When you first received your F-1 student visa, the consular officer would have put a stamp into your passport, for U.S. entry. However, this visa stamp is truly only an entry document. The date there does not determine the allowable length of your legal stay in the United States. And if that date passes, and your visa expires, you do not necessarily need to leave the United States, assuming you are maintaining valid student status.
You are certainly not required to renew your visa in order to maintain status within the United States. However, if you travel outside the United States after your F-1 visa expires, but haven't completed your studies, you will need to apply for a new visa stamp before you can reenter in F-1 status.
The only way to get a new visa stamp is to apply for one at the United States embassy or consulate in your home country. The process will be similar to the one you went through to get your initial visa stamp.
You will have to again demonstrate that you have the intent to return home when you complete your studies and that you have liquid assets with which to fund your studies and living expenses. You will also have to show that you have been maintaining your F-1 status by making normal progress towards your academic degree.
Always check the website for your embassy or consulate for additional information about the application process.
A lot of students ask about applying for a new visa stamp in a third country, such as Canada or Mexico. You might have this option, but it is normally not a good idea to use it, because there is always the risk that your application can be delayed. This will be problematic if you do not have the authorization to remain in that third country for an extended period of time.
Your period of legal stay in the U.S. (commonly referred to as “period of authorized stay”) is indicated on the I-94 Record of Arrival and Departure issued by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). While tourists and most other visitors to the U.S. on nonimmigrant visas receive a date on their I-94 indicating exactly when their legal status expires, F-1 students receive a “D/S”. D/S stands for “duration of status.”
According to government regulations, D/S/ means the period during which a student is “pursuing a full course of study at an educational institution approved by USCIS for attendance by foreign students, or engaging in authorized practical training following completion of studies, plus 60 days to prepare for departure from the United States.” (See 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f).)
So, as long as you are otherwise maintaining your F-1 status, you are allowed to remain in the United States until the end of your 60-day grace period. This allows students flexibility in pursuing their studies. For example, if you decided to change from a Master’s degree to a Ph.D. halfway through a program, your Form I-20 could be updated and extended to give you the extra time you need to complete the new degree without you having to leave the United States.
You are maintaining your F-1 status as long as you are enrolled as a full-time student and are making normal progress towards completing your degree. You are also maintaining your F-1 status if you are approved for Optional Practical Training (OPT) after you complete your program.
It is important to know some of the more common reasons for falling out of F-1 status, as many of them can easily be avoided. These include, but are not limited, to:
Most of these occurrences can be avoided if you meet with your DSO as soon as you become aware of the issue. For example, you should know whether or not you need more time to complete your degree before your Form I-20 expires. Once you are aware of this possibility, make arrangements with your DSO for a timely extension.