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International Student Life Cycle

The U.S. government uses the term nonimmigrant to refer to foreign nationals admitted into the country temporarily for a specific purpose. Once a nonimmigrant fulfills their purpose for coming to the United States, they need to either change their status or depart the country.

International students in the United States are considered nonimmigrants because their sole purpose for being in the country is to complete a program of study at a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified school.

Specifically, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security manages two different categories of students:

  • F-1 nonimmigrant: an international student in the United States to pursue a full course of academic or professional study (including a language training program) at an SEVP-certified school. An F-2 nonimmigrant is a foreign national who is the spouse or qualifying child of an F-1 student.
  • M-1 nonimmigrant: an international student in the United States to pursue a full course of study at an SEVP-certified vocational or other recognized nonacademic institution. An M-2 nonimmigrant is a foreign national who is the spouse or qualifying child of an M-1 student.

For more information about the differences between F-1 and M-1 students, please download and refer to the F & M Student Status: Know the Difference infographic.

Getting Started

If you want to study in the United States, start by researching schools and programs of study that best suit your needs and qualifications. Only schools that are SEVP-certified may enroll F and M students. You can use our School Search page to make sure the school or program you are interested in is SEVP-certified.

For more comprehensive information about the programs available for international students and opportunities to finance your education, visit an EducationUSA advising center near you and explore their online resources.

If you are already in the United States on a valid nonimmigrant visa for a purpose other than attending school (such as for tourism) and are interested in studying in the United States, you can change your status in order to enroll in school.

Preparing to Study in the United States

After you are accepted to SEVP-certified school(s), each school will send you a Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Status.” The Form I-20 is a paper record of your information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and is required for completing subsequent steps in the international student life cycle.

Multiple schools that accept you may mail you a Form I-20; you must only use the Form I-20 received from the school you will attend. Visit the What is the Form I-20? page for more information about this immigration form and its uses.

Check your Form I-20 against your passport information to confirm that your name and date of birth are correct. If the information on your Form I-20 does not match the information on your passport, contact the designated school official (DSO) who sent you the Form I-20, ask them to correct the information and send you an updated form.

After you verify that your Form I-20 is correct, you must:


Please visit the above links for more information about how to successfully complete each of these steps.

Entering the United States

You and your dependents may enter the United States up to 30 days before your official program start date recorded in SEVIS, as it is listed on your Form I-20. Visit the Getting to the United States page for more detailed information about what to expect at a U.S. port of entry.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) admits travelers, including international students, to the United States at U.S. ports of entry. Make sure you hand carry and present all required documents to the CBP officer when you arrive at a U.S. port of entry. Do not put them in a checked bag. It is a good idea to make at least two copies of all your travel and immigration documents—one copy to leave with your family before you depart your home country and one copy to give to your school officials in the United States. After arriving in the United States, make sure to keep the originals of all documentation in a safe, secure location.

Studying in the United States

You must report to your school by the program start date listed on your Form I-20. Once school starts, you must follow specific rules to legally remain in the United States. Visit the Maintaining Status page for more information about how to properly comply.

Engage in a full course of study during your time as an international student. The definition of a full course of study varies depending on both your status (F-1 or M-1) and the program of study you attend.

International students may also be eligible to transfer to a new school, although the circumstances for eligibility vary depending on your student status. For more information please visit the following pages:


If you need more time to complete your program of study than what is listed on your Form I-20, talk to your DSO. Because CBP admits F-1 students for duration of status, F-1 students do not have to officially file for extensions but will need an updated Form I-20 from their DSO. However, M-1 students who need more time must apply for an extension of stay with the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). For more information about this process, please visit the M-1 Extensions of Stay resource page.

Using Your Student Benefits

F and M students may be eligible for certain benefits while they study in the United States. These include applying for a driver’s license, taking advantage of practical training opportunities and, under certain circumstances, working. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) authorizes practical training opportunities and some employment opportunities. If you are an F or M student, work with your designated school official to apply for these benefits through USCIS.

For more information about these benefits, please visit the following resource pages:

Completing Your Program of Study

After completing your program of study, F students must depart the United States within 60 days of their program end date and M students must depart within 30 days.

However, under certain circumstances, you may be eligible to remain in the United States:

  • F-1 students interested in continuing their education should talk to their DSO about their options prior to graduation. Your DSO can help you navigate how to transfer your SEVIS record to a new program of study (if necessary). Visit the Transferring to Another School page for more information.
  • F-1 students may be eligible to participate in post-completion optional practical training. M-1 students may also need to complete practical training once their coursework is complete. Visit the Training Opportunities in the United States page for more information.
  • If your purpose in the United States changes after graduation, you will need to apply for a change of status with USCIS. Visit the Change of Status page for more information.


Related Tags: Student Life

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