F visa

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In the United States, the F visas are a type of non-immigrant student visa that allows foreigners to pursue education (academic studies and/or language training programs) in the United States. F-1 students must maintain a full course of study. F-1 visas are only issued in U.S. embassies and consulates, although extensions of stay and changes of status may be possible within the United States.[1] Prospective F-1 students must apply at the schools and receive a form I-20 in order to apply for an F-1 visa.[1][2] F-1 students must show that they are able to support themselves during their stay in the U.S., as their opportunities for legal employment are quite limited.[3] F-2 visas are given to dependents of an F-1 student. F-2 visa-holders are prohibited from any form of compensated employment. However, minor children may attend public schools.[4] Finally, the F-3 visa is issued to Canadians and Mexicans who commute across the border to attend American schools.[5]


There are three types of F visas,

  • F-1 visas are for full-time students.
  • F-2 visas are for spouses and children of F-1 visa holders — these are technically called "dependents."
  • F-3 visas are for "border commuters" who reside in their country of origin while attending school in the United States. F-3 visas are granted only to nationals of Mexico or Canada[5] and these visa holders may study part- or full-time. However, unlike F-1 visa holders, they may not work on campus, although they may still be authorized for Curricular Practical Training; Optional Practical Training may only be used after graduation.[6] While the Border Commuter Student Act was signed into law on November 2, 2002, the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for all F and M regulations (8 CFR 214.2), has never published a rule discussing F-3 commuter students. Previously, part-time students from Canada and Mexico were permitted to enter the United States as visitors, but after the September 11 attacks the Department of Homeland Security found such students ineligible for admittance as visitors (since their purpose was educational) and also ineligible for F-1 (academic) or M-1 (non-academic or vocational) visas (because those classifications require students to attend full-time).

Role of the educational institution[edit]

To pursue studies in F status at a college, university, or vocational school, it is necessary that the institution be a participant in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). An institution can acquire SEVP certification by filing Form I-17 with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (this is a one-time process).[7] An institution can be SEVP-certified despite not holding national or regional accreditation.[8] Conversely, an institution may hold national or regional accreditation but may have chosen not to obtain SEVP certification if it does not intend to admit international students in the F, J, or M status.

A large university typically has an international office that manages its participation in the SEVP, and all the designated school officials (DSOs) work for this office. The international office manages updates to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record for students and issuing of new Form I-20s. Students who have any change to their plans (such as program end date, course load, leave of absence, return from leave of absence) must communicate these changes with their international office.

High schools[edit]

It is possible to obtain an F-1 visa to pursue studies at a secondary school (grades 9-12). As is the case with other institutions, the secondary school must be SEVP-certified. The school may be a public (government-funded) school or a private school. In the case of a public school, the student may attend for a maximum period of 12 months and must reimburse the school for the full per-capita cost of attendance. Neither of these requirements apply for students attending private schools.[9]

Acquiring student status[edit]

Issuance of first Form I-20[edit]

Once the prospective student has accepted the institution's offer of admission, the institution issues a Form I-20 to the student.[8][10]

Apart from biographical information about the student (including the student's name, date of birth, citizenship, etc.), there are two main pieces of information that must be entered in the student's SEVIS record and the initial Form I-20.

  • Program details: The program name, start date, and end date.
  • How the student intends to meet tuition and living expenses for the first year the student is in the program, or until the end date indicated on the I-20, whichever is shorter.

Each international office may follow its own rules or guidelines regarding the type of documentation it requests from the student or from other departments in order to be able to issue the I-20. The jargon used for this documentation will also vary by institution. For instance, the University of Chicago and University of Michigan uses the term "Financial Resources Statement" for the statement that students need to submit to it regarding how they will meet their expenses,[3][11] while the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign uses the term "Declaration & Certification of Finances for I-20/DS-2019 Application".[12]

After receiving information from the student and institution regarding the program length and end date, the international office creates the student's SEVIS record, gets a SEVIS number for the student, and issues a Form I-20. A physical copy of the form may be mailed to the student overseas. In the case that the student has a SEVIS record from previous student status, the existing SEVIS record should be transferred.[13]

The international office may refuse to issue a Form I-20 if the student is unable to demonstrate how he or she plans to cover expenses for the first year.

Payment of fees[edit]

In order to transition to student status, the prospective student must pay a one-time SEVIS fee using Form I-901.[14] This fee applies both to people who are not currently in the United States (and need a visa) and to those who plan to change status using Form I-539.[15]


The application process for a F visa varies depending upon whether the student is outside of the United States, or already present within the United States.

Application from Outside of the US[edit]

Student who are outside of the United States, must apply for a student visa (F or M). The visa interview must be scheduled fewer than 120 days prior to the start date indicated on the Form I-20.[16][17]

At the time of initial entry, the officer at the port of entry checks that the program start date is at most 30 days ahead, and that the I-20 has a valid travel signature.[18] It is also necessary that, at the time of initial entry, the school the student intends to attend matches the school on the student's visa and the student's I-20, though this is not a requirement in the future.[13] The officer at the port of entry also issues a Form I-94 with expiration date indicated as "D/S" (Duration of Status), which means that the student is in authorized status in the United States until the program end date indicated on the I-20 (and can stay in the United States for up to 60 days after that[19]).

