Office of International Programs and Services

F-1 Visa Information

Obtaining an F-Visa

Students may obtain an F-1 visa by visiting a U.S. embassy or consulate and presenting a form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility) issued by the school they plan to attend. F-1 students are expected to attend the school which issued the I-20. Any students transferring from another American educational institution to Western Carolina University on the F-1 visa should consult the advisor at the Office of International Programs and Services upon arrival at the University. F-1 students will be granted permission to remain in the U.S. until the completion date noted on the I-20 form provided they maintain full-time enrolled status. It may be possible to apply for an extension, if necessary.

Maintaining Status

An important concept you will become familiar with is to be "in status," or "maintain status." It means to comply with the regulations governing your visa status. Students who violate any of the terms described below may fall out of status. 

Students who are out of status may have to apply for reinstatement (I-539) to the US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), and may not be eligible to take advantage of any benefits that come with the student status (such as on-campus employment, or authorization to work off-campus). In some cases, reinstatement is not possible, and the student will have to leave the United States. It is therefore extremely important to be aware of what you need to do to stay in status. 

Talk to the SEVIS Coordinator at the Office of International Programs and Services (IPS), if you have an academic or medical issue that prevents you from fulfilling the requirements, or if you are uncertain about anything concerning your status. Look at your immigration documents and know what they represent and when they expire. 

Maintaining status is your responsibility

Requirements to maintain F-1 student status:

  • Attend the school indicated on your I-20
  • Enroll for a full course load every fall and spring semester (12 credits per semester for undergraduate students, 9 credits for graduate students)
  • Follow Dept. of Homeland Security / USCIS procedures in a timely manner for changing degree levels within Western Carolina University, and /or transferring to other schools
  • Maintain a valid passport at all times
  • Apply for extension of program, if needed, 30 days prior to the expiration date on the I-20
  • Limit on-campus employment to 20 hours a week during semesters
  • Refrain from off-campus work without authorization (this is extremely important!)
  • Report changes of address to IPS within 10 days of the move

Program Extension

An F-1 student who is unable to complete his or her program of study by the date of completion listed in item no.5 on the I-20 form must apply for a program extension. 
Program extensions can be given to students who have continually maintained status. Acceptable delays that cause the student to require an extension include changes of major or research topics, unexpected research problems, or documented illnesses. Delays caused by academic probation or suspension are not acceptable reasons for program extension.

The student must apply for the extension within the 30-day time period before the date of completion indicated in section 5 of the I-20. If your date of completion on the I-20 ID Student Copy, item no.5, has expired and a program extension has not been requested, you are out of status and must apply for reinstatement to student status. If you are out of status, you are ineligible for any F-1 student benefits, such as employment and practical training.

Please Note: The expiration date of the entry visa sticker in the passport will not affect F-1 student status. The expiration date on the I-20 form determines the length of a student program.

How to Apply for a Program Extention

  • Application Procedure Checklist  (PDF)
  • Obtain a letter from the major professor or academic advisor verifying the reasons that the extension is needed and providing the anticipated completion date.
  • Provide current proof of financial support for requested period of extension.
  • Receive new FORM I-20 with an extension from IPS.

Reinstatement

An F-1 student can fall out of status with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) if:

  • Falling below full course of study - (12 hours for undergraduate students; 9 hours for graduate students)
  • The date of completion in item no. 5 on the I-20 ID has expired and no extension of stay was requested
  • Working without authorization (off-campus) or has worked beyond the allowed number of hours
  • Failure to follow correct procedures to transfer within the first 15 days at the new institution
  • Beginning a higher degree level and not notifying the SEVIS Coordinator in the required period of time.

To Apply for Reinstatement Follow the Checklist Below:

  • Complete and sign Form I-539. (Obtain from SEVIS Coordinator)
  • Write a letter addressed to USCIS requesting reinstatement, explaining the reasons for falling out of status
  • Provide information that verifies that you have been in status for most of your studies (i.e. academic transcript)
  • Provide proof of financial support
  • Provide photocopies of the passport, including the personal information with the passport’s expiration date, and the visa
  • Provide the original I-94 and a photocopy of the original Form I-20
  • Obtain a new Form I-20 from the SEVIS Coordinator
  • Include a check or money order for $300 made payable to "Department of Homeland Security"

If the reinstatement is approved, USCIS will endorse the new Form I-20 to indicate that you have been reinstated and will return the Form I-20 to you. If the reinstatement is not approved, you will be asked to voluntarily depart the U.S. (The date of departure will usually be provided by the USCIS on a specific form).

Returning to F-1 status by re-entering the United States:

An F-1 student who fails to maintain status may not be reinstated to student status by leaving the U.S. and re-entering with a new Form I-20 that is marked "reinstatement". However, a student may depart the U.S. and return using a new Form I-20 marked "Initial Attendance" in Sect. 3(a).

