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Maintaining International Student Status

Friday, September 19, 2014

It’s that time of year again: Packing up your things, stocking up on supplies and buying books – then heading back to school. However, if you are an international student attending school in the United States, there are a few other items you’ll need to check off your list to make sure you don’t run afoul of immigration laws, especially if you are entering the country for the first time.

The first thing to make sure you have is a Form I-20, which is the “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.” The form will contain important information, including the official start date of your academic program. The start date is significant because international students are not permitted to arrive in the U.S. earlier than 30 days before this date.

When a student arrives in the country, he or she must immediately contact the school official designated on the form I-20. It’s also the student’s duty to get in touch with the school contact once again before classes start to make sure that all information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (“SEVIS”) is up to date. SEVIS is the system that the U.S. government uses to monitor the compliance of international students with U.S. immigration laws.
Once classes start, international students who are pursuing post-secondary studies, such as a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree, have to maintain full-time enrollment status. This typically means 12 credit hours per semester are required to remain eligible for international student status. For graduate or seminary programs, the number of credits will vary by school, but a full of course of study – as defined by the institution – is still required maintain status.

Once a student has completed the course of study, he or she must leave the U.S. within 60 days of the program’s end date, as it’s designated on the Form I-20. The good news is that upon completion of a degree, most students will be eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which is work authorization valid for at least 12 months.  It is critical to timely apply for OPT in order to avail of this opportunity to remain in the U.S. and work. 

Just like students who are U.S. citizens, international students have to prepare for college. They just have to do a little more to be ready for the challenges of studying in the U.S. to make sure they succeed.

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