Change of status from within the US[edit]

If the student is already in the United States in another status, it may be possible to change status using Form I-539. However, there are many limitations. For instance, the process generally takes 3–6 months, which can be considerably longer than traveling outside the United States and getting a new visa.[20]

For those who entered the United States using a B visa, having an annotation on the visa saying that the entrant is a "Prospective Student" is generally a prerequisite for the Form I-539 application to be accepted.[21][22]

In general, the USCIS does not approve transition to student status with a start date more than 30 days prior to the program start date. Therefore, applications where the applicant's current status expires more than 30 days before the start date of their program are likely to be rejected.[23]

Transfer to another institution[edit]

Students who transfer from one educational institution to another do not need to file Form I-539 or pay the SEVIS fee again. They can also re-enter on a student visa for a previous institution as long as the visa is still valid.

Reporting arrival[edit]

In order to maintain legal student status, the student is required to report to the international office at his/her institution about his/her successful arrival, along with all the relevant documentation (Form I-20, passport, visa, Form I-94). The international office in turn updates the student's SEVIS record indicating that the student has reported for studies.[24]

Maintaining student status[edit]

"D/S" annotation on Form I-94[edit]

The Form I-94 that is issued to F-1 students upon arrival is generally annotated "D/S" indicating duration of status, which means that the student can stay in the United States as long as they are in valid student status. In addition, there is a grace period of 60 days after the completion of studies to depart the United States.[19][25][26]

The exception to "D/S" is in cases where the student's documentation is not considered complete or satisfactory by the officer at the port of entry. In this case, the expiration date on the Form I-94 is listed as thirty days from the present date, and the student is issued Form I-515A, indicating what information was missing from the student's documentation. The student must contact his or her international office for help with obtaining the correct documentation.[27][28]

Conditions for being in valid student status[edit]

Under ordinary conditions (i.e., unless any exceptions apply) a student must, in order to maintain valid student status:

  • maintain a "full course load" (unless the institution approves the student for a Reduced Course Load)
  • not be engaged in any employment without authorization of Department of Homeland Security
  • have an accurate SEVIS record, and in particular, should not be past the program end date indicated on the Form I-20.

Full course load requirement[edit]

The SEVIS regulations stipulate one requirement for staying in status as being that the student must maintain a full course load, defined as 12 or more credit hours for credit-bearing schools and 18 or more contact hours for intensive English program enrollment.[26] However, the precise translation of the requirement in terms of the structure of courses at a particular institution may vary by institution.

The following are the accepted reasons for having a reduced course load in a given quarter or semester:[29][30]

  • Final quarter or semester, where only a partial course load is needed to meet graduation requirements (this can be availed at most one time)
  • Medical condition (this can be availed at most four times)
  • Academic difficulty (this can be availed at most one time). Three types of reasons are allowed:
    • Initial difficulty with the English language or reading requirements
    • Unfamiliarity with U.S. teaching methods
    • Improper course level placement

Reduced Course Load must be applied for in advance so that the SEVIS record can be updated and a new Form I-20 noting the Reduced Course Load can be issued.

On August 27, 2002, an Interim Final Rule was issued extending Reduced Course Load to border commuter students (one of the measures that was part of the introduction of the F-3 status); this was a complementary measure to the phasing out of the use of B visas for study.[31]


Unless approved for practical training, a person in student status may only engage in on-campus employment.[32] On-campus employment may include:[32][33]

  • Employment by the institution, for instance, as a teaching assistant, research assistant, or library student worker
  • Work performed in a location on campus for a commercial firm providing direct services to students, for instance, at a campus bookstore even if not owned by the university
  • Employment at an off-campus location that is educationally affiliated with the institution. The work must be associated with the academic department's curriculum, related to contractually funded projects at the post-graduate level, and integral to the curriculum.

There are also limits on the amount of time a student may engage in on-campus employment. While school is in session, this can be no more than 20 hours per week. While school is out of session, there are no restrictions on the amount of work.[33]

There are two primary ways a person in student status may be able to legally qualify for off-campus employment, namely Curricular Practical Training and Optional Practical Training. Both of these need to be approved by the institution and included in the student's SEVIS record and Form I-20. Within Optional Practical Training, there is both pre-completion and post-completion Optional Practical Training.

A student in F-1 status is not allowed to engage in on-campus employment during the 60-day grace period after completion of studies. Moreover, while the student is on post-completion Optional Practical Training, the student can only engage in the type of employment permitted by that Optional Practical training, and therefore cannot engage in arbitrary on-campus work.

An F-1 student who experiences severe economic hardship due to unforeseen circumstances beyond the student's control, the student may request employment authorization to work off-campus under certain circumstances.[34] Examples of unforeseen circumstances that may be eligible include loss of financial aid due to no fault of the student, loss of on-campus employment through no fault of the student, substantial fluctuations in currency value or exchange rate, inordinate increases in tuition or living costs, unexpected changes in the financial condition of the student's source of support, and substantial unexpected medical bills.[34] The student must have been in F-1 status for one full academic year, be a student in good standing, and be carrying a full course of study.[35] Off-campus employment must not interfere with the student's full-time studies and the employment is necessary to avoid severe economic hardship.[35] A student experiencing such a severe economic hardship due to unforeseen circumstances may request employment authorization by sending Form I-765, a copy of the student's Form I-20 including the employment page completed by the designated school official, and documentation of the severe economic hardship due to unforeseen circumstances to U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services.[34] If U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approves the request, the student may work off-campus in one-year intervals up to the expected date of completion the student's current course of study.[34]

Over and above the rules imposed on account of F student status, the student and employer must also comply with all existing federal, state, and local regulations pertaining to wages, working conditions, and tax law. For instance, the student may need to obtain a Social Security Number in order to be able to engage in on-campus work, and employers may ask the student to fill Form I-9 at the start of employment.[33]

Leave of Absence and withdrawal[edit]

