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What is the Form I-20 and when do I need it?

February 5, 2015
All F and M students that study in the United States need a Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.” Once you are accepted into a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified school, you will receive one of these two forms from your designated school official (DSO) depending on your F or M student visa status:
 
F Students: Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status – For Academic and Language Students.”
 
M Students: Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status – For Vocational Students.” 
 
The Form I-20 is an important document that you should keep safe, as there are a number of instances where you will need it, such as the following:
 
  • Pay the I-901 SEVIS Fee: Before you pay the I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System Fee, you must receive the Form I-20 from a DSO at the school you plan to attend. You will need information from the Form I-20 to pay the fee. The I-901 SEVIS Fee is mandatory and must be paid before you enter the United States. 
  • Apply for a nonimmigrant visa: The Form I-20 lists the date in which you are allowed to enter the United States. F-1 and M-1 student visas can be issued up to 120 days in advance of your course of study start date. Your type of student visa must match the type of I-20 you have (e.g., F-1 or M-1).
  • Enter the United States: You need to have your Form I-20 on hand as you enter the country. Do not pack it away in your suitcase. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer will instruct you to present your Form I-20 at the port of entry. You may arrive up to 30 days before the start date listed on your Form I-20. 
  • Apply for benefits: Your Form I-20 proves that you are legally enrolled in a program of study in the United States. Therefore, it may be needed when you apply for the benefits available to F and M students. If you are eligible to apply for a driver’s license or a social security number, remember to bring your Form I-20 with you.
Any questions that you have about the Form I-20 can be answered by the DSO at your school, or you may contact the SEVP Response Center at 703-603-3400 between 7 a.m.–8 p.m. EST, except on holidays. 
 
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