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The ABCs of Immigration - Student Visa Procedures
by Greg Siskind and Amy Ballentine

This week we address the procedures and mechanics for obtaining an F-1 visa. While many current news stories responding to the INS error of sending approval notices to terrorists six months after the attacks make it seem like obtaining a student visa is the easiest thing in the world, that is far from the truth.

As with all nonimmigrant classifications, the most important element in obtaining an F-1 visa is the demonstration of nonimmigrant intent. The student must maintain a home abroad that they have no intention of abandoning. The student must be coming to the US to pursue a full course of academic study, and must demonstrate that they possess the financial resources to allow them to study without the need to engage in unauthorized employment. The prospective student must also show that they have been accepted by a US school accredited by the INS.

Step 1: Find a School

A prospective student must first identify a school that is qualified to sponsor a student for a visa. A school that wishes to have foreign students enroll must first make an application with the INS. For a school to become qualified to participate in the F-1 process, it must 1) demonstrate that it is a legitimate educational institution, 2) appoint a designated school official (DSO) who will sign all necessary forms, 3) institute a record keeping and reporting system satisfactory to the INS.

Step 2: Get an I-20

For a foreign student to obtain F-1 status they must first receive a Form I-20 issued by the school that provides information about the school and the student. Before the school can issue an I-20 the following conditions must be met:

  • The student must have made a written application to the school
  • The school must have received the studentís academic record and evidence of financial support
  • The student must meet the schoolís qualifications for admission, including any English language proficiency
  • The student must have been accepted by the school
Step 3: Apply for a Visa at a US Consulate

After the school issues the I-20, it sends it to the student abroad, who then applies for a visa at their local US consulate. To make the visa application the student must present the I-20, their passport, the necessary visa fee (which varies from location to location), Form OF-156 Application for a Nonimmigrant Visa, documentation of sufficient ties to the home country and evidence of financial support. Unless there are unusual circumstances, the visa will generally be issued on the day the application is submitted, or only a few days afterward.

A prospective student who has not yet decided on a school can request a B-2 prospective student visa, and once in the US they can seek F-1 status. Note, however, that if a prospective student does not make his or her intentions clear at the time of applying for the visa and have the visa properly annotated, the INS could very well deny the prospective student. Prospective students who enter the US on a tourist visa and do not mention the possibility that they may seek to attend school in the US are often deemed to have made their entry under false pretenses, regardless of the individual circumstances.

When the student seeks a change of status within the US, he of she submits an application for the change of status, the I-20, a copy of their passport, and evidence of financial support to the INS. If the INS approves the change of status, it mails one copy of the I-20 and an approval notice to the student. The other copy of the I-20 is sent to an INS processing center where they keep track of foreign students. After the information is collected, the I-20 is mailed to the school.

Step 4: Entering the US

After receiving the visa, the student makes an application for admission at a US port of entry. The student must present their passport, visa, evidence of support and the I-20. If admission is granted, the INS will keep one copy of the I-20 and return the second to the student. The student is issued an I-94 Arrival/Departure Record that contains a unique control number. This number is noted on the I-20, and becomes a sort of permanent identifier. For example, if an F-1 student leaves the US, upon reentry they are given a new I-94. However, the number on it is crossed out and replaced with the initial number noted on the I-20.

Step 5: Maintaining Status

In light of the bars on admission created in 1996, and of the increased scrutiny of foreign students since the September 11th attacks, it is very important for the student to maintain their status while in the US. There are eight important things that must be done to maintain status.