The F status does not explicitly recognize Leave of Absence. Rather, if somebody intends to take a lengthy leave of absence, then their institution terminates their SEVIS record for "Authorized Early Withdrawal". There is a 15-day grace period to depart the United States on such a terminated record.[36] If the student then returns in 5 months or fewer, the F-1 status can be reactivated with the same I-20 and without any effect on OPT/CPT eligibility (this has a lead time of up to a month). If more than 5 months elapse, a new SEVIS record must be created for the student, with a new Form I-20.[37][38]

Physical absence from the United States for a contiguous period of over five months automatically deactivates one's student status, even if the student did not explicitly request termination of the SEVIS record.[38]

Maintaining the correct program end date[edit]

It may happen that the student's actual program end date falls earlier or later than what the student expected. It is necessary that a new I-20 be issued reflecting the current program end date, both prior to the program's actual end and prior to the stated program end date on the Form I-20.

If the Form I-20 is being shortened, the international office may require the student to submit evidence showing that the student has enough academic credits to graduate early.[39] If the Form I-20 is being extended, then, in addition to any evidence from the student about changed academic plans, the international office also needs an updated statement of financial resources for the new I-20 to cover up to one year of the I-20 extension.

After the change to the program end date is made in the student's SEVIS record, the new Form I-20 is issued to the student.

The program end date on the Form I-20 need not coincide with the graduation date. Rather, it is the end date of the student's enrollment in courses. It is not possible to extend the program end date simply in order to be able to stay around till the graduation ceremony. If the graduation ceremony falls outside the 60-day grace period of completion of coursework, then the student must find some other way to be legally present for it (for instance, by staying around on Optional Practical Training, or getting a B visa for the graduation ceremony).[39]

Travel and re-entry[edit]

Whenever the student re-enters the United States after traveling, the student must have all of these at the time of arrival at the port of entry:[40]

  • A valid passport (valid for at least six more months)
  • A valid F or M visa
  • A valid I-20 (i.e., an I-20 whose program end date has not yet arrived)
  • A travel signature on the I-20 (page 3) from the DSO that is at most one year old (six months in the case of students currently on post-completion Optional Practical Training)

Since travel signatures are valid for only a year, students need to periodically get updated travel signatures on their I-20 from their international student office. The purpose of this requirement is to avoid cases where people who are no longer enrolled as students at an institution keep using an outdated Form I-20 to get in. In particular, when adding a new travel signature to the OPT, it is the responsibility of the international student office to make sure that the student is still enrolled at the institution. In case the Form I-20 runs out of space for travel signatures, the international office may print out a new Form I-20 for the student.

In the special case of automatic visa revalidation, whereby the student returns to the United States after a trip to Canada, Mexico, or a nearby island for at most 30 days, it is not necessary to have a valid visa at the time of re-entry. However, it is still necessary to have a valid Form I-20 and a travel signature.[41]

After completion of studies[edit]

After completion of studies, a student has a 60-day grace period to depart the United States. It is not possible to re-enter the United States during this grace period, regardless of the validity of visa or travel signatures. This does give the student some time to change to another non-immigrant status if applicable. However, if the student is unable to successfully change status the student must nonetheless depart the United States.[42]

One way a student can continue to stay in the United States on student status after completion of studies is by being approved for post-completion Optional Practical Training. Post-completion OPT can start at most 60 days after the completion of studies, and requires the student to work at least 20 hours a week (excluding up to 90 days of unemployment) on topics related to the student's program of study. Post-completion OPT can be at most 12 months long. While doing post-completion OPT, the student is still in F status but cannot engage in arbitrary on-campus employment or enroll in a degree program.


The status for dependents (spouses and children) of people on F-1 status is the F-2 status. Since the F-2 status is a derivative status, a person goes out of F-2 status as soon as the corresponding principal (the student in F-1 status) goes out of F-1 status.[4]

The F-2 dependent may enter the United States along with the F-1 principal, or at any later time.[43]

F-2 dependent spouses have a very limited range of activities they can legally do. In particular, they are not allowed to enroll in a full course of study (but they may still attend classes at a SEVP-certified school) and they are not allowed to work, and cannot obtain Social Security Numbers. This differs somewhat from J-2 spouses, who can take coursework and are also eligible for work authorization though they need to apply for it.[44][45] If a person on F-2 status gets admitted to a degree program in the United States, that person can transition to F-1 status after obtaining a Form I-20 and then filing Form I-539.[46] However, the person will need to a get a new visa for subsequent re-entry to the United States.

F-2 dependent minor children can study in school (K-12, i.e., secondary or lower level of education). If unmarried, the same permissions and restrictions apply to them for post-secondary education as apply to F-2 dependent spouses: they can take classes at a SEVP-certified school but cannot engage in a full course of study.[44]


Number of visas issued from 1997 onward[edit]

The count below is of the number of visas issued by a United States consular officer. The years here are Fiscal Years, so for instance the year 2004 refers to the period from October 1, 2003 to September 30, 2004.[47] This includes visas issued to people who are in an existing program of study and whose visa has expired, therefore it exceeds the actual number of distinct students admitted every year. On the other hand, since many students get multi-year, multi-entry visas, and a new visa needs to be issued only when the person travels outside the United States, this number is less than the total number of students in that status currently present in the United States. In other words, it is somewhere intermediate between the annual flow and total stock of students in F status.[47] The F-3 became available in Fiscal Year 2004 so the number of F-3 visas issued before that is zero.

