If you are studying at a school, college, or university in the United States on an F-1 visa, it is important to understand when you need to request an extension of your status, and how to do so.
Unlike most nonimmigrants (people in the U.S. on temporary visas), you will not have an expiration date on your I-94 (a document created for foreign entrants by Customs and Border Protection). F-1 students are admitted for "D/S," which stands for "duration of status." That basically means you are allowed to remain in the United States in F-1 status for the period of time it takes you to complete your academic program.
Some F-1 students make the mistake of assuming that the expiration date on the F-1 visa stamp is the end date for their lawful status in the United States. This is not true. The visa stamp is an entry document that allows you to enter the country in F-1 status. When the visa stamp expires, your status in the United States is not affected. You will just have to apply for a new F-1 visa stamp when you travel outside the country, for reentry purposes.
The date you do need to know for extending your F-1 status is the program end date on the I-20 form you received from your academic institution. You are not allowed to be enrolled in your academic program as an F-1 student beyond that date.
If you are making normal progress towards your school degree, but you need more time than was authorized on your I-20 form, you need to meet with your Designated School Official (DSO). You must do this before the program end date on your current I-20.
Each academic institution will have its own policy on issuing extensions, but in general your DSO should extend your program end date as long as you have been maintaining your status throughout your stay in the United States, and you legitimately need more time to finish your studies. If the extension is granted, you will be given a new I-20 form with a new program end date.
If you fail to request an extension of your I-20 form before the program end date, you will be out of status. If this happens to you, you must meet with your DSO immediately. While each case is different, you will generally have two options available, either:
Reinstatement is a request to have your F-1 status restored without leaving the United States. This involves filing Form I-539 Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
The advantage to this option is that if the application is approved, your status will be restored as though you had never violated it. The main benefit here is that you will still be able to apply for certain employment authorization benefits.
The disadvantage of reinstatement is that you will not technically be in F-1 status while the application is pending, and if it is denied, you will start to accumulate unlawful presence on the date the decision is issued.
If you do not want to apply for reinstatement, you can leave the country and apply for a new F-1 visa from the U.S. consulate in your home country. If you choose this option, your DSO will issue you a new I-20 with a new SEVIS ID number.
The advantages of this option are that it is quicker than applying for reinstatement and you avoid the risk of accumulating unlawful presence in the United States.
The disadvantages are that you will have to pay the SEVIS fee again, and you will not be eligible for certain employment authorization benefits unless you are able to fulfill the one-year academic requirement again.
The key is to act quickly, no matter what you decide.