Student Visa

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Noncitizens wishing to study in the U.S. may apply for a nonimmigrant student visa. The U.S. allows foreign students to attend school in the country under three visa programs: F visas for academic students, M visas for vocational students and J visas for exchange students. J visas are detailed in Exchange-Program Visas.

A requirement for both an F and M visa is proof the student has a foreign residence where he or she intends to return. In granting the visa, the official reviewing the application must be satisfied that the student does not intend to abandon his or her homeland to remain in the U.S. indefinitely. Another requirement is acceptance into a U.S. school or educational program approved by Citizenship and Immigration Services. The student must pursue a full-time course of study, which is at least 12 credit hours for undergraduate studies and generally less for graduate students. Prior approval must be obtained for the student to fall below the required minimum.

Academic Prerequisites

The foreign student must have sufficient academic credits to meet the usual attendance requirements of the school or program. The student must also be proficient enough in English to manage a full-time course load. Exceptions are made for students who are coming to the U.S. to attend English-language learning programs, students whose classes will be taught in their native language and students who arrange with the school or program to receive English classes.

Financial Support

Because of the strict restrictions against accepting employment while in the U.S. on a nonimmigrant student visa, a foreign student must demonstrate that he or she has sufficient financial support to cover expenses, including tuition, books and housing. The student can meet this requirement by showing the future availability of funds rather than the immediate possession of them. Generally, a parent, grandparent or other relative will sponsor the student and provide financial support.

Employment Authorization

Students generally are not authorized for employment. However, on-campus employment is allowed up to 20 hours per week under certain circumstances. Practical-training employment authorization is also available for curricular practical training during school and optional practical training after graduation.

Additionally, some provision is made for employment authorization if the student’s sponsor somehow fails to provide economic support. This hardship-employment authorization usually requires evidence that the sponsor has died, filed for bankruptcy, become disabled or experienced some tragedy that led to an inability to fund the student’s education.

Failure to Maintain Visa Status

A student will be “out of status” with the visa if he or she does not take the course load of a full-time student, fails to pay required fees or is dismissed from school for failing grades. The status of international students is tracked by Immigration and Customs Enforcement through a foreign-student tracking system. If a student has fallen out of favor with the sponsoring school, the school may report it to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This often results in officers coming to the student’s door, making an arrest and placing the student into removal proceedings.

This situation does not always happen when there is a status violation. A student may file a request with Citizenship and Immigration Services to reinstate student visa status as long as the request is filed within five months of the violation (with an exception for late filers) and the student has not worked without authorization.

Last update: Sept. 24, 2008