What International College Students Need to Know


Across the country, students are preparing for another semester of their college education. Many of these students are international students who are foreign nationals in the U.S. on a visa. In addition to dealing with classes, course work, and extracurricular activities, international students also need to know several things about obtaining and maintaining proper immigration status.

First and foremost, international college students entering from outside the United States must apply for and obtain a U.S. visa at the nearest U.S. embassy/consulate. Those students seeking a college degree can apply for an F-1 student visa. Exchange students should apply for the J-1 exchange visa. Those students enrolled in a vocational or nonacademic institution should apply for the M visa.

The F-1 College Student Visa

The F-1 Visa allows international students to enter the United States as a full-time student at an accredited college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic high school, elementary school, or other academic institution or in a language training program. The applicant must be enrolled in a program or course of study that culminates in a degree, diploma, or certificate and the school must be authorized by the U.S. government to accept international students.

F-1 students may not work off-campus during the first academic year, but may accept on-campus employment subject to certain conditions and restrictions. Off-campus employment for both F-1 and M-1 students must be related to their area of study and must be authorized prior to the start of employment.

The J-1 Exchange Visa

The J-1 exchange visitor visa is available for nonimmigrant visitors to the United States who are approved to participate in an exchange visitor program in the United States. Applicants seeking a J-1 exchange visitor visa are typically trainees in a variety of fields, students, medical graduates, researchers, and teachers who are entering the United States as part of a training, education or research program.

J-1 visa applicants can apply at the U.S. Embassy in their home country, with an interview to be conducted at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Wait times for the interview can vary, so J-1 visa applicants are urged to apply for the J-1 exchange visa well in advance of the exchange program.

Some J-1 exchange students and professionals are required to return to their home country to complete a 2-year physical presence requirement, upon the conclusion of the exchange program, unless a waiver is obtained.

Spouses and Children of International Students

International students bringing their spouse or children into the U.S. while studying must apply for an F-2 or J-2 dependent visa. F-2 spouses are not allowed to pursue full-time study in the U.S., but can only engage in study that is non-vocational or recreational in nature. F-2 children may only engage in full-time study if the study is in an elementary or secondary school. F-2 spouses and children cannot work in the U.S., but J-2 spouses and children may work in the U.S. if they have obtained special permission from USCIS.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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