Immigration Guide For Foreign Students, Academics, and Researchers
SEVIS, J, O, F, and M are just a few of the letters of the alphabet that you need to know if you plan to study, research, or teach in the United States. The visa processing system is never a straight path. At the Law Offices of Curtis Pierce, we can help you navigate the system by providing information on this specialized area of immigration law.
J-1 Visitor Exchange Program
The J visa is a nonimmigrant visa, and participants in the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program are expected to return to their home countries when they complete their programs. Entry into the United States as a participant in the Exchange Visitor Program is granted with the understanding that participants will complete the objectives of a single program category.
The minimum duration of any exchange program is three weeks, except for participants in the Short Term Scholar category or those sponsored by the Federal Government. The maximum duration varies by category. The Form DS-2019 identifies the participant (block 1) and the sponsor (block 2 and block 7, which contains the name, signature and telephone number/address of the sponsor's responsible officer), provides a brief description of the program activity to be completed by the participant (block 2), indicates the begin and end dates of the program (block 3) and the program category (block 4), and provides a breakout of the total estimated financial support to be provided to the participant during his or her program (block 5).
The program participant is in current J visa status and may complete objectives relative to the program category indicated in block 4 only during the time period defined in block 3 unless the participant withdraws or is terminated from the program. The time period defined on the Form DS-2019 may not reflect the maximum program duration permitted for a specific category; in such cases, the participant's program may be extended, as allowed by program regulations and at the discretion of the responsible officer. Program extensions beyond the maximum duration, if allowed for a program category, must be requested by the responsible officer and approved by the Department of State.
Program regulations of some categories permit the entry of the participant's dependents under the J-2 visa at the sponsor's discretion. Dependents are defined as the participant's spouse and minor unmarried children -- unmarried children under the age 21. Participants should contact their sponsors for additional information and to determine if their dependents may accompany them to the United States for the duration of their programs.
To ensure that the program is suitable to the participant's background, needs, and experience, sponsors screen and select their program participants according to the eligibility criteria for each program category. Some categories require that a personal interview be part of the screening/selection process. Please refer to the information provided in this website on each category and to the regulations through the established links. In addition to program-specific criteria, all participants must satisfy English language proficiency and Insurance requirements. In addition, sponsors are to provide participants with pre-arrival information prior to their departure from their home countries and with an appropriate orientation. Sponsors are also required to monitor the progress and welfare of the participants in their programs.
English Language Proficiency
Participants must possess sufficient proficiency in the English language to participate in their programs. Sponsors are required to ensure that their participants are sufficiently proficient in the English language to participate in their exchange programs before they enter the United States. [22 CFR 62.10(a)(2)]
Participants and any J-2 dependents (spouses and minor children -- children under the age 21) accompanying them are required to carry medical insurance at the minimum benefit levels stated in the program regulations. Program sponsors are required to ensure that all participants have the appropriate medical insurance. They will verify that the participant's medical insurance meets the regulatory requirements, and will facilitate the purchase of coverage to participants who do not have their own insurance, or whose coverage does not meet the requirements. Participants interested in obtaining appropriate medical insurance should contact the responsible officer of the organization sponsoring their program. Willful failure on the part of the participant and/or any J-2 dependents to maintain active insurance coverage is grounds for termination from the program. Please refer to the regulations for details. [22 CFR 62.14]
Sponsors are required to provide their participants with information about the program and related matters before they leave their home countries for the United States. Sponsors must also provide their participants with specific program information and any contractual obligations relevant to their program category. For details, please refer to the regulations. [22 CFR 62.10 (b)(1-8) and specific regulations for categories of interest]
Sponsors must offer appropriate orientation for all participants, and are encouraged to offer orientation to the participant's family (J-2 spouses and dependents), especially those expected to remain in the United States for at least one year. For details, please refer to the regulations. [22 CFR 62.10 (c)(1-7) and specific regulations for categories of interest]
Orientation material should include information about the region, state, and locale. Useful information specific to each state may be found at that state's website. The URL for each site is <<www.state's name spelled as one word.com>>. For example, the site providing information for the state of Maryland is located at www.maryland.com. The site providing information for the state of New Hampshire is located at www.newhampshire.com.
