Visa Categories for Students Studying in the U.S.
The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) regulates entry into the U.S. Those who wish to visit the U.S. temporarily, for business, study, or pleasure, may apply for one of a number of “visas.” The INA sets forth the categories and procedures applicable to such visas. A visitor to the U.S. may take a short course of study (less than 18 hours a week) while here on a visitor’s visa. Longer courses of study (in excess of 18 hours a week) require a student visa. There are two categories of student visas; “F” and “M.”
F-1 and M-1 Visas – Application
The F and M categories of visas are similar, but have significant differences. Students wishing to study at a university or other academic institution in the U.S, including primary and secondary schools, require an F-1 visa. Those who wish to pursue a vocational or non-academic course of study at a vocational or business school, require an M-1 visa.
Application is commonly made at an embassy abroad, but may also be made in the U.S. Requirements generally include that the applicants:
- Be enrolled in an academic, language, or vocational program at a school approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
- Be enrolled as full-time students, subject to exceptions based on hardships that may develop later and require a reduced class load.
- Be proficient in English or be enrolled in courses for English proficiency.
- Have sufficient resources available for self-support during the entire period of study.
- Have residences in a foreign country that they have no intention of abandoning.
Some Rights and Restrictions
- Visa holders may bring along spouses and minor children.
- F-1 students may work on campus or, sometimes, off campus after the first year, but usually no more than 20 hours per week during the school year. F-1 students may work full time during holidays and vacations. M-I students may work only if the schools certify that the employment is for practical training related to studies, and is not available in the home country.
- F-1 visa students may remain as long as student status is maintained and normal progress is being made. M-1 students are limited to one year, subject to extensions up to three years from original start date, plus an additional 30 days.
- F-1 visas may no longer be issued for public elementary or middle school attendance (K-8th grade) or publicly-funded adult education programs; visas may be issued for attendance at private elementary and middle schools.
- An F-1 visa may be granted for study at a public high school for up to one year of study, but only on a showing that the school has been reimbursed for the full, unsubsidized cost of the education, as calculated by the school.
- F-1 and M-1 students may be allowed to transfer under certain circumstances.
- Students in both categories may be allowed to complete “optional practical training” in their fields after completion of studies, under certain circumstances.
F-2 and M-2 Visas
Holders of F-1 and M-1 visas may bring with them their spouses and dependent children under age 21. After showing proof of the relationship to the underlying F-1 or M-1 visa holder, an F-2 or M-2 visa may be issued to the spouse or child, and they can accompany the visa holder or follow later. Their status is dependent on the underlying visa; if the visa is lost (or changed), the F-2 or M-2 visas may be similarly affected.
Holders of F-2 and M-2 visas may not work. Spouses may not engage in full time study (unless their visa status is changed to an F-1 or M-1). The children may engage in full time study (without reimbursement to the school), but only for elementary and middle school. Both may engage in vocational or recreational study. Violation of these rules may be a violation of the visa status and lead to the loss of the visa.
F-3 and M-3 Visas
The F-3 and M-3 categories were created by the “Border Commuter Student Act of 2002.” These categories are for students who live in Canada or Mexico and study in the U.S. The visas allow students to cross the border as necessary to attend academic (F-3) or vocational (M-3) classes, then return home. Previously, these students were treated as visitors, but after the events of 9/11, new visa categories were created. Requirements for these visas include:
- Applicants must maintain actual residence in their home countries.
- Study must take place at an educational institution approved by the Department of Homeland Security.
- Study may be either on a full or part-time basis.
- Family members of those holding these visas are not entitled to derivative status (e.g., F-2 or M-2 visas).
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