If you are in the United States as a tourist (on a B-2 visitor visa), it is possible to change your status to F-1 student, by submitting a request to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). However, getting this request approved is anything but guaranteed. You will have to demonstrate to USCIS's satisfaction that you arrived without a "preconceived intent to study," as discussed below.
Your best bet might be to either plan ahead and get a special B-2 prospective student visa before arriving in the U.S., or to leave the U.S. now and apply for an F-1 visa from an overseas consulate. These possibilities are also discussed below.
The B-2 visitor visa is intended only for nonimmigrants who wish to travel to the United States on a temporary basis for pleasure, tourism, or medical treatment. While this can include a short course of study that is recreational in nature, it cannot include course work that will count as credit towards a degree.
Unfortunately, many foreign nationals who already have a B-2 visa in their passport assume that they can use it to enter the United States even when their intent is to study. The common assumption is that they can simply file a change of status application once accepted to an academic program. This mindset is commonly referred to as a preconceived intent to study. This preconceived intent conflicts with the purpose of the B-2 visa. If USCIS has reason to believe that you had a preconceived intent to study when you used your B-2 visa for U.S. entry, your change of status application will probably be denied.
Only you know what your true intent was when you entered the United States. If you did have a preconceived intent to study, you should avoid the change of status application and travel home to apply for the F-1 visa.
If you did not have a preconceived intent to study, you will need to document the circumstances leading to your decision to pursue an academic program after you entered the country. Keep in mind that preconceived intent is more difficult to overcome if you made contact with your academic institution soon after your arrival.
The issue of preconceived intent can be addressed before you come to the United States if you are upfront about your intentions when you apply for the B-2 visa. If you truly are traveling to the United States as a tourist with the intent to study, you can request a B-2 prospective student visa. This visa can be issued if you are:
The B-2 prospective student visa eliminates USCIS's concern about preconceived intent and increases your chances of a successful change of status application.
If you believe that you will be able to demonstrate that your intent to study arose only after you entered the U.S., here is how to apply for a change of status.
You have to submit USCIS Form I-539 Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status to USCIS, by mail. The I-539 application must include supporting documents that show that you are eligible for F-1 status. This documentation should include, but is not limited to the following:
You will also need to pay a fee, as listed on USCIS's I-539 page.
When preparing the I-539 application, consider the fact that you are required to be maintaining your B-2 visitor status at the time of application. Fortunately, it's okay if your B-2 status runs out while awaiting USCIS's decision. USCIS policy is to grant the change of status to F-1 effective the date it approves your I-539 application. But if that date falls sooner than 30 days before your school program starts, beware: you must not do anything to violate F-1 status during that time, such as take a job in the United States.
Form more on the form and process, see Applying for an Extension of a U.S. Visa or Change of Status.
If you're concerned that you will not be able to file a successful change of status application, or if your change of status application gets denied, you can leave the United States and apply for your F-1 visa in your home country.
Applying outside the United States does have its advantages. You do not have to worry about preconceived intent, and the application process is usually faster than USCIS processing times for the change of status application. For more information about qualifying and applying for an F-1 visa, see our section on Student Visas.