Sponsors are required to monitor the progress and welfare of their participants. Sponsors are to ensure that the participants' activities are consistent with the program category identified on the participants' Form DS-2019. Sponsors are also to require their participants to provide current contact (address and telephone number) information and to maintain this information in their files.
All program categories require that sponsors provide emergency, 24-hour contact information to their participants. Participants should not hesitate to use it when necessary.
The Grace Period
Following the completion of their program, the period defined on the Form DS-2019, Citizenship & Immigration Services (CIS) allows participants a 30-day travel period commonly referred to as the "grace period." During this 30-day grace period, participants are no longer in J-visa status, and are under the jurisdiction of the CIS. CIS grants this period to allow participants to settle their affairs and to prepare to return to their home countries. Program participants may no longer continue and/or complete exchange activities, nor may they work. Although participants may travel in the United States, it is recommended that they do not travel beyond the borders of the United States as they may not be permitted return.
Program participants who are subject to the two-year home-country physical presence requirement, as established by Section 212(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, must apply for a waiver of that requirement if they seek to remain in the United States beyond the end date of their programs or if they seek to submit an application to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for a change in visa status. A waiver may be requested for five statutory bases: 1) a claim of Exceptional Hardship to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident spouse or child of an exchange visitor if the exchange visitor is required to return to the country of residence; 2) a claim that the participant will be persecuted due to race, religion, or political opinions if he/she returns to the country of residence; 3) a request from an interested US Government Agency on the participant's behalf; 4) a No Objection Statement from your government; and 5) a request by a designated State Health Department or its equivalent.
Participants must file an application to receive a recommendation for a waiver with the Department of State. Please refer to the regulations for details. [22 CFR 41.63]
Information about waivers may also be obtained from the Department of State's Visa Office. The public inquiry line for waivers is (202) 663-1225; fax (202) 663-3899
F-1 and M-1 Visas
The first step for international students is to apply for a visa. This is at American embassies and consulates. If you are going to the U.S. primarily for tourism, but want to take a short course of study of less than 18 hours per week, you may be able to do so on a visitor visa. However, of you plan to study more than 18 hours per week, you will need to apply for a F-1 or M-1 visa.
In most countries, first time student visa applicants are required to appear for an in-person interview. However, each embassy and consulate sets its own interview policies and procedures regarding student visas. Students should consult Embassy web sites or call for specific application instructions.
Keep in mind that June, July, and August are the busiest months in most consular sections, and interview appointments are the most difficult to get during that period. Students need to plan ahead to avoid having to make repeat visits to the Embassy. To the extent possible, students should bring the documents suggested below, as well as any other documents that might help establish their ties to the local community.
Changes introduced shortly after September 11, 2001 involve extensive and ongoing review of visa issuing practices as they relate to our national security. It is important to apply for your visa well in advance of your travel departure date.
When Do I Need to Apply for My Student Visa? Students are encouraged to apply for their visa early to provide ample time for visa processing. Students may apply for their visa as soon as they are prepared to do so.
The consular officer may need to get special clearances depending on the course of study and nationality of the student. This can take some additional time. For more information on applicants who may have additional processing requirements see Special Processing Requirements.
Students should note that Embassies and Consulates are able to issue your student visa 120 days or less, in advance of the course of study registration date. If you apply for your visa more than 120 days prior to your start date or registration date as provided on the Form I-20, the Embassy or Consulate will hold your application until it is able to issue the visa. Consular officials will use that extra time to accomplish any of the necessary special clearances or other processes that may be required.
Students are advised of the Department of Homeland Security regulation which requires that all initial or beginning students enter the U.S. 30 days or less in advance of the course of study start/report date as shown on the Form I-20. Please consider this date carefully when making travel plans to the U.S.
