Your Guide to Studying in the States

F-1 Kindergarten through Grade 12

Based on the student type and education level you selected, below is an overview of important information for you to know. This guide includes information about every step in the international student process, from researching a program to graduating and departing the United States.

Prepare Travel Study Student Benefits Change Status Depart

If you want to study in the United States at the kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) level, the first step is to understand the U.S. education system and work with your parents to research the best school for you. In the United States, children attend primary (elementary and middle schools) and secondary (high school) school.

  • Understand the Difference Between Public and Private Schools
    In the United States, children attend either public or private K-12 schools. Local, state and federal tax revenue funds public schools, while tuition dollars fund private schools. It is important to understand this difference because different rules apply for K-12 public schools and K-12 private schools.

    As an F-1 student, you may only attend a public high school in the United States and may not attend a U.S. public school in kindergarten through eighth grade. If you attend public high school, you may only do so for a maximum of 12 months and must pay the full, unsubsidized per capita cost of attending in the school district. Payment of this fee must occur before you can apply for your visa. However, F-1 students may attend private K-12 schools at any grade level and regulations place no limit on the length of time you may be enrolled. For more information, please visit the K-12 Students page.
  • Apply to an SEVP-Certified School

    Only schools certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) can accept international students, and SEVP only certifies certain types of K-12 schools:

    • Private K-12 schools, at all grade levels.
    • Public high schools (grade nine–grade 12).

    This means that public primary schools (i.e., kindergarten to grade eight) are not allowed to accept F-1 students. Use the Study in the States School Search page to make sure the school you are interested in attending is SEVP certified. Using the page, you can search by school name, location, education or visa type. Once you find the right school for you, follow the school’s instructions to apply.

  • Receive Your Form I-20
    Once accepted into an SEVP-certified school, you will receive a Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” from your designated school official (DSO). DSOs work at SEVP-certified schools and are there to help you understand and follow the rules for studying in the United States. It is important that you know who your DSO is and how to contact them.

    The Form I-20 is an important document that you should keep safe, as you will need it throughout the international student process. For more information about the Form I-20 and when you need it, please visit the What is the Form I-20? page on Study in the States.
  • Make the Appropriate Arrangements

    Parents of children enrolled in a K-12 school are not eligible to receive dependent status and enter the United States on an F-2 or M-2 visa. Therefore, it is important for parents of K-12 children to get involved early and educate themselves about SEVP rules and regulations before their child arrives in the United States.

    Make sure to ask your child’s DSO many questions and become comfortable with the answers before your child leaves home. In addition, here are some ways parents of K-12 international students can help prepare their children to depart for the United States:

    • Find out about living arrangements beforehand. Pictures/video messages and speaking with host families can be very helpful. Ask about the other people who live in the setting, as well as the physical arrangement.
    • Have formal, legal documents that specify who the child’s guardian is, and in what circumstances. Include provisions for medical care. Speak with the DSO at your child’s prospective school to determine the best course of action for ensuring your child’s safety.
    • Ensure the school will be providing comprehensive oversight on behalf of the child. DSOs should be available at any time during the school day. The school should also provide you emergency contact information for non-school hours.
    • Ensure that your child has sufficient finances, which is an official requirement by regulation, in order to come and study in the United States.

    Your child should have specific information and the capability (for example, a cell phone) to get help from law enforcement officials or receive medical care, should the need arise.



Traveling to the United States requires that you take certain steps before your arrival. It is also necessary to be prepared and organized when you arrive at the U.S. port of entry. Additional travel information can be found on the Getting to the United States page.

  • Pay Your I-901 SEVIS Fee
    After you receive your Form I-20, the next step is to pay your I-901 SEVIS Fee. Regulation requires that all international students pay this fee before the U.S. Department of State issues them a visa. Visit the Paying the I-901 SEVIS Fee page on Study in the States and watch the I-901 SEVIS Fee payment tutorial to learn about each step of the payment process.

    Keep your I-901 SEVIS Fee payment receipt and be sure to check that the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) identification (ID) number on the receipt matches the SEVIS ID number that appears on your Form I-20. Please contact SEVP if the SEVIS ID number on these two documents does not match, or if you encounter other issues in the process.
  • Apply for a U.S. Visa
    After being accepted to an SEVP-certified school and getting a receipt for payment of the I-901 SEVIS Fee, you can apply for a visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Visit the U.S. Department of State’s website for more information about applying for an F-1 visa. You can also find your nearest embassy or consulate by visiting the U.S. Embassy website.

    Once you receive your visa, check to make sure that you received the right type of visa (F-1) and that your name and date of birth are correct and match the information in your passport. A student visa does not guarantee entrance into the country, but it does give you permission to arrive at a U.S. port of entry.