Fiscal Year Number of F-1 visas issued Number of F-2 visas issued Number of F-3 visas issued Ratio of F-2 visas to F-1 visas Percentage growth in F-1 visas issued Notes
1997 266,483 22,099 0 8.29% no data
1998 251,565 21,845 0 8.68% -5.59%
1999 262,542 22,893 0 8.71% +4.36%
2000 284,053 24,891 0 8.76% +8.19%
2001 293,357 26,160 0 8.94% +3.27%
2002 234,322 22,212 0 9.48% -20.12% [a]
2003 215,695 19,885 0 9.22% -7.94% [b]
2004 218,898 18,893 16 8.63% +1.48% [c]
2005 237,890 18,061 42 7.59% +8.67% [d]
2006 273,870 20,748 19 7.58% +15.12%
2007 298,393 22,036 119 7.38% +8.95% [e]
2008 340,711 23,193 519 6.81% +14.18%
2009 331,208 21,817 773 6.58% -2.78% [f]
2010 385,210 25,220 887 6.55% +16.30% [g]
2011 447,410 27,703 959 6.19% +16.14%
2012 486,900 27,561 792 5.66% +8.82% [h]
2013 534,320 29,139 678 5.45% +11.58%
2014 595,569 31,732 403 5.33% +9.77%
2015 644,233 33,632 63 5.22% +8.17%
2016 471,728 30,486 0 6.46% -26.78% [i]
2017 393,573 27,435 0 6.97% -16.57% [i]
2018 362,929 26,650 0 7.34% -7.79% [i]
  1. ^ Reduction in the number of student visas issued is due to tightening of security as a result of the September 11 attacks.
  2. ^ Continued increase in security around September 11 attacks leads to further reductions in the issuance of new student visas.
  3. ^ Number of F-1 visas issued no longer declining; also the F-3 category was introduced and started getting used.
  4. ^ The number of F-1 visas starts increasing, and the ratio of F-2 to F-1 visas falls.
  5. ^ Number of F-1 visas issued reaches an all-time high, completing the recovery from the post-September 11 decrease.
  6. ^ In the wake of the Great Recession, growth in use of student visas stops temporarily.
  7. ^ Robust year-over-year growth in usage of the F-1 resumes, even as the ratio of F-2 to F-1 continues to fall.
  8. ^ After steady growth, use of the F-3 starts declining.
  9. ^ a b c The decline is mostly due to China, and likely due to the United States beginning to issue multiple-year entry visas to Chinese nationals starting with Fiscal Year 2015, reducing the need for visa renewals.

F-1 visas by country for major countries[edit]

The data below is from the U.S. Department of State visa statistics.[47]

A country where visas are issued for shorter durations and single entry will see more visa applications for the same total number of students in the United States. In particular, one of the main factors inflating the number of student visas issued to students from China was that the visa issued was a single-entry visa valid for one year, so a student visiting family every year had to renew the visa. The United States and China switched to a 5-year validity multiple-entry visa in November 2014 and the corresponding reduction in the number of F-1 visas issued should therefore be seen in the statistics starting Fiscal Year 2016 (since the first multi-entry five-year validity visas will be issued in Fiscal Year 2015, there will be less need for visa renewal starting in Fiscal Year 2016).[48][49][50] In the table below, the columns are arranged in decreasing order of F-1 visa usage in FY 2015.

Year Worldwide total of F-1 visas issued Mainland China India Saudi Arabia South Korea Japan Brazil Taiwan
1997 266,483 11,909 10,532 3,529 36,188 35,157 12,293 14,794
1998 251,565 13,958 12,154 3,796 21,271 34,063 14,812 13,867
1999 262,542 16,303 15,286 3,893 20,883 33,762 13,985 14,709
2000 284,053 21,586 20,469 4,038 27,520 32,661 12,452 16,084
2001 293,357 25,218 24,106 4,359 28,977 32,237 12,524 24,106
2002 234,322 21,784 20,771 1,515 26,670 25,036 8,335 13,952
2003 215,695 16,169 19,152 1,158 28,695 24,825 7,066 11,490
2004 218,898 18,089 18,309 1,008 29,673 24,562 6,683 14,224
2005 237,890 21,642 20,173 2,166 35,310 24,554 5,845 15,488
2006 273,870 28,444 26,342 9,240 42,681 23,417 5,926 16,727
2007 298,393 39,535 34,471 5,776 45,915 21,900 7,418 14,973
2008 340,711 56,258 36,149 8,038 50,078 19,876 10,556 14,640
2009 331,208 81,842 26,890 11,193 39,040 16,423 9,160 10,978
2010 385,210 113,772 25,783 21,101 44,328 15,014 10,532 10,785
2011 447,410 153,026 25,649 27,738 45,638 16,811 14,408 11,200
2012 486,900 189,402 23,446 27,932 39,159 18,669 15,506 10,621
2013 534,320 217,593 36,141 28,597 33,584 18,837 14,890 9,921
2014 595,569 244,927 56,653 32,006 29,324 18,258 14,371 9,731
2015 644,233 274,460 74,831 28,171 27,324 17,203 14,344 9,791
2016 471,728 148,016 62,537 16,474 25,355 16,668 10,978 9,730
2017 393,573 112,817 44,741 11,414 22,856 15,982 12,178 9,117
2018 362,929 98,904 42,694 12,502 20,959 14,413 13,288 8,474

Detailed statistics for 2012[edit]

In Fiscal Year 2012:[51]

Type Total Applicants Issued Refused Waived or Overcome
F-1 657,714 486,900 170,814 64,829
F-2 39,237 27,561 11,676 5,759
F-3 895 792 103 86

IIE data on number of international students[edit]

The Institute of International Education maintains data on the number of international students as part of its Open Doors project, supported from a grant by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the U.S. Department of State.[52] The data is collected through surveys of over 3,000 accredited U.S. higher education institutions, and does not rely on any privileged access to government data; in particular institutions not included in the survey (such as high schools that issue student visas, and non-accredited institutions that are SEVP-certified) may be omitted from the statistics.[53] Open Doors surveys were started in 1949, but data presented here is mostly from 2000, which is what their free online portal has (some tables have additional data available for every fifth year from 1949-1950 to 1999-2000).