A beginning student who wants an earlier entry into the U.S. (more than 30 days prior to the course start date), must qualify for, and obtain a visitor visa. A prospective student notation will be shown on his/her visitor visa and the traveler will need to make the intent to study clear to the U.S. immigration inspector at port of entry. Before beginning any studies, he or she must obtain a change of classification, filing Form I-539, Application for Change of Nonimmigrant Status, and also submit the required Form I-20 to the Department of Homeland Security office where the application is made. Please be aware that there is an additional fee of $300 for this process, and that one may not begin studies until the change of classification is approved.
Continuing students may apply for a new visa at any time, as long as they have been maintaining student status and their SEVIS records are current. Continuing students may also enter the U.S. at any time before their classes start.
What is SEVIS and SEVP? What should you know about it?
The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is designed to help the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State better monitor school and exchange programs and F, M and J category visitors. Exchange visitor and student information is maintained in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS is an Internet-based system that maintains accurate and current information on non-immigrant students (F and M visa), exchange visitors (J visa), and their dependents (F-2, M-2, and J-2). SEVIS enables schools and program sponsors to transmit mandatory information and event notifications via the Internet, to the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State (DOS) throughout a student or exchange visitor's stay in the United States. Select SEVIS to go to the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Internet site and learn more.
All student applicants must have a SEVIS generated I-20 issued by an educational institution approved by DHS, which they submit when they are applying for their student visa. The consular officer will need to verify your I-20 record electronically through the SEVIS system in order to process your student visa application. Unless otherwise exempt, participants whose SEVIS I-20 was issued on or after September 1, 2004 must pay a SEVIS I-901 Fee to the Department of Homeland Security for each individual program. The fee may be paid either through a special website, via Western Union, or by mail.See SEVIS-901 Fee or SEVIS for further information on how to pay the fee.
What is Needed to Apply for a Student Visa?
As part of the visa application process, an interview at the embassy consular section is required for visa applicants from age 14 through 79. Persons age 13 and younger, and age 80 and older, generally do not require an interview, unless requested by embassy or consulate. The waiting time for an interview appointment for applicants can vary, so early visa application is strongly encouraged It is important to remember that applying early and providing the requested documents does not guarantee that the student will receive a visa. Visa wait times for interview appointments and visa processing time information for each U.S. Embassy or Consulate worldwide is available on our website at Visa Wait Times, and on most embassy websites. During the visa application process, usually at the interview, an ink-free, digital fingerprint scan will be quickly taken. Some applicants will need additional screening, and will be notified when they apply. Also, because each student’s personal and academic situation is different, two students applying for same visa may be asked different questions and be required to submit different documents. For that reason, the guidelines that follow are general and can be abridged or expanded by consular officers overseas, depending on each student’s situation.
All applicants for a student visa must provide: Form I-20A-B, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status-For Academic and Language Students or Form I-20M-N, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (M-1) Student Status for Vocational Students. You will need to submit a SEVIS generated Form, I-20, which was provided to you by your school.You and your school official must sign the I-20 form. All students, as well as their spouses and dependents must be registered in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), an Internet-based system that maintains accurate and current information on non-immigrant students and exchange visitors and their dependents (F/M-2 visa holders). Your school is responsible for entering your information for the I-20 student visa form into SEVIS. Students will also have to pay an SEVIS I-901 fee for each program of study. Questions regarding your exchange program should be directly to your program sponsor;
A completed application, Nonimmigrant Visa Applicant,Form DS-156, together with a Form DS-158. Both forms must be completed and signed. Some applicants will also be required to complete and sign Form DS-157. A separate form is needed for children, even if they are included in a parent's passport. The DS-156 must be the March 2006 date, electronic "e-form application." Select Nonimmigrant Visa Application Form DS-156 to access the electronic version of the form DS-156.
An interview at the embassy consular section is required for almost all visa applicants. The waiting time for an interview appointment for applicants can vary, so early visa application is strongly encouraged. During the visa interview, an ink-free, digital fingerprint scan will be quickly taken, as well as a digital photo. Some applicants will need additional screening, and will be notified when they apply.
A passport valid for travel to the United States and with a validity date at least six months beyond the applicant's intended period of stay in the United States (unless country-specific agreements provide exemptions). If more than one person is included in the passport, each person desiring a visa must complete an application.
