Immigration Law Center, L.L.C.
P.O. Box 11032
Montgomery, Alabama 36111-0032 USA

Call us:  +334.832.9090
E-mail us:  CLICK HERE

 Boyd F. Campbell, All Rights Reserved

General information for international students:
How to take the right steps with your 'F' or 'J' visa

Adapted and edited by Boyd F. Campbell from information prepared by
the University of Illinois Office of International Student Affairs

    The United States has laws and regulations governing foreigners temporarily within its borders. Your student visa allows you plenty of freedom to pursue your studies, but it does not allow you to work, unless you are authorized to do so by your "designated school official" (your "DSO") or by the federal Department of Labor or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Like all freedoms, the freedom to study in the United States comes with responsibilities. To get an F-1 or J-1 visa, you must pay the SEVIS I-901 fee.  As an international student, the following are your exclusive responsibilities:

    Keep your passport current. If possible, apply for a new passport at least 60 days before your old passport expires.
    Be sure your permission to stay -- Form I-20 (F-1) or DS-2019 (J-1), Form I-94 (Arrival-Departure Record) attached to a page of your passport, and passport stamp -- is valid and current.
    Inform the dean of students if you wish to change your department or degree level.
    Maintain a full-time course of study (12 hours or 4 courses in the quarter system; 15 hours or five courses in the semester system; graduate student course loads may differ). By taking fewer hours without authorization, you lose your student visa.
    Request official permission to accept off-campus work. Talk to your DSO first.
    Make sure that all travel documents are in order before taking any trip outside the United States.
    Pay U.S. and state income tax if required to do so.
    Obtain employment authorization (I-9) from the dean of students if you have been assigned to work on campus and receive a university paycheck.
    Be aware of immigration law. Never seek advice from a friend. Ask the dean of students or consult a qualified immigration lawyer if you are in doubt.
    Plan for the future. Some students have to plan several years in advance of the end of their studies, if they want to remain in the United States and get a job.

Enforcement of U.S. immigration laws

    Enforcement of U.S. Immigration law is the responsibility of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The USCIS is part of the Department of Homeland Security and has its headquarters in Washington D.C. The United States is divided into a number of regions and "districts" by USCIS. Most foreigners have contact with a USCIS district office. For example, the district office that has jurisdiction over international students in Alabama is:  2150 Parklake Drive, N.E., Atlanta, Georgia 30345.  Please check with your DSO to find out what USCIS district office has jurisdiction over your school.
    The college or university does not enforce immigration laws. Instead, the role of the college or university is to provide you with information and advice about immigration regulations and what you should do to remain in compliance with them. This information is typically provided by your registrar or DSO for your college or university. It is your responsibility to know what the immigration regulations are with regard to your visa, and to comply with the immigration regulations.
    As a certified institution permitted to enroll international students, the university is required by law to provide information regarding students' status when requested by USCIS. But your DSO may not have all the answers. If you need legal advice, please consult a qualified immigration lawyer.  You may contact the Immigration Law Center at +334.832.9090, or the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C., for a referral to a qualified U.S. immigration lawyer by goint to  You may read more about what immigration lawyers can (and cannot) do for you, by clicking on this hyperlink: Immigration Lawyers

Important Documents


    Your passport is a travel document and may also be used to prove your residency or nationality. It shows that you have your government's permission to travel in and out of your country. It has a specific expiration date. Federal law does require foreign nationals to carry a valid passport with them at all times, but you need not carry it with you on campus. You should carry your passport when you travel in the United States, and you must carry it when you travel outside the United States. Keep your passport in a secure place in your room, together with any correspondence you have from your university and from the Immigration and Naturalization Service or the U.S. Department of State (U.S. Embassy) in your home country. If your passport is lost, stolen or destroyed, report it immediately to the local or campus police and take immediate steps to get a new one from your embassy or consulate.
    To remain as an international student in the United States, you must keep your passport valid at all times. Extensions are made by your embassy or consulate; a fee is often charged. Your consulate or embassy may request verification of your student status and expected graduation date in order to extend your passport. The university can provide a "general certificate" for this purpose. In some cases, several months are required for extension, and occasionally a new passport must be issued. Consult your DSO.

