Also known as a student visa, the F-1 visa allows an individual to enter the U.S. to engage in full-time study at a qualified U.S. school. The student visa is normally valid for 5 years and requires a form I-20 at all times, from the point of application throughout the entire period of having F1 status in the US. Students normally begin the process by enrolling in school and obtaining an I-20 through the SEVIS system. After that, you will need a Consular interview before traveling to the US.
Upon arrival at a port of entry, a student has to show an I-20 along with a visa to enter the US. Thereafter, all travel on an F1 visa will require a valid I-20 showing ongoing status in a full-time program. Students cannot travel on ESTA or a tourist visa. It is important to know the rules and abide by all set regulations. In this case, always be aware of your F1 status, which is found on the I-20. Your visa is valid for five years at a time, and is granted by a U.S. Consulate.
CPT or Curricular Practical Training is a part-time work authorization that schools grant to foreign students based upon their program and degree requirements. While international students are permitted to work on campus, this is limited. CPT is a specific permission to work off-campus, often as part of an internship program. CPT in some graduate programs can be full-time, but you should check with your Designated School Official (“DSO”) to find out how to qualify and what limits, if any, relate to CPT.
OPT or Optional Practical Training is a granted permission to work while on the F1 visa. While a DSO recommends OPT in SEVIS, it is the student who must apply for the work permit with the USCIS. If the OPT is approved, USCIS will issue an EAD. The student must not begin working before the start date on the EAD.
Pre-completion OPT is work permission granted prior to completion of a program. This can be part-time or full-time authorized employment, but should be carefully reviewed because pre-completion OPT can preclude post-completion OPT in some circumstances.
Post-completion OPT is work authorization granted for a period of 12 months after the completion of a program. There are a variety of rules that apply to OPT, and it is extremely important that students work closely with their DSO to apply properly and on time. We recommend that students plan for OPT in their Junior year to ensure that they will qualify.
STEM OPT is a two-year extension available to students who graduated in designated fields, which are classified by their school as STEM-related. This additional two-year period has specific filing requirements different from post-completion OPT, such as E-verify and the training program form. STEM OPT is a huge benefit and students should be aware of this when they begin their school program. It is essential to know exactly which programs are designated as STEM, since school programs can vary. Check with your DSO because they will know how SEVIS designates your program.
Reinstatement of student status – It is common that some students have an unexpected incident, such that they fail to maintain full-time student status. This can be difficult since F1 students must maintain a full-time course load to meet the requirements of a valid status. If a student drops below 12 credit hours, they may be told that they are out of status. It is very important to contact an attorney to quickly address this issue. Under the law, students can apply to reinstate student status, but they must do so within 5 months, and they must have a new I-20. This is one of the situations in which you have to work with both your school and an attorney.
Keep in mind that a short period of study can fit into the B2 visa, while shorter programs can also fit into an M visa. There is plenty more to talk about with student visas, just call an attorney if you get lost!