Student Immigration Definitions

Obtaining F-1 Student Status at Columbia

Important Information for Students Fully Funded
by Columbia University

Transfer of F-1 Supervision

Change of Status to F-1

Message for Canadian Students

Potential Delays in Visa Issuance


Student Tax Information

Maintaining F-1 Status

Academic Certification for Travel

F-1 Travel Information

Govt Q & A for F-1 Travel

DHS Information on Arrival Problems

F-1 Extension of Stay (Current Program)

F-1 Extension of Stay to Begin New Program

F-1 Reinstatement

F-1 Work Opportunities

F-1 Practical Training (PT) Overview

F-1 Curricular Practical Training

F-1 Optional PT Before Degree Completion

F-1 Optional PT After Degree Completion

NEW STEM 24-month OPT extension

F-1 Internship with an International Organization

F-1 Leave of Absence, Suspension or Withdrawal

Student Departure Information

F-1 Reduced Course Load Request

Inviting Relatives/Friends to Visit You

Address Change Form

Applying for a Social Security Number

Guidelines for Maintaining Lawful F-1 Student Status

Under United States immigration law, it is your personal responsibility to maintain lawful F-1 student status. Begin by reading the "Instructions to Students" on page two of your I-20. By following those instructions, as well as the guidelines listed below, you should be able to maintain lawful F-1 student status with little difficulty. You must maintain lawful student status if you wish to enjoy the benefits associated with it, such as on-campus employment, practical training, and the ability to re-enter the United States when you travel.

If you follow the guidelines listed below, you should be able to maintain F-1 student status.

1. Keep an unexpired passport valid for at least 6 months into the future. Contact your country's consulate in NY or embassy in Washington D.C. for instructions if you need to extend your passport while in the U.S. Refer to Immigration Definitions for more information.

2. Notify the ISSO of your address upon arrival and any time you change addresses. Upon your initial arrival in the U.S. to study at Columbia, you must notify the ISSO of your local address in person or online. Thereafter, you must notify ISSO of any change in address within 10 days of moving by completing the Change of Address Form online. The ISSO and IAO are responsible for updating your address electronically in your SEVIS record.

3. Maintain full-time enrollment and normal, full-time progress toward your degree or certificate. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regulations require that you register during the University's published registration period. Failure to do this will result in violation of your F-1 status. You are expected to maintain full-time registration and make normal progress toward your degree. Note that the definition of "full-time" may differ from school to school and that immigration regulations may require a more restricted definition of "full-time" than that followed by your department. As a result, you should refer to the guide below and consult with the ISSO as well as your academic adviser to determine whether or not you are a "full-time" student.

The rate of normal progress is the rate at which the average full-time student in your school or department advances toward the degree or certificate objective. Working to finish an "incomplete" course or project does not fall within the definition of making "normal progress".

  • Undergraduate Programs:
    12 or more credits each semester during the academic year.

  • Graduate School of Arts and Sciences:
    1 residence unit (RU) each semester until residence unit requirements have been met (ordinarily 2 RU for Master's degree programs and 4 to 6 RU for doctoral programs), if you still have required coursework. Thereafter you are required to register for either full-time Extended Residence ER) or full-time Matriculation and Facilities (M&F), if you have no required courses to complete but are working on a thesis or dissertation required for the degree.

    Exception: if you are in a Liberal Arts MA program, you will follow a credit-based system rather than the residence unit system. As such, you are expected to take at least 12 or more credits each semester to satisfy the "full-time" requirement.

  • School of Law, Graduate Programs:
    10 or more credits each semester during the academic year. If you are in the JSD program, have met all program requirements, and wish to remain in the United States while completing your dissertation, you must register each semester for "0 points of JSD Research" to maintain your F-1 student status.

  • School of Engineering and Applied Science, graduate programs:
    12 or more credits each semester.

    M.S. students and 1.5 credit mini-courses during the final term:
    M.S. students enrolling in one or more 1.5 credit mini-courses during the final term must enroll in the first mini-course period of the fall term. In other words, you may not skip the first mini-course period of September through mid-October as this is a violation of F-1 status and will cause you to be ineligible to apply for post-completion Optional Practical Training.