United States entry visa

    International students, except for Canadian residents, are required to have a valid U.S. entry visa and supporting documents to initially enter the United States. This visa is valid for a number of entries and has a specific expiration date. You may remain in the U.S. legally with an expired entry visa provided that your I-94 and your DS-2019 or I-20 are current. However, you may need to obtain a new entry visa if you leave the U.S. Always bring your passport and immigration documents to your DSO before you travel. Either your DSO or dean of students should be able to determine whether or not you will need a new entry visa and advise you about supporting documents. If you have additional questions, you should contact a qualified immigration lawyer by calling the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C., at (202) 216-2400. Or visit the Immigration Law Center on the Internet by clicking on the following link to go back to our home page: Immigration Law Center
    New entry visas are issued outside the United States. They are obtained by presenting a Form I-20 or DS-2019 to a U.S. embassy or consulate. Proof of financial support for continuing studies and proof of permanent residence abroad are necessary. Visa service should be available in any U.S. consulate, but you should note that it is only assured in your country of permanent residence.

Arrival-Departure Record (Form I-94)

    Each nonimmigrant (including an F or J visaholder) admitted to the United States is given a small white card on the airplane. You will fill out this card on the airplane and present it to the Immigration Control officials at the U.S. international airport. The card is white and is usually stapled into the passport on the same page where the visa appears. This card is an arrival-departure record and is referred to by its form number: I-94. It indicates your nonimmigrant status (F-1 or J-1) and is evidence that you have permission to stay in the United States. The time at which your permission to stay expires appears in the upper right hand corner of the I-94. This may be either a specific date or "D/S" (Duration of Status) for J-1 students and "D/S" for F-1 students.

I-20 ID (F-1 students)

    The I-20 form (or Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status) is the form used by F-1 students and their F-2 dependents to obtain an entry visa and enter the United States. The I-20 ID is the second page of your I-20 form. The I-20 ID should be kept in your passport at all times and must be endorsed by your DSO if you need to travel outside the United States. If a new I-20 is issued to you for any reason, always keep your original I-20 ID to attach it to the new I-20.

DS-2019 (J-1 exchange visitors)

    The DS-2019, or Application for Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status, is the three-page form used by J-1 students to obtain an entry visa and enter the United States. Your copy of the IAP-66 is the pink copy. It contains important information including your program sponsor and an expiration date. Keep the IAP-66 in your passport. It is a good idea to get a written endorsement on your IAP-66 from your J-1 program officer when you travel.
    PLEASE NOTE:Some U.S. consulates in foreign capitals do not authorize re-entry to the United States under any circumstances, unless the students files a new I-20 or IAP-66.

Selected Immigration Procedures

Visas for dependents (spouses, children)

    Student spouses and/or children applying for F-2 or J-2 visas must present four documents in the U.S. embassy or consulate: Form I-20 or DS-2019, personal affidavit of support, financial documentation, and proof of relationship to the F-1 or J-1 student (marriage certificate, birth certificate, etc.). Exchange Visitors (J-1) must furnish copies of this financial documentation to the program sponsor, the dean of students, or the international program counselor at the university. The sponsor then issues the DS-2019 form. F-1 students must furnish this documentation to the dean of students or international student counselor office to obtain the I-20.
    Students must be able to support their families in the United States. The international student counselor at the University should have cost of living estimates for married students with or without children. You must make an appointment with a counselor at the University when requesting documents to bring your dependents (unless you are on an outside sponsor's J-1 program). Your university will only issue dependent documents if you have enough money to support your family.

Re-entry after visiting abroad

    A valid entry visa and a valid I-20 or DS-20919 are required for re-entry from most countries. However, a valid U.S. entry visa may not be required for entry from Canada, Mexico or most islands in the Caribbean. Check your travel documents with the DSO or dean of students at least two weeks before you leave the United States; you may learn that you will need new documents to re-enter the United States. It is better to know before you go.