1. Keep a valid passport at all times, unless otherwise exempt from the passport requirement

2. Attend the school authorized

3. Participate in a full course of study

4. Leave the US by the completion date shown on the I-20, or within a 60 day grace period, or request a program extension from the schoolís designated student officer

5. If the student wants to change from one educational level to another (for example a bachelorís program to a masterís) they must apply to the designated student officer

6. In most cases, work on campus for no more than 20 hours per week while school is in session

7. Not work off campus without INS authorization

8. Report any change in residence to the INS within 10 days

When the foreign student transfers from one school to another, a notification procedure must be followed. The student must obtain a new I-20 from the new school and inform the designated student officer at the first school of their intent to transfer. After completing the new I-20 the student submits it to the designated student officer at the new school. This must be within 15 days of beginning class at the new school. The I-20 must be endorsed by the designated student officer of the new school who must then send a copy to the officer at the first school and to the INS. This must be done within 30 days of receiving the I-20 from the student. The INS will then return one copy of the I-20 to the student, and after collecting information, return the other copy to the new school.

Changing Educational Programs

If a foreign student changes educational programs within the same institution, a similar process is required. The student should obtain a new I-20 and within 15 days of beginning the new program, submit it to the schoolís designated student officer. The officer should note on it that the student is changing from one program to another at the same institution, and submit it to the INS within 30 days of receiving it from the student. Again, the INS will return one copy of the I-20 to the student and the other to the school.

A change in educational program is not a change in major. Rather, it indicates that the student is pursuing an entirely new degree. If the student changes major, they will need a new I-20 before leaving the US, as the old one will no longer be accurate for reentry purposes. However, the INS does not need to be notified of this change until the student applies for reentry.


About The Author

Gregory Siskind has experience handling all aspects of immigration and nationality law and has represented numerous clients throughout the world. Mr. Siskind provides consultations to corporations and individuals on immigration law issues and handles cases before the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Department of State, the Department of Labor and other government agencies. Gregory Siskind is also committed to community service. He regularly provides free legal services to indigent immigration clients and speaks at community forums to offer information on immigration issues.

After graduating magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University, Gregory Siskind went on to receive his law degree from the University of Chicago. For the past several years, he has been an active member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and he currently serves as a member of the organization's Technology Committee. He is the current committee chair for the Nashville Bar Association's International Section. Greg is a member of the American Bar Association where he serves on the LPM PublishGregory Siskind has experience handling all aspects of immigration and nationality law and has represented numerous clients throughout the world. Mr. Siskind provides consultations to corporations and individuals on immigration law issues and handles cases before the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Department of State, the Department of Labor and other government agencies. Gregory Siskind is also committed to community service. He regularly provides free legal services to indigent immigration clients and speaks at community forums to offer information on immigration issues.

Greg regularly writes on the subject of immigration law. He has written several hundred articles on the subject and is also the author of the new book The J Visa Guidebook, published by Matthew Bender and Company, one of the nation's leading legal publishers. He is working on another book for Matthew Bender on entertainment and sports immigration.

Greg is also, in many ways, a pioneer in the use of the Internet in the legal profession. He was one of the first lawyers in the country (and the very first immigration lawyer) to set up a web site for his practice. And he was the first attorney in the world to distribute a firm newsletter via e-mail listserv. Mr. Siskind is the author of the American Bar Association's best selling book, The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet. He has been interviewed and profiled in a number of leading publications and media including USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Lawyers Weekly, the ABA Journal, the National Law Journal, American Lawyer, Law Practice Management Magazine, National Public Radio's All Things Considered and the Washington Post. As one of the leading experts in the country on the use of the Internet in a legal practice, Greg speaks regularly at forums across the United States, Canada and Europe.

In his personal life, Greg is the husband of Audrey Siskind and the proud father of Eden Shoshana and Lily Jordana. He also enjoys collecting rare newspapers and running in marathons and triathlons. He can be reached by email at GSiskind@visalaw.com

Amy Ballentine is an associate in Siskind, Susser & Haas's Memphis, Tennessee office. She graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from Rhodes College in 1994. While in law school at the University of Memphis she was a member of the law review staff as well as a published author. She also worked with the local public defenderís office in death penalty cases. In May 1999, she graduated Cum Laude from the University of Memphis Law School. She is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She can be reached by email at aballentine@visalaw.com


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