As an F-2 visa holder, you have the right to enter the United States as a dependent of an F-1 student visa holder and reside here temporarily until the F-1 student completes his or her academic program. Your privileges in F-2 status are very limited. You are not allowed to apply for work authorization or to enroll in a course of study. Consequently, you may find yourself looking for ways to gain additional privileges during your stay in the United States. This may be a possibility if you become eligible for a different nonimmigrant visa category.
F-2 visa holders are generally permitted to change their status to a different nonimmigrant visa category, even if the F-1 student is still pursuing his or her academic program. The most common visa categories F-2 students consider include the F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant student visas, the H-1B nonimmigrant work visa, and the J-1 nonimmigrant exchange visitor visa.
If you decide that you want to pursue your own course of academic study while in the United States, you can apply for an academic program with an SEVP-certified institution of higher education while you are in F-2 status. Once you are admitted to such a program, you will be issued a new I-20 form with a new SEVIS identification number, which you will use to change your status to F-1 before beginning your program. You can change your status to F-1 by filing an Status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), or by leaving the country to apply for an F-1 visa at the U.S. consulate in your home country.
Traveling to change your status is often easier, because the I-539 application can take several months to process and there is no option to expedite the application through premium processing.
If you decide that you want to pursue a vocational or non-academic course of study while in the United States, you can apply for a program with an SEVP-certified school while you are in F-2 status. Once you are admitted to such a program, you will be issued a new I-20 form with a new SEVIS identification number, which you will use to change your status to M-1 before beginning your program. Your options for changing your status to M-1 are the same as those for changing to F-1.
If you have already received, at minimum, the U.S. equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, you may be eligible for the H-1B nonimmigrant work visa. The H-1B visa is reserved for workers in specialty occupations. A specialty occupation is one where the duties are so specialized and complex that it requires a U.S. bachelor’s degree, or its equivalent. In some cases, a combination of education and progressively responsible work experience can be substituted for a bachelor’s degree.
The H-1B visa requires sponsorship from an employer. If you are able to find a qualified position with an employer that is willing to sponsor you, the employer can request to change your status here in the United States by filing I-129 Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker. If you do change your status to H-1B, you will be authorized to work only for the H-1B sponsoring employer.
To learn more about this possibility, see How to Change an F-2 Visa to an H-1B Visa.
In some cases, F-2 visa holders may qualify for a J Nonimmigrant Exchange Visitor Visa. The J-1 visa was designed for cultural and educational exchange between the United States and visitors from other countries. There are multiple programs that qualify for the J-1 visa, which are listed on the U.S. Department of State website here. If you qualify and are accepted into a J-1 visa program, you will be issued a DS-2019 form from the program sponsor, which you will use to change your status from F-2 to J-1. The process to change your status to J-1 is the same as it is to change to F-1.
If you are thinking about participating in a J-1 visa program, make sure you become familiar with the special restrictions on this visa type. In particular, you will want to be aware of the two-year foreign residence requirement. You may become subject to this, which will require you to spend two years in your home country before you can apply to be admitted to the United States in H-1B status or as a permanent resident.
You can apply for a waiver of this requirement, but there is no guarantee that you will receive one. If your long-term plans include the pursuit of permanent employment in the United States when the F-1 student completes his or her academic program, the J-1 visa may be problematic for this reason.
See Exchange Visitor Programs: J-1 vs. Q-1 for more on this category.
If you decide to change your status to F-1 or M-1, you should meet with the Designated School Official (DSO) at the institution you are interested in attending for further guidance on how to best change your status. If an employer decides to sponsor you for H-1B status, it will most likely retain the services of an immigration attorney who may be able to answer your questions about changing status. If you decide to change your status to J-1, you should consult with the Alternate Responsible Officer (ARO) of the program you are interested in for further guidance on how to best change your status.