Extension of stay (J-1 students)

    Keep both your I-94 and DS-2019 valid. Remaining in the United States beyond the departure date on your I-94 is a deportable offense. Contact your DSO, the dean of students, or your J-1 Exchange Visa program sponsor at least 60 days before your I-94 expires to receive the necessary forms for extension. If your I-94 carries a "D/S" (Duration of Status) expiration date, contact your program sponsor at least 60 days before your DS-2019 expires.

Extension of stay (F-1 students)

    The expiration date of the I-94 for F-1 students is marked "D/S" (Duration of Status). "D/S" is defined as the time which you are pursuing a full course of study and making normal progress, any authorized optional practical training, and a 60-day grace period to prepare for departing the U.S. In most instances, you should complete your degree by the expiration date of your I-20.
    You must request a new I-20 from your university if you change your level or field of study. Similarly, if you cannot complete your program by the expiration date of your I-20, plus a one-year grace period, you should call or stop by the office of your DSO or the dean of students to explore options that may be available to you. Don't wait until the calendar period of a normal degree program expires to take action to preserve your status in the United States.

Full course of study

    As an F-1 or J-1 student, you are required to enroll for a full course of study for fall and spring semesters. Summer enrollment is optional unless you are admitted for the summer session. Twelve hours is considered a full-time enrollment for undergraduates. There are certain instances in which USCIS may allow less than a full academic courseload. You should always consult with the university if you think it is necessary to reduce your courseload.

Change of status

    Certain nonimmigrants may apply for a change of status. Changes of status are made to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, either through travel or by application. A request to change visa status is not always approved. Visa changes from J-1 exchange visitor to F-1 student are not always possible. Also, a change from a B-2 tourist visa to that of student (F-1 or J-1) is not easily accomplished. If you plan to enter the United States to be a student, you should apply for a student visa, not a tourist visa, and enter the United States with an approved I-20 or DS-2019. Any application for change of visa status should be discussed with your DSO, the office of the dean of students, or a qualified immigration lawyer.  F-1 visa students have a 60-day grace period following the date of graduation to change their visa status or leave the United States.  J-1 visa exchange students have a 30-day grace period following the date of graduation to do the same.
    Because international students (particularly F-1 students not subject to the two-year home residency requirement) sometimes apply for H-1B (nonimmigrant specialty worker) visas, you should know that these visas are usually unavailable by the end of winter each fiscal year.  The USCIS has adopted procedures to extend the "grace period" into the following fiscal year (when a new allocation of H-1B visas becomes available) to enable students to change their visa status to H-1B.  Current USCIS practice is to automatically grant up to 240 days of employment authorization to extension applicants based on a properly filed visa petition.

Transfer of schools

    When first entering the United States for study, F-1 students must attend the school that issued the I-20 used to obtain the visa and to enter the United States. Transfers to another school cannot be approved during the first semester unless the student actually visits the university shown on the I-20 and receives written release from that school to transfer. A J-1 exchange visitor student must proceed to the school whose name appears on the DS-2019. All transfers should involve your DSO or the dean of students at both institutions. The DSO at the new school will send the original I-20 (School) copy to the USCIS processing center concerned, and a photocopy to the old school. Failure of this transfer process will result in the student being out of status and losing his or her visa.


