Thousands of foreign students come to the United States every year.
Most students attend post-secondary institutions (community colleges, four year universities, or graduate programs).
Some attend institutions in the United States as exchange visitors.
Others attend institutions as foreign students. Some people can attend school in the United States because they are derivatives of a parent’s or a spouse’s work visa.
What kind of visa can I get to attend school?
There are three main visas that can be used to attend educational institutions in the United States: The F-1 visa for foreign students, the J-1 visa for exchange visitors, and the M-1 visa for occupational students. Each visa has special rules, but they each follow the same basic format:
- The prospective student applies for and is accepted to the program.
- The program issues the appropriate Certificate of Eligibility (either a Form I-20 or a Form DS-2019).
- The prospective student applies for the visa at the United States consulate using the form issued by the program.
- After the visa is issued, the student enters the United States and attends the program.
Not every school or program can issue a Certificate of Eligibility. As a practical matter, public elementary and secondary schools usually cannot issue Certificates of Eligibility for F-1 visas. Students wanting to attend public elementary and secondary schools have to apply to exchange visitor programs and then obtain J-1 visas.
Can dependent family members of work visa holders attend school in the United States?
People on work visas (H-1Bs, L-1s, TNs, etc.) can bring their spouses and children to the United States with them. These dependents can go to any school on their visas, as long as they remain in lawful status and they continue to qualify for the dependent visa. This is a bigger issue for children, because once a child turns 21, the child is no longer eligible for a dependent visa. The adult child who is 21 or older will need an independent visa (the F-1, J-1, or M-1) to attend school in the United States.
Can I change schools?
It is possible to change schools, but the foreign student will need a new Certificate of Eligibility from the new school and will need to apply for permission to change schools with USCIS before attending the new school. It is critical to work with the program’s designated official to ensure that the required paperwork is completed and submitted to USCIS.
Dependents can change schools as long as long as they and their parent or spouse continues to be in lawful status. They do not need advance permission from USCIS.
Where do I go for more information?
Foreign students or exchange visitors should always talk to the designated school or program official. The designated official has tremendous authority over the administering the program and can answer most questions.
If the situation is complex or a problem arises, seeking advice from a qualified immigration attorney is always worthwhile.