    Remember that if you plan to attend a public high school in the United States, you must pay the full, unsubsidized per capita cost of attending the school district before applying for a U.S. visa. Once the payment is made, make sure the DSO provides you with the necessary proof of payment. You will need this proof both at your visa interview when applying for admission into the United States and at the U.S. port of entry when you arrive in the country.
  • Arrive at U.S. Port of Entry
    You may enter the United States up to 30 days before your official program start date listed on your Form I-20. When you arrive to the United States, you will meet a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer who has the authority to admit or deny your entrance into the country. You must present the CBP officer with your Form I-20, as well as your valid visa and passport. It is also a good idea to have your acceptance letter from your SEVP-certified school, your evidence of financial support, and the name and telephone number of your DSO. Be sure to keep these documents and information in your carry-on luggage, as you will not be able to access any of your checked baggage until after you pass through the U.S. port of entry.

    A CBP officer may direct you to secondary inspection and interview you further to determine if you may enter the United States. If you do not have all your documents or if the officer cannot verify your information, they may deny you entry into the country or issue you a Form I-515A, “Notice to Student or Exchange Visitor.” If you receive a Form I-515A, you must work with your DSO to respond to it within 30 days. Visit the What is the Form I-515A? page for more information.


  • Receive a form I-94
    If CBP admits you into the country, they will give you an admission stamp in your passport and issue an electronic Form I-94, “Arrival and Departure Record.” The Form I-94 includes information about when you were admitted, what status you must maintain (F-1) and how long you can stay in the United States. The CBP officer will inform you where to find your electronic Form I-94. You should verify that the “Admit Until” date on your Form I-94 and admissions stamp on your passport lists “D/S” (that means, Duration of Status) and not a specific date. For more information about the Form I-94 and the arrival process in the United States, visit the CBP website



While studying in the United States, it is important to maintain your status, which relates to the purpose, or reason, for why you want to come to the United States. As an F-1 student, your primary purpose for coming to the United States is to complete a full course of study at an SEVP-certified school.

This means you must not take any action that detracts from fulfilling this purpose and follow the regulations associated with studying in the United States. Additional information can be found on the Maintaining Your Status page.

  • Enroll in a Full Course of Study
    You must meet the minimum number of hours per week your SEVP-certified school determines is necessary for normal progress toward graduation or completion of the program of study. If you do not know how many hours per week fulfill your school’s requirement for normal progress toward graduation or completion of the program of study, talk to your DSO. Lean more about this requirement by visiting the Full Course of Study. page.
  • Attend and Pass Your Classes
    Attend all your classes and maintain normal academic progress. Do not drop classes without first speaking with your DSO. If school is too difficult, speak with your DSO immediately to figure out your options. If you believe that you will be unable to complete your program by the end date listed on your Form I-20, talk with your DSO about requesting a possible program extension.
  • Take An Annual Vacation
    You are eligible to take an annual vacation after completing an academic year at an SEVP-certified school, and once every year after that if you maintain your status and register for classes in the academic term following your annual vacation. Talk to your DSO to learn when you are eligible for your annual vacation.
  • Transfer to Another SEVP-Certified School
    If you are a K-12 student attending private K-12 schools, you may transfer to a new, private K-12 school if you would like. However, F-1 students attending a public high school may only attend a public school for a maximum period of 12 months. This time limit includes all public high schools you attend, meaning you cannot spend a year at one public high school and then transfer to another public high school. However, you can transfer to an SEVP-certified private school to continue toward a diploma.

    Before initiating any transfer requests, you must apply and be accepted into another SEVP-certified school. If you want to transfer, talk with your DSO and visit the Instructions for Transferring to Another School as an F-1 Student page.


Student Benefits

While studying in the United States, you can apply for certain benefits. These student benefits are not granted by SEVP and require students to apply to other U.S. government agencies to receive them.

  • Apply for a Driver’s License
    Driving a car without a driver’s license is illegal, but F-1 students are eligible to apply for such a license in the state where they reside. The rules for acquiring a driver’s license differ from state to state and have strict age requirements (in the majority of states, the minimum age for unsupervised driving is 16). For more information about this process, please talk with your DSO and visit the Apply for A Driver’s License page.
  • Work in the United States
    K-12 students seldom have employment opportunities while they are studying in the United States. Many states have strict age requirements for when minors under the age of 18 may begin earning wages. However, any students who receive wages from an employer must apply for a Social Security number (SSN)

    If your school offers on-campus employment opportunities, please speak with your DSO about if you can participate. If you receive non-wage income while in the United States (for example, scholarships, grants, interest on stocks) and are not eligible for an SSN because you do not receive wages, you must apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.


Change Status

If you want to change the purpose of your visit while in the United States, you must file a request with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on the appropriate form before your authorized stay expires. USCIS recommends that you apply as soon as you determine that you need to change to a different nonimmigrant category. If USCIS denies your application, be prepared to leave the United States when your current status expires. Additional information can be found on the Change of Status page.


If you have maintained your status and finished a program of study, you have a 60-day grace period to depart from the United States. Failure to depart within this grace period could adversely impact your ability to re-enter the United States under a different nonimmigrant or immigrant classification.

If you are a graduating high school senior and wish to attend an SEVP-certified postsecondary school (for example, college or university) to continue your education in the United States, talk to your DSO about transferring your SEVIS record to the new school and obtaining a new Form I-20.

Print Guide