    On-campus employment:  F-1 students can work up to 20 hours per week while school is in session and full-time during breaks and annual vacation. Most schools require authorization from the DSO before approval of on-campus employment. Part-time employment on or off campus may be authorized for J-1 exchange visitors. Full-time employment may be authorized during the J-1s vacation periods. Employment for J-1s may be authorized under terms of a scholarship or fellowship. No authorization for this type of employment is required. F-1 students may elect on-campus practical training during their degree program, if they wish.
    Off-campus employment:  F-1 students may participate in 20 hours of off-campus employment, if authorized by the DSO. Unfortunately the prospective employer must (1) have recruited unsuccessfully for the position the F-1 student will occupy for at least 60 days; (2) be offering the wages and working conditions similar to those at the work site or as are prevailing for similar position in the area of employment, whichever is greater; and (3) "attest" to the U.S. Department of Labor as to (1) and (2) above by filing a Form 9034 with the agency for approval. Off-campus employment can also be authorized by the DSO for an F-1 student experiencing financial hardship.
    F-1 students who did not seek on-campus practical training may participate in 12 months of optional, (off-campus) practical training following graduation by applying as early as 90 days prior to graduation or more more than 30 days after graduation. The student must apply to the DSO for an endorsement on Form I-20 and seek an employment authorization document (EAD) by filing Form I-765 with the USCIS service center that has jurisdiction over the state wherein the school is located. Practical training for J-1s may be authorized within 30 days of degree program completion for up to 18 months in the aggregate if the student is (1) in the United States primarily to study rather than to engage in academic training; (2) participating in academic training directly related to his or her major field of study at the post-secondary institution listed on the DS-2019; (3) in good academic standing; and (4) the training is authorized in advance in writing by the DSO. J-1s may have more than one employer, if the DSO approves.

Reinstatment to student status

    An F-1 student who has overstayed his or her authorized period of stay or has otherwise failed to maintain F-1 student may be reinstated to lawful F-1 status, at the discretion of a USCIS district director, only if the student:

    1.  Is currently pursuing, or intends to pursue, a full course of study at a school which issues the student a Form I-20 A-B;
    2.  Has not been employed without authorization;
    3.  Establishes that his/her failure to maintain student status was due to circumstances beyond his/her control or that failure to receive reinstatement would result in extreme hardship; and
    4.  Is not deportable on any ground other than overstaying or failing to maintain status.

    A request for reinstatement must include the following documents:

    A.  A detailed explanation of the circumstances that led to violation of status in the student's own words;
    B.  Form I-20 B from the school the student is attending or plans to attend;
    C.  Original or copy of Form I-94 card (Arrival-Departure Record);
    D.  Documentation showing funding availability for education expenses;
    E.  Copy of the last form I-20 ID (student copy)
    F.  Completed Form I-539 (Application to Extend / Change Nonimmigrant Status), with $290 fee, subject to change;
    G.  Letter from Academic Advisor giving reason why student didn't apply for extension (if known) and estimated date of graduation;
    H.  Transcript of grades (from the Registrar's Office)

       WARNING: If you work without authorization, you automatically lose your student visa. Students who wish to remain in the United States should be particularly careful not to do anything that is not permitted by their visa. Don't take the chance.

    Long-term employment following graduation must be applied for in advance and takes some planning. Many international students obtain offers of temporary employment and apply for "H" (temporary worker) visas, usually good for three years. Some receive offers of permanent employment following graduation and apply for lawful permanent resident status ("green card") based upon the employer's offer of permanent employment. Both of these processes take careful coordination - particularly if the student seeking an "H" (temporary worker) visa really wants to get a "permanent" job and a "green card." The employment rules concerning the latter process are very strict. You should consult a qualified immigration lawyer to learn how the process works. Read more about the H-1B visa by clicking on the following hyperlink:  H-1B Visas

Application for immigrant visa ('green card')

    If you marry a U.S. citizen while you are here, and your spouse is able to file a relative immigrant visa petition with the INS on your behalf prior to your departure date, and you are eligible to file an application for adjustment of status, you may remain in the United States, but then you may not leave without the permission of the INS.
    If you want to leave the United States while your application for adjustment of status is pending with USCIS, you should ask USCIS for permission to leave so that you can preserve your continuous residence in the United States for immigration purposes (Form I-131, Application for Travel Document).

