If you’re currently living in the United States on another visa, but are interested in attending school, it might be possible for you to do what’s called a “change of status” and pursue your studies without having to leave the United States first.
Applying for a change of status simply means asking to continue your stay in the United States under a different category of eligibility. However, not everyone will be allowed to use this procedure, as described below.
There are limits on who can apply for a change of status.
You are completely prohibited from applying if you are here in the U.S. on a C (transit), D (crewmember), K (fiancé(e)) or S (witness in a criminal investigation) visa. You cannot apply if you are in transit without a visa (changing planes at a U.S. airport, for example) or if you entered as a tourist without first getting a notation in your visa saying you’d be looking into applying to schools, or if you entered under the Visa Waiver Program. People on J (exchange student) visas are in most cases allowed to change status only if they are foreign medical school graduates and meet additional criteria (the rules on this are complicated; see an attorney if you are on a J visa).
Even if your visa allows you to apply for a change of status, your inquiry isn’t over. You must also make sure that your visa is still valid when you apply to change your status. This means that your permitted stay in the United States has not expired and that you haven’t violated the terms of the visa (such as by working when you weren’t allowed to) or been ordered by U.S. immigration authorities to leave.
There might be a reason for you to go home and apply for a visa through a consulate, even if you can apply for a change of status in the United States. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) tends to be skeptical of requests for changes to student status, wondering whether you’re just looking for a way to prolong your stay in the United States, perhaps through later employment or even using it as a way to get a green card. By going home and applying for a student visa from abroad, you reduce this risk.
Another reason to return home to apply for a visa (rather than changing your status while you’re in the United States) is that it will simplify your first trip out of (and back into) the United States. This is especially relevant given that students might make several trips back and forth before their studies in the U.S. are over.
Finally, making a trip home to apply for your visa at the U.S. consulate could be faster than following the procedure outlined below.
Here’s how it works: Changing status within the United States will not give you a visa stamp, which you (and every noncitizen) will need in order to get back into the United States after you leave.
If you change status in the United States and go home for the holidays during a school vacation, for example, you’ll need to allow extra time on your trip so that you can go to the consulate and get a visa stamp. Once you show the consulate that you’ve been approved for student status (that is, changed status) and haven’t violated your status, getting the student visa for reentry shouldn’t be a problem.
Still, those who, at the outset, get a student visa by applying at a consulate won’t have to go through this extra step.
Most people planning to stay in the United States to study at a college or university will apply for student status. However, the criteria for student status are rather strict. You must be planning full-time study in a USCIS-approved academic or vocational program. But what if your plans are for more casual instruction—for example, a few weeks of cooking, yoga or art classes? Or perhaps you just want to take a short or part-time academic course and spend the rest of your time traveling in the United States?
For these purposes, a change to tourist (B-2) status might be sufficient. If B-2 status fits your plans, it is also preferable to applying for student status, because the application process is shorter and simpler.
U.S. immigration laws and regulations don’t include any clear rules on which type of programs will require you to get full-fledged student status and which ones won’t. The best way to figure out whether tourist status will be enough is to talk to the school or program you’ll be attending or to an attorney.
You’ll need to fit the normal eligibility criteria for a tourist visa, including that your trip is for the purpose of pleasure, and that you’ll return home when your permitted stay expires. The maximum stay you will be allowed is likely six months, but if your course lasts longer, you might be given up to one year.
The classic “student” is someone attending a degree program at a school, college, or university. If this describes you, and you have been admitted or believe you will be admitted to a program in the United States, F-1 student status is the one for you. There are no limits on the number of -students who can receive F-1 status or visas.
F-1 status allows you to stay in the United States along with your family members (spouse and children under age 21, both of whom who would need to apply for F-2 dependent status), pursue academic studies for as long as it reasonably takes you to finish them (plus 60 days to leave the United States) and travel freely in and out of the United States during your studies (although you’ll need to stop at a U.S. consulate on your first trip out and pick up an F-1 visa with which to return).
If you’re looking to spend a long time grounding yourself in the language and culture of the United States, F-1 student status is ideal. Most academic programs take a relatively long time to complete, and your status will cover the entire program. College degrees, for example, take four years to obtain in the United States, certain graduate programs take between two and six years, and a Ph.D. program can last as long as it takes you to write your dissertation—which for some students, feels like forever.
On the other hand, F status can also be used for certain short-term programs, such as a six-week English course or a two-year associate degree.
College students aren’t the only ones eligible to study in the United States. There is a separate “M-1” status for “vocational study,” meaning training in a technical, mechanical or other field—usually one that involves working with your hands.
An M-1 visa is appropriate if you want to attend a technical or business school or program, a vocational high school, or a specialized vocational program at a more traditional school or college. There are no limits on the number of students who can receive M-1 status or visas.
M-1 status allows you to complete a program of vocational training that lasts up to one year. You can apply for one extension, and you’ll always be given an extra 30 days at the end of your stay to prepare to leave the United States. You may freely travel in and out of the United States for as long as your status is valid (meaning that it hasn’t expired, and you haven’t violated its terms)—but the first time you leave, you’ll have to stop by a U.S. consulate and obtain an M-1 student visa in order to return.
Although you cannot work in the U.S. while in school, you can spend up to six months in paid practical training in your field after completing your studies.
Some students come to the United States for the sole purpose of learning English. If you plan on a full-time course or one that is longer than one year, you’ll need to apply for F-1 student status—learning English is not considered vocational, so M-1 student status will not work.
If, however, you’re just looking at a short, part-time course a B-2 tourist visa may be sufficient.
Once a school or program has admitted you and you’ve indicated that you will attend (usually by paying a deposit), the school will prepare a Form I-20 Certificate of Eligibility. F-1 students will get what’s called an I-20AB, and M-1 students will get an I-20MN. You’ll be submitting this form as part of your application for student status. The school should not charge you any money for issuing the I-20.
Your next step will be to prepare a Change of Status application, using USCIS Form I-539 (available as a free download). Attach a separate I-539A Supplement for your spouse and each child who will be staying in the United States with you. Form I-539 has more than one use—don’t be confused by the presence of questions that don’t apply to you.
The instructions to the form will also explain what documents you need to include and the latest fee you’ll need to pay. Your school, or an attorney, will also be able to help you with this process.
Finally, be sure to check the dates of your current status and compare them to the start date of your academic program, as noted on the I-20. If there will be a gap between when your current status expires and your F-1 status and studies are to begin, you first might need to submit a separate application to extend your current status.
This is a complex area of the law. You might wish to consult an immigration attorney before trying to handle it on your own.