One (1) 2x2 photograph.
A MRV fee receipt to show payment of the visa application fee, a visa issuance fee if applicable and a separate SEVIS I-901 fee receipt. While all F-visa applicants must pay the MRV fee, including dependents, only the F-1 principal applicants must pay the SEVIS fee.
Students who are authorized for Optional Practical Training (OPT) must have an I-20 endorsed for OPT, and provide a USCIS-issued Employment Authorization Document (EAD).
All applicants should be prepared to provide:
Transcripts and diplomas from previous institutions attended;
scores from standardized tests required by the educational institution such as the TOEFL, SAT, GRE, GMAT, etc.;
financial evidence that shows you or your parents who are sponsoring you have sufficient funds to cover your tuition and living expenses during the period of your intended study. For example, if you or your sponsor is a salaried employee, please bring income tax documents and original bank books and/or statements. If you or your sponsor own a business, please bring business registration, licenses, etc., and tax documents, as well as original bank books and/or statements.
Applicants with dependents must also provide:
Proof of the student’s relationship to his/her spouse and/or children (e.g., marriage and birth certificates.);
it is preferred that families apply for F-1 and F-2 visas at the same time, but if the spouse and children must apply separately at a later time, they should bring a copy of the student visa holder’s passport and visa, along with all other required documents.
No assurances regarding the issuance of visas can be given in advance. Therefore final travel plans or the purchase of non refundable tickets should not be made until a visa has been issued.
Unless previously canceled, a visa is valid until its expiration date. Therefore, if the traveler has a valid U.S. visa in an expired passport, do not remove the visa page from the expired passport. You may use it along with a new valid passport for travel and admission to the United States.
Entering the U.S. - Port of Entry
A visa allows a foreign citizen coming from abroad, to travel to the United States port-of entry and request permission to enter the U.S. Applicants should be aware that a visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. The Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have authority to permit or deny admission to the United States. Student visitors must have their Form I-20 in their possession each time they enter the United States. Students should review important information about Admissions/Entry requirements on the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection website. Upon arrival (at an international airport, seaport or land border crossing), you will be enrolled in the US-VISIT entry-exit program. In addition, some travelers will also need to register their entry into and their departure from the U.S. with the Special Registration program. If you are allowed to enter the U.S., the CBP official will determine the length of your visit on the Arrival-Departure Record (Form I-94). Since Form I-94 documents your authorized stay in the U.S., it’s very important to keep in your passport.
Staying Beyond Your Authorized Stay in the U.S. and Being Out of Status
You should carefully consider the dates of your authorized stay and make sure you are following the procedures under U.S. immigration laws. It is important that you depart the U.S. on or before the last day you are authorized to be in the U.S. on any given trip, based on the specified end date on your Arrival-Departure Record, Form I-94. Failure to depart the U.S. will cause you to be out-of-status. Additional information on successfully maintaining your immigration status while a student or exchange visitor can be found on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website.
Staying beyond the period of time authorized by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and being out-of-status in the United States is a violation of U.S. immigration laws, and may cause you to be ineligible for a visa in the future for return travel to the U.S. Select Classes of Aliens Ineligible to Receive Visas to learn more.
Staying unlawfully in the United States beyond the date Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have authorized--even by one day--results in your visa being automatically voided, in accordance with INA 222(g). Under this provision of immigration law, if you overstay on your nonimmigrant authorized stay in the U.S., your visa will be automatically voided. In this situation, you are required to reapply for a new nonimmigrant visa, generally in your country of nationality.
For non immigrants in the U.S. who have an Arrival-Departure Record, Form I-94 with the CBP admitting officer endorsement of Duration of Status or D/S, but who are no longer performing the same function in the U.S. that they were originally admitted to perform (e.g. you are no longer working for the same employer or you are no longer attending the same school), a DHS or an immigration judge makes a finding of status violation, resulting in the termination of the period of authorized stay.
What Items Do Returning Students Need?