Data by country[edit]

This data differs from the data on F visas issued in the following respects:

  • It gives the total number of students enrolled in studies, not the number of visas issued in a given year. For instance, a student who is in the United States in the third year of a four-year program, and only got a visa when initially admitted, will be counted here but not in the number of F-1 visas issued. This is the stock versus flow distinction.
  • It includes students in statuses other than the F status. In particular, it includes students on the J-1 visa and the H-4 visa.
  • The data is by academic year of enrollment rather than fiscal year of visa issuance. A visa to study in the academic year of 2013-14 would generally be issued in Fiscal Year 2013.

This table differs from the previous table:

  • Mainland China continues to be the biggest single source of international students, but the gap is not as large as in the number of F-1 visas issued. The gap in the number of visas issued is larger because, until Fiscal Year 2014, Chinese students were issued one-year single-entry visas, thereby requiring more visas issued for re-entry than for most other countries that are leading sources of students to the United States.[48][50]
  • Canada figures prominently in this list, even though it is negligible in terms of F visas. The discrepancy is due to the fact that Canadian students in F status can enter the United States based on their I-20, without getting a F visa from their embassy or consulate.[54]
Academic year Total number of international students Mainland China India South Korea Saudi Arabia Canada Brazil Taiwan Japan
1949–1950 26,433 0 1,359 258 18 4,362 423 3,637 265
1954–1955 34,232 0 1,673 1,197 40 4,655 507 2,553 1,673
1959–1960 48,486 0 3,780 2,474 93 5,679 473 4,546 2,248
1964–1965 82,045 5 6,814 2,604 552 9,253 691 4,620 3,534
1969–1970 134,959 19 11,329 3,991 1,029 13,318 1,349 8,566 4,311
1974–1975 154,580 22 9,660 3,390 1,540 8,430 1,970 10,250 5,930
1979–1980 286,340 1,000 8,760 4,890 9,540 15,130 2,910 17,560 12,260
1984–1985 342,110 10,100 14,620 16,430 7,760 15,370 2,790 22,590 13,160
1989–1990 386,850 33,390 26,240 21,710 4,110 17,870 3,730 30,960 29,840
1994–1995 452,635 39,403 35,357 33,599 4,075 22,747 5,017 36,407 45,276
1999–2000 514,723 54,466 42,337 41,191 5,156 23,544 8,600 29,234 46,872
2000–2001 547,867 59,939 54,664 45,685 5,273 25,279 8,846 28,566 46,497
2001–2002 582,996 63,211 68,836 49,046 5,579 26,514 8,972 28,930 46,810
2002–2003 586,323 64,757 74,603 51,519 4,175 26,513 8,388 28,017 45,960
2003-2004 572,509 61,765 79,736 52,484 3,521 27,017 7,799 26,178 40,835
2004–2005 565,039 62,523 80,466 53,358 3,035 28,140 7,244 25,914 42,215
2005–2006 564,766 62,582 76,503 59,022 3,448 28,202 7,009 27,876 38,712
2006–2007 582,984 67,723 83,833 62,392 7,886 28,280 7,126 29,094 35,282
2007–2008 623,805 81,127 94,563 69,124 9,873 29,051 7,578 29,001 33,974
2008–2009 671,616 98,235 103,260 75,065 12,661 29,697 8,767 28,065 29,697
2009–2010 690,923 127,822 157,588 72,153 15,810 28,145 8,786 26,685 24,842
2010–2011 723,277 104,897 103,895 73,351 22,704 27,546 8,777 24,818 21,290
2011–2012 764,495 194,029 100,270 72,295 34,139 26,821 9,029 23,250 19,966
2012–2013 819,644 235,597 96,754 70,627 44,566 27,357 10,868 21,867 19,568
2013–2014 886,052 274,439 102,673 68,047 53,919 28,304 13,286 21,266 19,334
2014–2015 974,926 304,040 132,888 63,710 59,945 27,240 23,675 20,993 19,064
2015–2016 1,043,839 328,547 165,918 61,007 61,287 26,973 19,370 21,127 19,060

Data by country and academic level[edit]

The data below is only for the academic year 2015-2016. The version presented below includes only the top eight countries by the total number of students. The IIE website has more detailed information. Of these countries, India is unusual in having a much larger number of students at the graduate study level than the undergraduate study level, while Brazil and Saudi Arabia are unusual in having a large fraction of their students enrolled in non-degree programs.[55]

Country Total Undergraduate Graduate Non-degree Optional Practical Training
Mainland China 328,547 135,629 123,250 17,475 52,193
India 165,918 19,302 101,850 2,438 42,328
South Korea 61,007 32,695 16,613 4,660 7,039
Saudi Arabia 61,287 33,951 13,210 12,630 1,495
Canada 26,973 13,223 10,220 633 2,897
Brazil 19,370 6,990 4,308 6,751 1,321
Taiwan 21,127 6,358 9,164 1,588 4,017
Japan 19,060 9,285 3,125 5,234 1,416
Worldwide total 1,043,839 427,313 '383,935 85,093 147,498


