Once an international student is accepted into a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified school, their designated school official (DSO) will issue them a Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.” The student’s program of study and purpose for coming to the United States will determine which form they will receive:
- 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.”
Issuing the Form I-20
If a prospective international student’s primary purpose for coming to the United States is to engage in learning or a course of study, you must always issue the student a Form I-20, regardless of the program’s length. You may only issue a Form I-20 for a program that is SEVP-certified and listed on your school’s Form I-17, “Petition for Approval of School for Attendance by Nonimmigrant Student.”
DSOs should issue Forms I-20 for the length of time that the student will take to complete the program; this should match the length of the program on the school’s Form I-17. The program end date on the Form I-20 should contain the expected date of completion of the student’s academic or vocational program. The program end date should not contain any grace periods.
Federal regulations state that only a DSO at an SEVP-certified school may issue a Form I-20 to a prospective or continuing nonimmigrant student, or to an accompanying dependent. Third parties are not permitted to issue the Form I-20 to a student or to have the Form I-20 issued directly to them.
Your school should carefully review admission requirements and only admit international students who meet all qualifications for the program of study.
Each student’s Form I-20 includes a program start date and program end date. The program start date may be as many as 30 days prior to the initial session start date, the day classes begin for Initial students, to allow for activities such as placement examinations or orientation sessions.
The program end date must be based on the amount of time it typically takes to complete the accepted student’s program of study. You can change the program end date, if needed, at any time until that date passes.
If a person's primary purpose in the United States is not to engage in learning or a course of study, or the person has a dependent status derived from their parents that allows full-time study, then F-1 or M-1 status is inappropriate or unnecessary. In these cases, the person should consider or continue with another visa classification.
In addition, SEVP certification begins at the kindergarten grade level for private schools. Therefore, a DSO may not issue a Form I-20 for pre-kindergarten or any grade level below kindergarten for any school, even if the school is SEVP certified.
Changing to Student Status and the Form I-20
When issuing an initial Form I-20 to an accepted student who is in the United States under a different nonimmigrant status, the DSO should select "Initial Attendance - Change of Status Requested" in the Issue Reason section of the Form I-20. The prospective student will need to pay the I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) Fee and file for a change of status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Visit the Change of Status page on Study in the States for more information about this process.
Signing the Form I-20
When issuing an initial Form I-20, you must sign the School Attestation section. Signing this section certifies, under the penalty of perjury, that all information that you have provided on the Form I-20 is true and correct. It also certifies that your school has reviewed and evaluated a student’s applications, transcripts or other academic records, and proof of financial responsibility and determined that the student’s qualifications meet all standards for admission.
There are other times when you may have to sign other sections of the Form I-20. There are also times when a parent or guardian may be required to sign the form.
If an international student travels outside the United States with an active Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record, you are required to sign the Travel Endorsement section of the Form I-20. You must sign this section before the student travels outside the United States and your endorsement must be within one year of the student’s desired return date.
International students must also sign the Form I-20. Signing the form means an international student agrees:
- To follow the rules and regulations required to maintain their F-1 or M-1 student status.
- That all information provided on the Form I-20 is true and correct.
- To enter and remain in the United States for the specific purpose of study, for the time it takes to fulfill that purpose.
- To allow the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) access to their student record that their DSO is required to maintain.
In addition, federal regulations require that a parent or legal guardian sign a student’s Form I-20 if the prospective student is 17 years of age or younger. This signature indicates the following:
- The signer is the student’s legal parent or guardian.
- The information provided to the school used in the evaluation of the student’s admissibility to the program of study is true and correct.
- The prospective student is seeking admission to the United States solely for the purpose of pursuing a program of study at the school identified on their Form I-20.
- The school is authorized to release any information from the student’s records to DHS under 8 CFR 214.3(g).
Form I-20 Uses
The Form I-20 is an important document that international students need to keep safe from the time they receive it through the duration of their time in the United States, because it is required to perform many of the actions students need to take throughout the international student process.
The Form I- 20 allows international students to:
- Pay the SEVIS Fee.
- Apply for a nonimmigrant visa.
The Form I-20 lists a student's program start date. F-1 and M-1 student visas can be issued up to 120 days in advance of the student’s course of study start date. Students are expected to have the original Form I-20 at their visa interview. The consular officer may accept a copy of the Form I-20 in limited circumstances that warrant visa issuance prior to the student receiving the original Form I-20.
- Enter the United States.
Students are expected to present the original Form I-20 with ink signature at the U.S. port of entry when they arrive in the United States. Students may arrive up to 30 days before the start date listed on their Form I-20.
- Change their status to F or M while in the United States.
Students need a Form I-20 if they are already in the United States as another type of nonimmigrant and apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to change their status to F or M.
- Apply for benefits.
International students must have a Form I-20 when applying for benefits, such as employment or training authorization, a driver’s license or a social security number.
Reissuing a Form I-20
There are situations when it is acceptable to print out a new Form I-20 and reissue it to a student.
You must update the student’s SEVIS record and issue a new Form I-20 under the following circumstances:
- If the physical copy of the form is destroyed or misplaced.
- For travel endorsement, when appropriate.
- For any substantive change to student information, such as changes to a student’s personal information, program of study, etc.
Remember to report any change to a student’s information promptly in SEVIS.
Note: As a best practice, SEVP recommends printing the Form I-20 when the student’s SEVIS record changes from Initial to Active.
Terminated Student Records and the Form I-20
If an F-1 student was previously in status, but their SEVIS record is terminated, the DSO may explore the options available to regain the student's active status in SEVIS, if appropriate.
Options to regain active status in SEVIS include:
- Correction Request to Student Status or an SEVP Response Center (SRC) ticket, as appropriate.
- Re-entry to the United States on a new SEVIS record.
A designated school official should pursue a correction request or SRC ticket for the student’s status if the SEVIS record was terminated in error.
For more information about when to pursue each option to regain status or how to request reinstatement in SEVIS, please visit the SEVIS Help Hub.
Redesigned Form I-20
As of July 1, 2016, the redesigned Form I-20 is required for all F and M nonimmigrant visa applications, entry into the United States, travel and applications for nonimmigrant benefits. The previous version of the Form I-20 (with a barcode) is now invalid.
If you issued the Form I-20 prior to July 1, 2016, you must print the redesigned form and provide a hard copy with original signatures to each F-1 and M-1 student at your school. Students who leave the United States and try to re-enter with the previous version of the Form I-20 will not be allowed to re-enter the country.