All applicants applying for renewals must submit:
A passport valid for at least six months;
an application Form DS-156, together with a Form DS-158. Both forms must be completed and signed. Some applicants will also be required to complete and sign Form DS-157. Blank forms are available without charge at all U.S. consular offices and on the Visa Services website under Visa Applications Forms;
a receipt for visa processing fee. A receipt showing payment of the visa application fee for each applicant, including each child listed in a parent’s passport who is also applying for a U.S. visa, is needed;
a new I-20 or an I-20 that has been endorsed on the back by a school official within the past 12 months.
All applicants applying for renewals should be prepared to submit:
A certified copy of your grades from the school in which you are enrolled;
financial documents from you or your sponsor, showing your ability to cover the cost of your schooling.
Students Away from Classes More Than Five Months
Students in or outside the U.S., who have been away from classes for more than five months, will likely need a new visa to enter the U.S.
How long may I stay on my F-1 student visa?
When you enter the United States on a student visa, you will usually be admitted for the duration of your student status. That means you may stay as long as you are a full time student, even if the F-1 visa in your passport expires while you are in America. For a student who has completed the course of studies shown on the I-20, and any authorized practical training, the student is allowed the following additional time in the U.S. before departure:
F-1 student - An additional 60 days, to prepare for departure from the U.S. or to transfer to another school.
M-1 student - An additional 30 days to depart the U.S. (Fixed time period, in total not to exceed one year). The 30 days to prepare for departure is permitted as long as the student maintained a full course of study and maintained status. An M student may receive extensions up to three years for the total program.
As an example regarding duration of status, if you have a visa that is valid for five years that will expire on January 1, 2001, and you are admitted into the U.S. for the duration of your studies (often abbreviated in your passport or on your I-94 card as "D/S"), you may stay in the U.S. as long as you are a full time student. Even if January 1, 2001 passes and your visa expires while in America, you will still be in legal student status. However, if you depart the U.S. with an expired visa, you will need to obtain a new one before being able to return to America and resume your studies. A student visa cannot be renewed or re-issued in the United States; it must be done at an Embassy or Consulate abroad.
There are certain restrictions on attending public school in the U.S. Persons who violate these restrictions may not receive another visa for a period of five years.
The restrictions apply only to students holding F-1 visas. They do not apply to students attending public school on derivative visas, such as F-2, J-2 or H-4 visas. The restrictions also do not apply to students attending private schools on F-1 visas.
The restrictions are:
Students who attend public high schools in the U.S. are limited to twelve months of study. Public school attendance in the U.S. prior to November 30, 1996 does not count toward this limit.
F-1 visas can no longer be issued to attend public elementary or middle schools (Kindergarten - 8th grade) or publicly-funded adult education programs.
Before an F-1 visa for a public school can be issued, the student must show that the public school in the U.S. has been reimbursed for the full, unsubsidized per capita cost of the education as calculated by the school. Reimbursement may be indicated on the I-20. Consular officers may request copies of canceled checks and/or receipts confirming the payment as needed.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)
SEVIS implements section 641 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996, Public Law 104-208 (as amended), that requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to collect current information, on an ongoing basis, from DHS-certified schools and Department of State (DoS)-designated exchange visitor program sponsors relating to nonimmigrant foreign students (F and M visas) and exchange visitors (J-visa) during the course of their stay in the United States.
SEVIS is an Internet-based system that provides tracking and monitoring functionality, with access to accurate and current information on nonimmigrant students (F and M visa) and exchange visitors (J visa), and their dependents (F-2, M-2, and J-2). SEVIS enables schools and program sponsors to transmit electronic information and event notifications, via the Internet, to the DHS and DoS throughout a student's or exchange visitor's stay in the United States. SEVIS will be informed of status events for students and exchange visitors including, but not limited to, entry/exit data, changes of current United States address (residence), program extensions, employment notifications, and changes in program of study. SEVIS will also provide system alerts, event notifications, and reports to the end-user schools and programs, as well as for DHS and DoS offices.