    If you will complete all degree requirements during the first mini-course period, your I-20 is shortened to the last day of the first mini-course period and you must apply for post-completion OPT no later than 60 days after the last day of the first mini-course period.

  • School of Social Work:
    10 or more credits each semester.

  • Special Non-Degree Students (all schools):
    12 or more credits each semester.

  • All other programs:
    12 or more credits each semester.

If you are enrolled in a program which lasts more than one academic year, you are ordinarily permitted an annual vacation period, during which time you are not required to register for courses. Only one vacation period per year is permitted and for most programs, this takes place during the summer semester. However, please note the following exceptions to this rule:

  • Graduate School of Business, MBA Program:
    If you began in the Fall semester, you are expected to register for 12 or more credits each semester to maintain full-time status, but you are allowed to take the summer following your first academic year as a vacation period. If you began in the Spring semester, you are expected to register for 12 or more credits each semester, including the summer semester, until you have completed your program.

  • American Language Program:
    If you are in the American Language Program, you must register for two consecutive semesters before you are eligible for a vacation period.

4. Obtain PRIOR authorization from the ISSO (if eligible) BEFORE dropping below a full course of study, withdrawing from classes, or taking a leave of absence. There are very limited exceptions to the full-time requirement, so you must consult the ISSO in advance of any drop below full-time, or you will be in violation of your status.

5. If you leave the US without completing your program of study, complete your program early or change to another non-immigrant status, notify the ISSO so that your record in the DHS data base accurately reflects your current situation.

6. Do not accept any employment, either on- or off-campus, without written permission from the International Students and Scholars Office and, if necessary, authorization from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Working without proper authorization is considered by the DHS as the most serious violation of its regulations. If you refer to your I-94 card, you will see the statement, "Warning: a nonimmigrant who accepts unauthorized employment is subject to deportation." It is most important, therefore, that you consult with the ISSO before you accept an offer of employment or begin to work. We will advise you whether it is possible for you to work and assist you with the appropriate procedures. It is illegal to begin to work while waiting for authorization; you must have the appropriate authorization first. Students in F-1 status are allowed to work on-campus for the University for a maximum of 20 hours per week during the academic year (unlimited during vacation periods) but MUST complete an I-9 form at the ISSO.

7. Make timely transfers of your F-1 supervision if you enroll at Columbia after attending another school in the United States. DHS regulations specify that you must use the Visa Certificate of Eligibility (I-20 or DS-2019) issued by the school you are attending (or plan to attend) when entering the U.S. Consequently, make sure that you use Columbia's Certificate of Eligibility. You are required to report to the ISSO shortly after your arrival and no later than the beginning of the semester. For information on transfer procedures, see our instructions on Transfer of F-1 Supervision.

8. Obtain extensions, as needed, of your permission to stay in the U.S. before your I-20 expires. If you have valid academic or health reasons for requiring more time to complete your program than that which is authorized on the Columbia I-20 or DS-2019, you must request a program extension through the ISSO. Come to the ISSO as soon as you know that you will need an extension and at least 30 days before the completion date noted on your I-20 or DS-2019 in order to have enough time to obtain any necessary documents. See our instructions on Extension of Stay (Current Program) for this purpose, or contact the ISSO for more information.

If you require an extension because you will be starting a new program at Columbia (for example, if you are moving from a bachelor's degree to a master's degree program), you must apply for a new I-20 or DS-2019 to begin a new program within 60 days of the completion of the first program. See our instructions on Extension of Stay to Begin a New Program or contact the ISSO for more information.

9. Once you have completed your studies and any practical training that is authorized, you must leave the U.S. or change to another immigration status within the appropriate time allowed. This means that you are allowed to stay for the period of time to complete a program of study plus academic or practical training and a grace period. Those in F-1 status have a 60 day grace period in which to depart the US or change to another status. Students in J-1 status have a 30 day grace period.

10. Carry a copy of your passport and I-94 card with you at all times. When traveling outside the New York City area, you should bring the original I-94 card, I-20, and passport with you.

We encourage you to contact the ISSO if you have any questions about maintaining your F-1 status.

Last Reviewed: 6 September 2012 Last modified: 6 Steptember 2012
International Students and Scholars Office
Columbia University