Early origins of the student visa program[edit]

Until the late 19th century, migration to the United States was relatively unrestricted, so that there was no special immigration status needed for students[citation needed]. However, the Carriage of Passengers Act of 1855 recognized a separate category for temporary immigrants, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, that excluded all Chinese skilled and unskilled laborers, carved out an exception for students.[26] By 1913, U.S. Bureau of Education records indicated that 4,222 international students were enrolled in 275 U.S. universities, colleges, and technical schools; most of them were sent by foreign governments for education and training that would be useful when the students returned home.[26]

The Institute of International Education was formed in 1919 to protect and promote the interests of international students and exchange visitors. Lobbying by the IIE led in 1921 to the classification of students as nonimmigrants and the creation of a separate nonimmigrant visa for students, thereby exempting students from the numerical quotas placed in the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924.[26][56] Starting 1918, all noncitizens started being required to obtain visas prior to entry to the United States, and in 1924, Congress enacted a provision requiring consular officers to make a determination of admissibility prior to issuing a visa.[57] As a result, starting around this time, the majority of noncitizens coming to the United States for study did so on student visas.

The letter "F" for student visas arose from the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Title I, Section 15 of the Act used the letters A through I to specify the permitted nonimmigrant statuses, and the letter F was chosen for student status.[58]

The Fulbright–Hays Act of 1961 created the J visa for exchange visitors; some students would use the J visa instead of the F visa. The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1981 created the M visa for people engaged in vocational (nonacademic) courses.[59]

The F status was initially granted only one year at a time, so students in multi-year courses of study needed to renew their status every year.[60] A regulation in 1978 switched F status to using "duration of status";[61] this was partially rolled back in 1981[62] and reinstated in 1983,[59] with a further update in 1987.[63][60]

Tightening of student visa requirements in the aftermath of the 1993 terrorist attacks and 1996 IIRIRA[edit]

In the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a truck bomb was detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. In the aftermath of this incident, the student visa came under increased scrutiny when it was discovered that Eyad Ismoil, one of the terrorists involved was in the United States on an expired student visa.[26][64][65][66]

A memorandum from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Investigative Agency Policies to the Deputy Attorney General dated September 24, 1994, mentioned the need to subject foreign students to thorough and continuing scrutiny before and during their stay in the United States. On April 17, 1995, the Deputy Attorney General asked the INS Commissioner to address this issue. This led to the formation of an INS task force in June 1995 to conduct a comprehensive review of the F, M, and J visa processes. Besides the INS, the task force included members from the State Department and the United States Information Agency, and experts in the administration of international student programs.[66] The task force report, issued on December 22, 1995, identified problems in the tracking and monitoring of students by schools, problems in the certification of schools by the INS, and problems with INS receiving and maintaining up-to-date records from schools.[66] As a result of these findings, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) directed the Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to develop and conduct a program to collect certain information on nonimmigrant foreign students and exchange visitors from approved institutions of higher education and designated exchange visitor programs.[26][66]

In June 1997, the INS launched a pilot program for a centralized electronic reporting system for institutions, called the Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students (CIPRIS). The CIPRIS pilot officially ended in October 1999, as the INS felt it had gathered enough data from the prototype to start working on the nationwide system.[66] The INS began working on a new system that would be called the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) with the associated information system called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information Service (SEVIS). During the rollout, CIPRIS and SEVIS met with considerable opposition from the Association of International Educators and the American Council on Education. However, they claimed that the opposition was not against the programs in principle but due to the concern that a botched rollout by the INS could result in many students suffering.[26][66]

After 9/11: Adoption of SEVIS[edit]

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks (September 11, 2001) and the Patriot Act passed in response (October 26, 2001), there was further increase in scrutiny of student visas, increasing the momentum in favor of the adoption of SEVIS. This was partly because one of the attackers, Hani Hanjour, had come to the United States on a student visa.[26][66][67]

Below is a timeline of the key events in the two years after the attacks describing the key steps in the evolution of SEVIS:[26]

Date Type of action Title and reference
October 26, 2001 Final legislation Patriot Act; mandates implementation of Section 641 of the IIRIRA
May 16, 2002 Proposed rule Retention and reporting requirements for F, J, and M nonimmigrants; Student and Exchange Visitor Information System[68]
July 1, 2002 Interim final rule Allowing eligible schools to apply for preliminary enrollment in SEVIS[69]
September 11, 2002 Implementation deadline The Interim Student and Exchange Authentication System (ISEAS), an interim program by the U.S. Department of State, comes into force. This is a temporary system put in place until SEVIS goes live.[70]
September 25, 2002 Interim final rule Requiring certification of all service-approved schools for SEVIS enrollment[71]
December 11, 2002 Interim final rule Retention and reporting of information for F, J, and M nonimmigrants; SEVIS[72]
January 31, 2003 Implementation deadline Mandatory SEVIS use begins

In August 2006, SEVIS would be used to identify Egyptian students who arrived in the United States for a one-month study program at Montana State University but failed to report for the program; most of the students would be apprehended by ICE and the FBI.[73][74] A Congressional Research Service report would cite this as a claimed success of SEVIS as a recordkeeping system.[60]

Study under B visa was no longer allowed, leading to increased reliance on F and M visas[edit]

Since some of the people involved with the September 11 attacks had originally entered on B visas but then taken courses at flight schools, the rules surrounding study by people on B visas were tightened. Previously, people on B visa could undertake short courses of study. An interim final rule passed on April 12, 2002 required anybody on a B visa to transition to a F or M visa prior to starting a program of study. Moreover, people on B status could transition using Form I-539 (i.e., change status while in the US) only if their visa had an annotation indicating that they might transition to student status.[26][75]