SEVIS enables the submission of designation applications to DoS (Form DS-3036) for review. If an entity meets the regulatory requirements established in 22 CFR Part 62 and is designated by DoS as a program sponsor, users may update program sponsor information, submit updates to DoS that require approval, and create and update J-1 exchange visitor and dependent records (that is, accompanying spouse and dependent children records). The DoS Office of Exchange Coordination and Designation has the capability to review and approve updates made to program sponsor and exchange visitor records using SEVIS, and the Responsible Officers (RO) and Alternate Responsible Officers (AROs) will be notified via email of the results.
Additional information may be obtained through the SEVIS website, administered by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Homeland Security.
Interested in Applying for Designation to Become an Exchange Visitor Program Sponsor?
If you are interested in applying with the Department of State to be considered for designation to become an exchange visitor program sponsor, please refer to the Department of Homeland Security's User Manual for Temporary Users of SEVIS listed directly below. This manual was written as a resource for temporary users of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). It provides instructions for users who wish to complete the Department of State (DoS) Form DS-3036, Exchange Visitor Program Application. User Manual for Temporary Users of SEVIS (How to Complete and Submit the Form DS-3036, Exchange Visitor Program Application) December 14, 2007 Update (*PDF, 1.58 MB)
The PDF file above is a large file and it will take a few minutes to download.
Exchange Visitor Program Application (Form DS-3036):
The Department of State's Exchange Visitor Program works within an electronic environment. To submit an application for designation to the Department for review, an applicant must meet the eligibility requirements set forth in the Exchange Visitor Program regulations (22 CFR Part 62.3) and must submit an electronic Form DS-3036. Please refer to the Temporary Users Manual listed directly below for instructions and procedures for filing an application. The manual explains how to complete the Form DS-3036 and identifies the materials that must be submitted to the Department to initiate a review. The application fee for designation as an exchange visitor program is $1748; this fee is non-refundable.
Prior to the submission of an application, applicants should have read this manual and be thoroughly familiar with the Exchange Visitor Program regulations (22 CFR Part 62).
To be eligible for designation as a program sponsor, an organization must demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the Department, its ability to comply and remain in compliance with all provisions of the Exchange Visitor Program regulations (22 CFR Part 62) and, at all times, to meet its financial obligations and responsibilities attendant to the successful sponsorship of its exchange visitor program, if designated. Important to Note: Designation as an Exchange Visitor Program sponsor will not be considered if an applicant cannot meet the following two prerequisites that are discussed in detail in the Temporary Users Manual:
Previous experience in the field of international exchanges; and,
For DoS-Designated Exchange Visitor Program Sponsors
The following two manuals were written as resources for DoS-designated Exchange Visitor Program Sponsor users, that is, Responsible Officers (ROs) and Alternate Responsible Officers (AROs) of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). They are presented in two separate volumes in order to delineate the Form DS-2019, and Form DS-3036, DS-3037, and other program updates. User Manual for Exchange Visitor Program Sponsor Users (RO/ARO) of SEVIS Version 5.8: Volume I Forms DS-3036 and DS-3037
April 18, 2008 (*PDF, 1.55 MB)
The PDF file above is a large file and it will take a few minutes to download.
This manual contains instructions for accessing SEVIS with a permanent user identification (ID) and password; creating and processing Forms DS-3036 and DS-3037, Exchange Visitor Application; viewing alerts on Exchange Visitors; and viewing and printing a variety of reports. User Manual for Exchange Visitor Program Sponsor Users (RO/ARO) of SEVIS Version 5.8: Volume II Form DS-2019
April 18, 2008 (*PDF, 2.63 MB)
The PDF file above is a large file and it will take a few minutes to download.
This manual contains instructions for accessing SEVIS with a permanent user identification (ID) and password; creating and processing Forms DS-2019, Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status; viewing alerts on exchange visitors; and viewing and printing a variety of reports.
Once a sponsor has been authorized to use SEVIS, all Forms DS-2019 must be created in and issued from SEVIS. Once an exchange visitor's data are entered in SEVIS, program sponsor officials must update the exchange visitor's record and report on the events required by the regulations. See 22 (CFR) 62, the Exchange Visitor Program regulations (listed directly below) for a detailed explanation.