above: Questions About F-1 Status Document Expiration, “My F-1 visa stamp expired. Does that affect my F-1 status?”
- You should always carry your current I-94 record with you. For information about your I-94 record and how to obtain one, please see below. Regulatory Citation: Immigration and Naturalization Act 264(e)
- Your passport and I-20 should always be readily available to you (example: in a safe place in your home in the Richmond, VA area). While you are in the Richmond, VA area, you do not need to carry the original passport and I-20 with you, although some students choose to keep copies of these documents on their smart phones.
- If you travel outside the Richmond, VA area GEO recommends that you carry your original immigration documents with you. Although transportation companies and law enforcement do not ask for these documents often, they have the right to do so.
If you are in F-1 status, you must comply with the F-1 regulations. If you do not comply with the F-1 regulations, you will lose F-1 status.
It can be easy to comply with the F-1 regulations. Just follow this checklist regularly while you are in the U.S.
- My passport is unexpired
- My VCU I-20 is unexpired
- My most recent I-94 record shows Admit Until Date D/S and Class of Admission F-1
- I register for a Full Course of Study (FCS, an F-1 concept) every Fall and Spring semester
- If I cannot (or do not need to) register for FCS, I obtain a Reduced Course Load (RCL) or Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) authorization from GEO before dropping below FCS
- I understand and comply with the F-1 employment authorization regulations before looking for or starting work in the U.S.
- I report the following events to GEO as soon as possible:
- Your U.S. residential address or phone number has changed
- Your VCU I-20 has become lost or damaged
- Your VCU I-20 will expire within ninety (90) days
- Your VCU I-20 has already expired
- You want to change your VCU education level or major
- You want to transfer to another U.S. university in F-1 status
- If this is my first semester at VCU as an F-1 student, I have registered with GEO within 30 days of the Program Start Date on my VCU I-20
- If I am unsure of how to comply with the F-1 regulations, I contact GEO before taking action.
In GEO’s experience, the most common ways for students to lose F-1 status include:
- Failing to maintain FCS or to obtain an RCL or FTE authorization from GEO in advance.
- Working in the U.S. without employment authorization.
- Allowing your I-20 to expire while you are in the U.S.
- Failure to register with GEO within 30 days of Program Start Date on your VCU I-20.
Loss of F-1 status while you are in the U.S. is a very serious issue. Loss of F-1 status can have a negative effect on your eligibility to:
- Resume F-1 status at all
- Obtain CPT, OPT, or STEM OPT authorization
- Remain in, or return to the U.S., in any status
- Obtain another U.S. immigration status such as H-1B or Permanent Resident (green card)
If you lose F-1 status, you must act immediately to restore it. Contact GEO as soon as possible for guidance.
If you lose F-1 status there are only two ways to restore it.
- Depart the U.S. (“travel to correct”), a process similar to consulate (or border) processing above
- Ask USCIS to reinstate your F-1 status, a process similar to USCIS processing above
If you lose F-1 status, GEO will provide further guidance to you about your options for resuming F-1 status.
If your I-20 has become lost or damaged, contact GEO as soon as possible to obtain a replacement. To request a replacement I-20, contact GEO by email.
If your I-20 will expire within the next 90 days, and you plan to remain enrolled as a VCU student after that date, contact GEO by email to request an extension I-20.
The 90 day window is not absolute but the nearer your I-20 expiration date the more likely you may not be able to obtain an extension I-20 from GEO in a timely way.
I-20 expiration is a violation of the F-1 regulations and results in a loss of F-1 status. If your I-20 has expired, and you plan to remain enrolled as a VCU student, contact GEO by email to discuss the matter.
Your I-20 must accurately reflect your education (degree) level and major at all times. If you need to change your I-20 education level or major, contact GEO by email to request an updated I-20.
If you are a current VCU F-1 student and you want to quit VCU and to study at another U.S. university in F-1 status, you need to transfer your SEVIS I-20 record from VCU to the other university.
To initiate the SEVIS I-20 transfer process, please contact GEO by email at least 90 days before the start date of your first semester at the new university.
The 90 day window is not absolute but the process of qualifying for an SEVIS I-20 transfer can be complicated and the less time you allow for the process the more likely you may not be able to complete the transfer in time to start your studies at your new university.
If you want to remain a VCU student but take a few courses at another U.S. university, you must obtain written authorization from GEO for concurrent enrollment. Please contact GEO by email for guidance before enrolling at the other university.
Your U.S. residential address and telephone number in SEVIS must be accurate. If your U.S. residential address or phone number change, send an email to GEO about it as soon as possible. We will update the information in SEVIS for you.
If you are in F-1 status, you are eligible for a 60-day grace period at the conclusion of your current I-20 program of study. The purpose of the 60 day grace period is to allow you to remain in the U.S. to travel, to make convenient plans to depart the U.S. (if you will be doing so), or to apply for OPT. You cannot study or be employed in the U.S. during the 60 days.
Yes. The spouse and minor children (under age 21) of an F-1 student are eligible to obtain F-2 status.
F-2 dependents can attend pre-school and Kindergarten through 12th grade full time. F-2 dependents cannot study full-time in the U.S. in a college or university degree or certificate program.
No. F-2 dependents are not eligible for U.S. employment authorization. F-2 dependents may be eligible to take an internship (unpaid) or to volunteer in the U.S. Contact GEO in advance for guidance.
GEO has several Immigration Advisors on staff who are:
- Career specialists in F-1 visa regulations, including compliance
- Authorized by DHS to serve as Designated School Officials (DSOs) to interface with DHS and its sub-agencies on behalf of F-1 students especially via SEVIS
GEO Immigration Advisors are available:
- By email and phone
- Monday-Friday 8 AM-4:30 PM except when VCU is closed
- By Zoom and other teleconference by appointment
- In-person by appointment
In addition, Immigration Advisors host regular F-1 visa support workshops on a number of topics, including employment, OPT, and STEM OPT. Please contact GEO for further information.
Most GEO communication with international students is by email. If you are a current VCU student, your default SEVIS email is your VCU email address. DHS expects GEO to communicate with you by your VCU email, and if they ever need to communicate with you they will do so by your VCU email.
The easiest, most secure way to obtain timely and effective guidance from GEO about F-1 status is to send an email to us at GEOIS@VCU.edu. One of our Immigration Advisors will respond to you shortly.