Study of sensitive subjects and national security concerns[edit]

A Presidential Directive on May 7, 2002, called for the creation of the Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security (IPASS). The original intent of IPASS was to help with the evaluation of suspicious visa applications in subjects that had implications for national security.[26][76]

A Technology Alert List (TAL) was originally created in November 2000, and subsequently expanded in August 2002. This list contains various types of technologies and domains of study that were particularly sensitive, whereby applicants for student visas in those domains of study received additional scrutiny. In addition it included a list of designated State Sponsors of Terrorism, countries from which visa applicants received additional scrutiny include countries with nuclear capability such as China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia.[77][78][79][80]

COVID-19 response[edit]

In March 2020, in two pieces of guidance issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued guidance temporarily modifying the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). The guidance allowed students in F-1 or M-1 status to retain student status while staying in the United States if their school is temporarily closed due to COVID-19, and to maintain status by enrolling in courses online if their school switches coursework to online, whether inside or outside the United States.[81]

On July 6, 2020, ICE partially rolled back the temporary modifications, with the rollback effective from the autumn (fall) of 2020. With the modified guidance, international students in F-1 or M-1 status must be enrolled in at least one in-person course in order to continue to stay in the United States; however, if their school is offering a hybrid of in-person and online coursework, they can take some courses online and count those toward credit requirements.[82] Multiple lawsuits were filed by universities against ICE for this rollback.[83] In response, ICE rescinded its July 6 order, thereby reinstating the full set of temporarily modifications made to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) in March 2020.[84][85] On April 26, 2021, ICE announced that the guidance would continue to apply for the 2021-2022 academic year.[86][87]

Interplay with college athletics NIL reform[edit]

At the start of the 2020s, several states, most notably California, passed legislation that would allow college athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL). These moves have forced the hand of college governing bodies. The main U.S. governing body for college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, implemented NIL reform for 2021–22, and the smaller National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics adopted the same in 2020. However, NIL reform carries with it serious implications for non-U.S. student-athletes that, according to multiple media reports, have yet to be addressed. Almost all non-U.S. student-athletes are on F visas, which carry with them a prohibition from earning any substantial income while in the U.S. with narrow exceptions that appear not to apply to income obtained from NIL. The P-1A visa, under which many professional athletes enter the U.S., does allow for NIL income, but ICE regulations state that it is issued "solely for the purpose of performing at a specific athletic competition", which would not account for also being a student. According to what in late 2021 was the NCAA's most recent report on international student participation, covering a period that ended with the 2018–19 school year, F visa holders made up 12.4% of NCAA Division I student-athletes in 2018–19, a percentage that had increased in each of the previous five years. That total masked dramatic variations from sport to sport. International students were less than 1% of D-I football players in 2018–19, but over 30% of D-I players in both men's soccer and women's golf, and over 60% of D-I tennis players. An immigration attorney interviewed for a June 2021 ESPN story suggested that the final outcome could be a court case in which an international student challenged NCAA rules barring that individual from NIL benefits, or ICE attempted to deport a college athlete for accepting NIL income.[88][89]

A November 2021 story by the ESPN-owned web outlet FiveThirtyEight pointed out that the key distinction in whether an international student-athlete could profit from NIL deals is the type of visa the individual holds. Student-athletes who hold green cards, giving them the right to permanently live and work in the U.S., are able to fully profit from NIL deals, with the story specifically citing Jamaica-born Illinois All-American basketball center Kofi Cockburn as such an example. The story also noted that a significant number of the most marketable student-athletes from an NIL standpoint were international, specifically citing Nebraska basketball, in which the men's and women's players with the largest social media followings at the start of the 2021–22 season were respectively Keisei Tominaga from Japan and Jaz Shelley from Australia.[89]

Comparison to other visas[edit]

M visa[edit]

The M visa shares a number of features with the F visa:[90]

  • Both statuses can only be granted for people enrolled with Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified institution and begins with the institution issuing an I-20 to the student after the student is admitted to the program.[8] The sequence of events (admission, I-20, visa application, entry and receipt of Form I-94) are similar for both statuses.
  • For both, there is a principal status (F-1 and M-1 respectively) and a separate status for dependents (F-2 and M-2) that is contingent on the principal maintaining status.

However, there are a few differences:[91]

  • The F visa is for academic programs, whereas the M visa is for vocational programs.[92]
  • Students on M-1 visas are not permitted to engage in on-campus employment.
  • For students entering on a F visa, the Form I-94 states the expiration date as "D/S" (Duration of Status) which means that the student may stay in the United States as long as the student is in student status.[93] In particular, it suffices to get a new I-20 with a later expiration date. However, for M status, any extension of stay requires the filing of Form I-539 in addition to obtaining an updated Form I-20.[94]
  • F-1 students can engage in Curricular Practical Training and Optional Practical Training (both pre-completion and post-completion) whereas M-1 students can only engage in post-completion Optional Practical Training, and for a more limited duration.[95]

J visa[edit]

The J-1 visa can be used by students in degree programs in some cases.[96] Some similarities with the F status:

  • Both the F and J statuses are part of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, and can only be obtained for people enrolled with SEVP-certified institutions.[97]
  • In both cases, there is a principal status for the student (J-1) and a derivative status for the student's dependents (J-2).[98]
  • Both statuses allow for on-campus employment but for no other employment without authorization.[99]
  • Similar to the F status, students who enter on the J status get a "D/S" (Duration of Status) in their Form I-94, which means they can stay as long as their documentation is up to date without having to renew their visa.[100]