Furthermore, F1 students may not regain status by taking part in the "automatic revalidation process" when returning to the U.S. after a visit of no more than thirty days to Canada, Mexico, or adjacent islands. The entry visa of a student who has fallen out of status is no longer valid.

USCIS interprets that an F1 student who re-enters as an initial entry must complete 9 months of full-time study prior to obtaining optional practical training or off-campus employment.

Completion of Program

 

Upon completion of the educational program, the student has 60 days to do one of the following:

  • Depart the U.S.
  • Change his/her visa status
  • Begin a new program of study 

Exception: If a student completes a program at the end of spring term and plans to begin a new program of study fall term, the student may lawfully remain in the U.S. over the summer break, if the student has received the I-20 for the new program within 60 days of completing the old program.

Employment

 

Students who maintain F-1 status are allowed to work on campus up to 20 hours per week, and full-time during vacation periods. In general, after having maintained F-1 status for one academic year, students can apply for authorization for off-campus employment. Please keep in mind that all employment is subject to certain restrictions and that your primary purpose in the United States is to pursue a degree rather than working. See the descriptions of the different kinds of employment authorizations available for F-1 students.

Please note: do not count on employment as a means for supporting your studies, since opportunities are limited. Also keep in mind that before beginning any off-campus employment, you must first obtain authorization from IPS and/or USCIS. Unauthorized employment is illegal, and is an extremely severe violation of your F-1 status.

F-1 On-Campus Employment

F-1 students may work on the WCU campus and do not need to apply for permission to do so. To be eligible, the student must be "in-status" (be enrolled for a full course load and possess a valid Form I-20 from WCU, etc). Students may work up to 20 hours per week during spring and fall semesters, and full-time during vacation periods (summer, winter and spring breaks).

Note that graduate students who hold assistantships of 20 hours per week cannot accept additional employment during the semesters.

Students transferring from one school to another may be able to work at either the old school or the new school during the intervening summer or winter break, but must possess a valid I-20 issued by the new school.

Once hired, students must complete Form I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification Form), the Foreign National Information Form, and tax withholding forms at IPS.

F-1 Off-Campus Employment

A general requirement for any off-campus employment is that F-1 students must have been in full-time student status for at least nine months to be eligible. Keep in mind that obtaining authorization for OPT from DHS may take about eight or ten weeks (sometimes the processing times are faster, sometimes slower), so you need to make plans far in advance. You may not begin work until you have received the employment authorization.

Address Reporting Requirement

Any F1 Student must report his/her living address during the OPT period directly to WCU. Any legal change to a student's name or any change of address must be made in writing, within 10 days of the change. The address provided by the student must be the actual physical location where s/he is living and not just a mailing address (e.g. - P.O. Box). Reporting the address change to the WCU Office will eliminate the need to file the Form AR-11 to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Optional Practical Training

Curricular Practical Training

Dependents

 

All dependents (spouse or children under 21 years of age) will need to apply for F-2 visas at the U.S. embassy or consulate nearest their home. To apply for the visa, they will need to have a form I-20 from Western Carolina University that lists them as dependents.

List the name, date of birth and country of citizenship of each dependent, and their relationship to the F1 student (spouse, son or daughter). In addition, an approximate calculation of the cost of living expenses for your dependents must be completed to assure the SEVIS coordinator that the dependents will have sufficient funds while they are here with the F1 student. Before the SEVIS Coordinator can issue an I-20 for use by the dependents, all necessary financial documentation to support dependents' living expenses in the U.S. must be completed.

International Programs and Services (IPS) will issue a separate I-20 for each dependent. Depending upon your student status (undergraduate or graduate) IPS will ensure the Form I-20 for each dependent is delivered to the appropriate persons involved. Once I-20's arrive, dependents can then use this official document to apply for an F-2 visa at the local consulate/embassy.

Change of Status

If you apply for a change of status in the U.S., follow this important information:

  • A completed I-539 application
  • Original or Copy of your I-94 card, a copy of passport identity page with the expiration date, original I-20 with the USCIS stamp on it.
  • Original I-20 (we will issue new form I-20 depending upon circumstance)
  • A letter explaining why you want to change to the requested visa category (how will it relate to your return to your home country). The letter should also state if you are currently attending an educational institution.
  • Proof of financial support to complete the degree and to support for your spouse (if applicable). Examples of financial support are funding letter from your department, personal funds, funds from your government or international organization, etc.
  • A money order in the amount of $300 made payable to the Department of Homeland Security. (Please do not abbreviate)
  • Copies of all/your spouse and/or child's I-20s, I-94s and passport identity page with expiration date
  • A copy of the marriage certificate if applicable

Please note: After completing the required information, you are required to mail the application with documents. The IPS SEVIS Coordinator will be glad to assist you in putting the application together.

