FAQ for Academic Advisors

Immigration Basics: FAQ for Academic Advisors advising International Students*

Above all it should be remembered that academic advisors should send international students to their international adviser if there is any question about any changes in their academic program or full time status to confirm that these changes will not violate their status.

What Are the Common Student Visa Types for International Students?

Schools are authorized by The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to issue an immigration document through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) that is used by foreign nationals to apply for a student visa to study in the United States. A school can also be authorized by the Department of State to use SEVIS to invite exchange visitors to come to their institution in the U. S. to study, teach, or perform research.

F-1 student

F-1 is the most common immigration status for degree seeking international students. Prospective F-1 students will receive a Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility) document from the school, which they will generally use to apply for an F-1 visa at a US consulate or embassy. F-1 students are then admitted to the United States in F-1 status to study and must attend school full time except for their vacation break.

J-1 student

The J-1 student category is also used by international students. J-1 students will receive a Form DS-2019 (Certificate of Eligibility) document from either the school they are planning to attend or from the program sponsor, which they will use to apply for the J-1 visa. The J-1 exchange visitor category is regulated by the U.S. Department of State (USDOS). J-1 students are in the United States to study and can be degree or non-degree seeking and must attend school full time in their program except for their vacation break.

M-1 student

An M-1 student is in the US for vocational or non-academic study for a specific period of time. Like F-1 students, M-1 students will also receive a Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility) document from the school, which they will use to apply for an M-1 visa at US consulate or embassy. They must study full time except if the school is closed for a specific holiday period.

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Do All International Students Have to Follow the Same Rules?

Know the student's immigration status. Students in the U.S. may have a variety of statuses.

Some may be here for another reason besides studying, but are allowed to attend classes in their current status. In these cases, study does not maintain their immigration status and is considered "incidental to status" (e.g., H-1B, H-4, J-2, E's, etc.). Unlimited study (part or full time) or not studying at all would be acceptable for these students.

Some types of immigration statuses do not allow studying, so in order to begin studying the future student would have to to leave and reenter in a student status or change their status within the United States. Examples of statuses that do not allow study are B tourists and business visitors, and F-2 dependents of F-1 students. Students in categories that do not allow study who would be considered in violation of their immigration status if they begin study before their status is changed.

Many dependent statuses (given to individuals who are accompanying the principal nonimmigrant) are limited by age— most dependent children "age out" at 21 (e.g. J-2, H-4, etc.), and can no longer enjoy derivative status based on their parents' status. So this may affect college-aged students; they will be in one status through age 20, and then need to change to another status that might have different requirements, before they turn 21.

The following is a chart that lists visa types and if those in that status are eligible to study. Remember to refer students to your international student services office if they have any questions!

SEVP Handout: Nonimmigrants: Who Can Study?

Know your institutional policies. Does your institution restrict study for those in certain statuses? You must know your own institutional policies before you can advise some students.

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What is Full-time Enrollment for International Students?

International students in F-1, M-1 or J-1 status are required to enroll in a full course of study during the academic year, as a condition of maintaining their immigration status. Although most often equated with what the school considers "full-time" enrollment for other purposes, the rules for "full course of study" also depend on whether the student is in F, M, or J status, what level of education the student is pursuing, and whether the course of study is measured in credit hours or clock hours. The rules for maintaining a full course of study for immigration purposes are complicated, and do not always conform to the what might make the best academic sense. Because of this, academic advisers should recommend that students seek advice from the international services office before dropping a course or planning any other schedule variations.  

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What if an International Student Changes Major or Degree Level - Does the Student Need to Do Anything?

Yes, students need their immigration documents to reflect their current degree program and level of study. M-1 students do not have this benefit and cannot change their major or degree level. If a student plans to change majors or degree level, please have them contact the international office for procedures on how to obtain updated immigration documents.

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Does a Student Need to Enroll Full-time in the Summer?

The rules regarding annual vacation differ depending on whether the school is based on a semester, trimester, or quarter system, and whether the student is in F, M, or J status. Students should consult with an immigration adviser to determine how these factors impact their eligibility for annual vacation.

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Can International Students Take Online Courses?

F-1 international students can only count ONE online class toward their minimum number of credits as their full-time enrollment during their normal semesters. If you only need one course to complete your program of study, the course cannot be online or distance learning.

A full course of study for J-1 students must consist of "enrollment in an academic program of classroom participation and study, and/or doctoral thesis research." This focus on classroom participation probably means that J-1 students should not rely on distance or online courses to meet the enrollment needed to maintain their status.

M-1 students are not allowed to count online classes toward their full-time enrollment.

International students in other visa categories (i.e. H-4, L2) are exempt from this limitation.

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Can International Students Pursue Online Degree Programs?

According to U.S. immigration regulations, F-1 and M-1 students cannot pursue online degrees.

International students in other visa categories (i.e. H-4, L2 etc.) are exempt from this restriction.

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Can Students Ever Register Below Full-time?

Under certain circumstances, F-1 students may receive authorization for a Reduced Course Load (RCL), which gives them permission to enroll below full-time and still maintain valid immigration status. These exceptions include: Illness/medical condition, Initial Difficulty with English Language, Initial Difficulty with Reading Requirements, Unfamiliarity with American Teaching Methods, Improper Course Level Placement, Complete Course of Study in Current Term. The school's DSO must approve the RCL in SEVIS before the reduction in course load takes place, so any reduction should be discussed in advance with the International Office.

J-1 students should consult with their program sponsor or international office to discuss reduced course load options.

M-1 students may receive authorization for a RCL only for Illness/medical condition and must apply to USCIS for an extension of their M-1 status to continue their academic program if necessary.

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Can Students Enroll Concurrently at More Than One Institution?

F-1students may enroll concurrently as long as the combined enrollment amounts to a full time course of study. Students must attend another SEVIS-approved institution and consult with the International office.

The J-1 regulations do not address concurrent enrollment. J-1 students should consult with their program sponsor or international office to discuss options.

M-1 students may not enroll concurrently.

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Can Students Transfer to Another Institution?

International students wishing to pursue their study objectives at another SEVIS-approved institution must ensure the transfer of their immigration and academic record to another institution.

F-1 and J-1 students must consult with the International Office to complete immigration SEVIS transfer if they wish to pursue their study objectives at another SEVIS approved institution. F-1 & J-1 students will need to initiate the process to transfer their SEVIS record.

On the transfer release date entered into SEVIS by the transfer-out school, the new school can access the SEVIS record and process a new document for the program at the new school.

In addition to the SEVIS steps described above, M-1 student transfers must also be adjudicated by USCIS. They are permitted to transfer only within the first six months of study in M-1 status, and must be in valid M-1 status and otherwise eligible for transfer.

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Can F-1 and J-1 Students Work On-campus?

U.S. immigration regulations, under certain circumstances, allow international students to pursue part-time or full-time employment during the course of their studies.

F-1 and J-1 students pursuing a full course of study may work on campus up to 20 hours per week while classes are in session. When classes are not in session, they may work more than 20 hours. J-1 students need advance authorization from the responsible officer of the exchange program that issued their DS-2019 before beginning on-campus employment.

If students have specific questions about working on-campus, have them consult the International Office.

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Can F-1 and J-1 Students Work Off-campus?

Off-campus work is prohibited in all categories unless it is specifically authorized under the regulations governing the student's particular immigration category. Working without authorization is an immigration status violation that can make the student subject to deportation. Before accepting or engaging in any kind of employment, students should consult the International Office.

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* Adapted from a document written by Chris Bargerstock, Michigan State University and Kasey McCarthy, Gemological Institute of America, May 22, 2012