    SPECIAL NOTES FOR ALABAMA INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS: You may get a Social Security number at the local office of the Social Security Administration by carrying your passport and I-20 or DS-2019, if you have been authorized for employment.  Some Social Security Administration employees are more familiar with employment regulations than others, so you may have difficulty with this. The Social Security number is very handy for opening a bank account.
    You may get an Alabama driver's license by presenting your passport, I-20 or DS-2019, and your foreign driver's license to the local driver's license examination office of the Alabama Department of Public Safety. International students may apply for and receive an Alabama driver's license, after passing the written examination, under Code of Alabama, 1975, Section 32-6-1 and 32-6-3, as amended. Alabama law provides that a nonresident, who is at least 16 years old and who has -- in his or her immediate possession -- a valid driver's license issued in his home state or country, is exempt from the requirement of having a valid Alabama driver's license. It is not convenient, but it is a good idea to carry your passport and your home country driver's license when driving in Alabama or in the United States.  Due to federal lawsuit filed in Montgomery against the Department of Public Safety, driver's license examination stations offer the driver's test and manuals in languages other than English, as it did for 14 years prior to 1992.

    WARNING:Your future in the United States is too important to trust to just anyone. You should find and hire a qualified immigration lawyer to guide you and help you with a change in visa status or immigrant visa. Your lawyer will help you get organized, provide the benefit of his experience with the various federal bureaucracies involved, and help you work with your prospective employer to get your goals accomplished. If you do not know a qualified immigration lawyer, call your state's Bar association or the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), .

How to work with your lawyer

    Selecting a lawyer is very much like selecting a doctor or any other professional to help you. The time to do it is when you don't need one. Most of us, unfortunately, don't even begin to think of looking for a lawyer until an emergency arises. Consulting a lawyer to find out how to handle a legal matter or a problem need not be expensive. Most lawyers charge a nominal amount of money for an initial legal consultation. If you believe the lawyer you wish to consult is good at what he does, please don't expect him to be sitting in his office waiting for your call. The best lawyers are very busy people. A good lawyer will return your call as soon as he is able to free himself from his obligations to his other clients. Sometimes a lawyer's attention must first go to those who hired them. Just as you would expect to pay a builder for his experience in building houses, you should expect to pay a lawyer something for his experience and for the time he spends listening to the facts of your case, even if this time is spent on the telephone rather than in the lawyer's office.
    Because there is now so much legal information, both good and bad, in the public domain, lawyers find themselves answering many questions based upon bad legal information or misinterpretations of legal information that a caller has. Just as in any other profession, the best lawyers often charge the most money as a flat fee or hourly rate. But the lawyer's hourly rate is not the only gauge of whether you have the right lawyer. It is best to talk with friends, acquaintances, and family members, if they have had any experience in working with qualified immigration lawyers. You do not want to use someone's family attorney if that lawyer has no experience in the practice of U.S. immigration and nationality law.
    If someone represents a particular lawyer to you to handle a legal matter, ask them if they used the lawyer for the same type of legal matter. Talk to those you know who have had similar legal problems and find out whom they consulted, and check the lawyer out yourself.
    For information about immigration lawyers in general, please visit the web site of the American Immigration Lawyers Association by clicking on the following hyperlink:  Immigration Lawyers
    A good immigration lawyer will cost money, but so does any highly trained professional.  Why give money to a "notario," "immigration consultant," or a "friend" who will tell you anything you want to hear?  Why do people trust such people and then wonder why they didn't get the visa?  For my link on how to find, hire, and work with an immigration lawyer, please click on the following link:  Find a lawyer

    Boyd F. Campbell  has practiced immigration and nationality law in Montgomery, Alabama, since 1988.  He is former Chair of the Immigration Law Committee of the ABA's General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Lawyers Section.  He served as Co-Chair for employees of the Immigration Law Committee of the ABA's Section of Labor and Employment Law, and was a member of the ABA's Coordinating Committee on Immigration Law from 1994 to 1998. He has served on the founding task force and as Chair of the International Law Section of the Alabama State Bar.  He is  the first practicing civil law notary in the State of Alabama, having been appointed by the Alabama Secretary of State in 2001.  He is listed among The Best Lawyers in America, which publishes a guide to best lawyers for corporate counsel , available by subscription from  For more information about Mr. Campbell, please click on the following link:  Boyd Campbell

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Immigration Law Center, L.L.C.
P.O. Box 11032
Montgomery, Alabama 36111-0032 USA
Call us:  +334.832.9090

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