Current Visa

If your current visa category is not valid, you should not file for a change of status inside the U.S. Please contact our office for further instructions. Please note that it can take anywhere between 2 to 5 months for a change of status to be approved. If you do not receive the approval before classes start, the university will not be able to guarantee that you will receive your assigned assistantship or fellowship. If you leave the U.S. while the application is pending, your change of status application becomes null and void. Even trips to Canada and Mexico will cancel the application.

If the change of status is approved, wonderful. If not, and your current status has expired, you will be illegally present in the U.S. as of the date of the denial letter. If you stay in the U.S. over 180 days after this date, you can be barred from re-entry for 3 years. If you stay in the U.S. over one year, you can be barred from re-entry for 10 years.

If you decide to travel outside the U.S. and request a visa stamp to re-enter the U.S. We will issue the I-20 to you. Also, please consider the following information:

You can go to a U.S. Consulate in either your home country, Canada, Mexico or another country and request an F-1 visa stamp to re-enter the U.S. Previously, foreign nationals were allowed to enter Canada or Mexico for less than 30 days and request a visa stamp. If the visa stamp request was denied, they were still able to re-enter the U.S. before the 30-day period ended. As of April 2002, if the U.S. Consulate in Canada or Mexico denies the visa stamp request, you will not be able to re-enter the U.S. The only way to re-enter the country would be for you to return to your home country and request the visa stamp.

Also, please note that if you decide to request a visa at an embassy outside your home country, the Embassy has the right to decide that it would not be able to perform the appropriate background checks and deny the visa request. In order to issue a visa, the U.S. Consulate must confirm non-immigrant intent. You must keep in mind that under Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), "Every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until s/he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for admission, that s/he is entitled to a nonimmigrant visa". It may be in your best interest to present additional evidence with your application showing "strong ties" to your home country.

The law places the burden of proof on the applicant that they have "strong ties" abroad that would compel them to leave the U.S. at the end of the temporary stay. The consular officer has a very short time to determine that someone is qualified to receive a temporary visa, therefore, we suggest that presenting additional evidence will greatly improve your chances.

Examples of "strong ties" to your home country include:

  • You have or will be able to find employment in your home country after completion of your program or goals.
  • You have immediate family members in your home country (spouse, children, parents, etc) that you do not intend to abandon.
  • You have a business, a residence, bank accounts or personal property that you do not intend to abandon.
  • There is a need for your research or studies in your home country.

Students, who may not have had an opportunity to form many ties, should state specific intentions, family situations, long-range plans, and prospects within his/her country of residence. By supplying this information, you may increase your chances of receiving a visa to enter the U.S.

Travel In & out of the U.S

A student needs the following documents to re-enter the U.S.:

Valid Passport
A student who needs to renew a passport should contact the embassy of the home country located in Washington, DC. Renewal procedures and processing times are different for every country. Get information about foreign embassies located in Washington, DC.

Some students who renew passports during their stay in the U.S. will have 2 passports—the old passport containing the valid F-1 visa and the new valid passport which does not contain a visa sticker. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) will honor the unexpired F1 visa sticker in the old passport if both passports are presented at the same time.

Visitor Visa
A student should check to see if the F1 visa sticker in the passport is still valid for re-entering the United States after departure. If not, a new visa must be obtained at a U.S. consulate or embassy while outside the U.S. It is not possible to obtain F visas while in the United States. Find out more information about the U.S. Embassies

It is best to apply for a new F1 visa sticker in the student’s home country. Obtaining a new visa in a third country can be difficult because the U.S. embassy performs a series of background checks on all visa applicants. Student visas are issued in Canada and Mexico by appointment only. Learn how to make an appointment with the U.S. Embassies.

Designated School Official Signature
To obtain a DSO signature on page 3 of the I-20, a student should bring, the I-20 to the SEVIS Coordinator before the planned departure from the U.S. Please note: that the signature on the I-20 is valid for one year from the initial date it was signed by the student and DSO.

Travel to Canada Or Mexico with f-1 status

Students in F-1 status who are visiting Canada, Mexico, and islands next to the U.S., (excluding Cuba) for less than 30 days do not have to show a valid visa in order to re-enter the United States. To qualify for this exception, you must meet certain conditions in addition to maintaining the F-1 status:

  • You must not apply for a U.S. visa during your stay abroad. (If you do, and it's denied, you will not be able to re-enter the U.S.)
  • You must not be from one of the following countries: Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, North Korea, and Cuba.
  • You must have a valid passport, I-94 and I-20/DS2019 signed for travel.

