US Immigration Laws for Students


As an international student, you will need a visa to enter the US to stay for the duration of your study.  The three categories are

  • F 1 Visa
  • J 1 Visa and
  • M 1 Visa

The most commonly issued visa is the F 1 visa and detailed information is given below about each category.  All visas are issued and regulated by the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).  Though the application process can be a bit daunting, information is provided on the Student Visa and Immigration Center to guide people through the process. 

F 1 Student Visa

F 1 Student visa is the most issued category for students come to the US for higher studies at Universities or Colleges.  There are some minimum requirements that a student has to meet for the duration.

  • Minimum course load per semester to be considered full time student
  • Stay up to 2 months or 60 days beyond the date of visa to complete coursework
  • Additional 12 months to get practical training in their field of study – the Optional Practical training Program (OPT)
  • Students have to absolutely complete all aspects of their studies before the expiry of their I-20 form (Certificate of Non-Immigration Student Status).  This is attested to and provided by the University that they are to attend.

Qualifications for an F 1 Visa have the following criteria and applicants have to meet these standards.

    • Must be a resident of a foreign country and return after studies
    • Can only go to college mentioned on the Visa and the college which signed off on admission
    • Adequate financial support
    • Ties to home country such as assets, bank account information, family etc.
    • Chance to convert F-1 to temporary work visa after completing degree.  Family and children of applicant have to get F-2 Visa and cannot work in the US.

As far as work is concerned, F-1 students can apply for part time work (less than 20 hours/week) such as on campus employment.  This money only supplements their funds and would by no means cover the cost of education.  Check out the Working in the USA section under the F-1 Visa section to find out where you can work.  Even the University admissions office can help in this matter.

J-1 Student Visa 

Let’s look at what the J-1 Visa is and what criteria will determine eligibility.  This visa is issued to the students who want to get practical training as part of their academic program.  It is a non-immigrant visa which works towards fostering exchange students and cultural awareness – mostly issued for business or medical training in and around the US.  All applicants have to meet all the criteria and need sponsorship by a private sector company or any Government Program.

Length of Stay

  • J-1 Applicants may stay till the end of their program under the rules on Form DS-2019 and an additional month beyond the date of visa – this is considered the “grace period”. 
  • If they leave within this time period they have to get a new J-1 Visa before they can re-enter the US.
  • The time period of each J-1 Visa is determined by the category under which people apply.
  • As with any other non-immigrant visa, the J-1 holder and dependents have to leave the country at the end of the specified period.

Categories of J-1 Visas

There are different categories and each has clearly delineated purposes and type of exchange program.

Private Sector

  • Physician from alien country
  • Nanny/Au Pair
  • Summer Camp Counselors
  • Interns
  • High School Students
  • Work/Travel Programs
  • Trainees
  • Teachers
  • Flight School Training

Government Programs

  • Visitors on Government Business
  • International Visitors
  • Research Scholars and Professors
  • Specialists
  • College and University Students

Other criteria that have to be met before anyone can be issued a J-1 Visa are

  • Mandatory 2 year stay in their home country before a person can reapply under this category.  Exceptions to the rule exist – check for this information.
  • Important changes such as legal name change or change of address have to be reported within 10 days of occurrence.  Not to do so will risk termination of visa.
  • Tax on income will vary and will differ according to treaties with the said countries.  Be sure to check this information.

M-1 Student Visa

This is issued to students who are interested in enrollment in technical or vocational schools.  To get one of these to travel to the US, the student has to present a signed I-20 Form at the US Embassy or Consulate in the home country.   I -20 forms is issued to the student by a school official after all the admission requirements and proof of finance has met the criteria.

With this visa, students can go only for a fixed period to the US.   When they enter the country, their I-94 Departure Card is date stamped, unlike an F-1 Visa.  They can then stay only for the allotted time plus the Optional Practical Training program and a 30 day “grace period”.  Only in the case of medical issues can the stay be extended beyond a year.  If the status is violated –For instance not completing the course, the grace period is cancelled.  Students with an M-1 Visa cannot work and also cannot change their status to F-1.

If M-1 Students want to work, their eligibility works out to one month of work for every four of study.  They have to then file

  • An I-765 Employment Authorization Application
  • And an I-539 Extension on status

This is done through the USCIS centers throughout the US.  When applying for the OPT Program, the following documents have to be included with the application

  • Cover letter with information on the situation
  • I-765  Form
  • Specified processing fee in Check form addressed to the Department of Homeland Security
  • Original I-20 Signed with the OPT request along with original financial documents
  • Copy of Visa and Passport main page
  • 2 Passport size photos
  • Current bank account information
  • I-539 Form
  • Processing fee as needed by Department of Homeland Security
  • Front and back copies of the I-94 card.

Separate copies of each of theI-765 and I-539 applications should be included and they will be handled on an individual basis.  On approval, the I-765 becomes an OPT card/employment authorization card.  A new I-94 card will also be issued, which will be collected by authorities on departure.  If more information is needed by the USCIS, request for evidence will be made to the applicant.  Be sure to go through the application process carefully – and send in a good application with all the documents so as to make getting the visa easy.