There are some key differences:[101]

  • The J visa requires a sponsor. In some cases, the institution may itself agree to be a sponsor if it is covering the student's tuition. Otherwise, the student may be sponsored by his or her home country government, or through a scholarship program.[101]
  • The J visa program is overseen by the U.S. Department of State whereas the F visa program is overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). However, both of them are managed through the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which is a joint program of the Department of State and ICE.
  • The document used to establish status for the J visa is DS-2019, whereas that for the F visa is the I-20.
  • The J visa has a two-year home residence requirement. This says that, after completion of the exchange program, the exchange visitor must stay for at least two years in his or her home country before being able to return to the United States. The two-year residence requirement can be waived under some circumstances.[102][103]
  • The F visa has various options such as Curricular Practical Training and pre-completion and post-completion Optional Practical Training. The option available to J visa holders is called Academic Training.
  • The grace period for J status holders after completion of the program is only 30 days, compared with 60 days for F status holders.


F-1 status holders may earn income through on-campus employment, scholarships, as well as Optional Practical Training and Curricular Practical Training. Generally speaking, they need to file tax returns reporting all such income and pay taxes on it.[104]

F-2 status holders cannot legally work in the United States, and therefore do not have any income tax obligations. However, they still need to file Form 8843, as discussed below.

Determination of whether the student is a resident or a nonresident for tax purposes[edit]

There are two tests to determine permanent residency: the Green Card Test and the Substantial Presence Test. Almost everybody in student status is likely to fail the Green Card Test since it applies only to people who have held a green card in the tax year. The relevant test for students is therefore the Substantial Presence Test.

By the Substantial Presence Test, a person who is in the United States for at least 31 days in the current year and for a weighted total of at least 183 days in the past three calendar years (using a weighting formula) is a resident for tax purposes. However, one can exclude up to five calendar years in F status from this calculation. In particular, people who are arriving in the United States for the first time in F status can file as nonresidents for tax purposes for the first five years. However, those who have been in the United States recently in other statuses may need to file as residents for tax purposes due to their past presence.[105][106]

Those who are classified as residents for tax purposes need to file Form 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ. Those who are classified as nonresidents for tax purposes need to file Form 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ.


Income earned through on-campus part-time or full-time employment is generally classified as wages. In order to be able to earn wages, the student needs to obtain a Social Security Number and fill Form I-9 and Form W-4 for the employer, just like United States workers. The employer issues a Form W-2 at the end of the year documenting the total income and withheld federal and state taxes. This total amount across all employers is filled in by the student on Line 7 of the Form 1040 (if a resident for tax purposes) or Line 8 of Form 1040NR (if not).

Nonresidents in F status are not required to pay Social Security or Medicare taxes for employment that falls within their status, including both on-campus employment and employment through Curricular Practical Training and Optional Practical Training.[107]

Residents for tax purposes are also exempt from Social Security and Medicare taxes for income earned where the employer is the educational institution, subject to a number of caveats.[108][109] Residents do need to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on both on-campus employment not by their university, as well as off-campus employment such as that undertaken as part of Curricular Practical Training and Optional Practical Training.[108]


Tuition waivers that do not involve the student actually receiving money are not taxable and not reported as taxable. However, scholarships that involve the transfer of money to the student do need to be reported and taxed.[110]

If the student is a nonresident for tax purposes, the scholarships are reported using Form 1042-S and tax is withheld at 14% if the student has a SSN or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, and at 30% otherwise. The student must report the tax on Line 12 of the Form 1040NR and use it in calculating his or her tax liability. Many states do not require state tax withholding on scholarship income.[110]

If the student is a resident for tax purposes, there is no federal or state tax withholding, and no form need be issued to the student. However, the student is still obliged to report the income in Line 7 of the Form 1040, and it is part of the student's taxable income.

Contract work[edit]

A student may engage in work as an independent contractor only if it fits the definition of on-campus employment (while the student is enrolled) or either Optional Practical Training or Curricular Practical Training (during the time period of the training). There are two cases:

  • The student is a nonresident for tax purposes: In this case, the payer is required to withhold federal taxes (14% if the student has an ITIN/SSN, 30% otherwise) and issue a Form 1042-S. The student needs to file Schedule C and report the income on Line 13 of Form 1040NR; or
  • The student is a resident for tax purposes: In this case, if the payer is a business, and the amount paid exceeds the $600 threshold, the payer must file Form 1099-MISC. Regardless of whether the student receives a 1099-MISC, the student must file Schedules C and SE and report the income on Line 12 of Form 1040, as well as relevant amounts on Lines 27 and 57.

Filing Form 8843 and other miscellanea[edit]

Resident aliens in F status are governed by the same tax filing rules as United States residents. In particular, they need to file taxes on their worldwide income (including interest income in non-US banks and financial instruments) and can take either the standard deduction or itemize their deductions.

A nonresident alien in F-1 or F-2 status need not file an income tax return if he or she has no US-source income, or if the withholding on the US-source income covers the alien's tax obligations, subject to various caveats.[111]

Any person in F-1 or F-2 status, who is a nonresident for tax purposes during a calendar year, and is not filing an income tax return, must file a standalone Form 8843 by June 15 of the next year.[112] Since people in F-2 status cannot legally earn income in the United States, they would generally need to file the standalone Form 8843.

Some countries have tax treaties with the United States that allow for a reduction in the taxes that nonresidents in F status from these countries need to pay while in the United States.[113]

See also[edit]


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