Travel to "Adjacent Islands" includes the following locations: Saint Pierre, Miquelon, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, the Windward and Leeward Islands, Trinidad, Martinique, and other British, French, and Netherlands territories or possessions in or bordering on the Caribbean Sea. Cuba does not qualify for this exception.

Depending on your country of origin, you may be required to obtain a visa for your travel destination. Be sure to check the websites of the embassies of the countries you plan to visit. For Citizens of Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, or Sudan, if you do not have a current unexpired multiple-entry visa, you will not be able to return to the US from Canada or Mexico. Consult with an IPS advisor if you have questions.

Entering Canada or Mexico

For visits of 30 days or less, students and scholars must show the following documents at the Canadian or Mexican border:

  1. F-1 students/scholars: A valid I-20 or DS-2019 recently signed on the back by an International Student Advisor. H-1B or O-1 employees: Original I-797 Approval Notice.
  2. A valid passport (valid at least 6 months beyond the date you expect to return to the U.S.).
  3. A valid I-94 card. NOTE: If you will be in Canada or Mexico for 30 days or less, keep your I-94 card throughout your trip. The I-94 card SHOULD NOT be turned in at the border when you are leaving.
  4. A valid Canadian or Mexican Tourist Visa if you are from a country for which a visa is required please see the links below for information about visa requirements for entering Canada and Mexico.

Application forms for Canadian Tourist Visas are available from the Canadian Consulate General. You can apply online or by paper application. Please see the Canadian Consulate General's New York

CANADIAN TOURIST VISAS MAY NOW TAKE MORE THAN 2 MONTHS TO RECEIVE. Please plan accordingly.

Applications for Mexican Tourist Visas are available at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago. The visa application must be submitted in person at 204 S Ashland, Chicago, IL 60607. MEXICAN TOURIST VISAS MAY TAKE 6-8 WEEKS TO GET.

NOTE: All the above documents must be valid beyond the date you expect to leave Canada or Mexico.

Re-entering the U.S.

To re-enter the U.S. after your visit to Canada or Mexico, you must have:

1. F-1 students/scholars: A valid I-20 or DS-2019 recently signed on the back by an International Student Advisor.

H-1B employees: Original I-797 Approval Notice plus a letter from your department verifying continued employment.

2.A valid passport (valid for at least 6 months beyond the date you re-enter the U.S.)

3.A valid I-94 card.

4.A nonimmigrant visa that is valid or was valid (can be of a different status than the status you now hold). Exception: If you applied for a visa to Canada or Mexico and were denied, your student or scholar visa must be valid.

Travel to other locations outside the U.S.

Before traveling outside the United States, make sure that you have the necessary documents for your return. Following is a checklist of items to consider before traveling and information on applying for a visa abroad.

You may need any of the following documents

  • Valid Passport: A valid passport is required to enter the United States. If your passport will expire within 6 months of your return, please contact your nearest home country embassy for renewal instructions before you travel.
  • U.S. Visa Stamp: You must have a visa that was issued for your current immigration status. (The exceptions are described below.) The visa must be valid on the day you will return and must have and least (1) entry remaining. An “M” printed for the number of entries indicates that you can use the visa for multiple entries.) If you do not have a visa, you must apply for one at an embassy outside the United States. Canadian citizens do not require a visa at any time. (Landed Immigrants of Canada do require a visa.)

Short trips to Canada, Mexico, and some nearby islands may be possible with an expired U.S. visa, or a visa for a different immigration status.

  • SEVIS Fee Receipt: This requirement only applies to F-1 students. If your program of study was started any time after September 1, 2004, you were required to pay a SEVIS fee and a receipt was issued. Please take this receipt with you when traveling. Additional information about the SEVIS fee can be found at https://www.fmjfee.com/i901fee/
  • Travel Signatures: If you are an F-1 student, you will require a signature from International Programs & Services on your original I-20 form or DS-2019 form. You can request the travel signature by contacting IPS at international@wcu.edu or calling 828-227-7494. If your travel signature is older than six months, please drop it to IPS for a new signature.
  • Transit Visas: If your travel itinerary requires you to stop in a third country (not the United States or your final destination for any amount of time), research the visa requirements for that country. A few countries require a transit visa, even for layovers.
  • Non-U.S. Visas: You may need a visa if traveling to a country that is not your country of citizenship. Research the visa requirements of your destination to determine if this is necessary. This requirement may even apply to Canada and Mexico, depending on your country of citizenship.
  • Letter of Good Standing: If you are an F-1 student and will be renewing your visa while abroad, you will need a Letter of Good Standing to present to the Visa Officer. You can request your letter by contacting IPS at international@wcu.edu or calling 828-227-7494.
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