From F-1 Student to US Citizen

Many foreign students want to continue their education in the U.S. and even have dreams of staying here. That’s a long process with many twists and turns. The U.S. government has some user-friendly and helpful sites to guide you through these procedures such as Study and Exchange Visas  and DHS Study in the States .

Here’s an overview of what’s involved.2014.09 Female graduate with dream career bubble

First you have to understand the difference between immigrant (IV) and nonimmigrant (NIV) visas. A nonimmigrant is an “alien” (sorry but that’s the legal term) temporarily admitted to the U.S. for a specific purpose other than permanent residence, such as tourists, students, temporary workers, and exchange visitors. Most U.S. visas by far are nonimmigrant. None of these visas gives you an immigrant visa or green card. The most common reason for nonimmigrant visas to be denied abroad is the belief by a consular official that you intend to remain in the U.S. permanently which you are not allowed to do as a nonimmigrant.

If you want to study as a full-time student in the United States, you will need a nonimmigrant student visa. There are two types – F (academic) and M (vocational). The vast majority – 98% in the most recent year – of visas issued are F-1 so we’ll discuss only F-1 here. These are students enrolled full-time in an academic program, such as a university as an undergraduate or graduate, elementary and high school, and language training programs.

To get an F-1 visa:

  • Your school must be certified by the Student and Exchange Visitors Program (SEVP), to accept international students.
  • You must be proficient in English or be enrolled in courses leading to English proficiency.
  • You must show sufficient funding to support yourself during your entire course of study.
  • You must maintain a residence abroad which you have no intention of giving up. This last requirement can be especially difficult since most students do not own their own home abroad. This goes to show you intend to return to your home abroad when you finish.

Your school will have a Designated School Official (DSO) who serves as the liaison between the school and the government throughout your life with that school. When you’re accepted the DSO will issue you a Form I-20 “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Status,” you’ll pay required fees, complete an online DS-160 visa application, and schedule an appointment at your embassy or consulate for your interview. There’s no guarantee the embassy will grant your visa; many applicants are denied.

It’s crucial to comply with the terms of your visa during your stay. If you don’t, the visa can be revoked or cancelled, you may be denied entry or a visa in the future, or you may even be deported. Don’t work if you’re not allowed, don’t overstay your visa, etc. You may think a violation is just a little thing, but it could ruin your future plans. If in doubt about the terms of your visa, consult your DSO and/or an immigration attorney.

F-1 students may work on campus during their first year subject to restrictions . Again, always consult your DSO about authorization and whether you need a new I-20 form. Since F-1 students need to show they can support themselves during their studies, you will only be allowed to work for economic need in limited circumstances, such as if your home currency suffers a fall in value, there are unexpected medical bills or changes in circumstances.

After the first academic year, F-1 students may engage in “practical training” related to their studies:

  • Curricular Practical Training (CPT) – is integral to your major and must be part of your program of study, i.e. CPT takes place before you graduate;
  • Optional Practical Training (OPT) can take place pre- or post-completion and must relate to your major or course of study. You have to apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) known as a work permit, and you can apply for 12 months of OPT at each educational level, e.g. 12 months at bachelors and another 12 months at masters.
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension (OPT) . If you have a STEM degree – there is a lengthy list and some surprises on it so be sure to check – you can apply for a 24-month OPT extension after the regular 12 month OPT period. So if you have a STEM degree and meet the requirements you can work for 3 years after graduation.

Remember you’re still here on a nonimmigrant visa at this stage and are expected to return to your country unless you’re authorized to remain. Sometimes students fall in love with a U.S. citizen and become a permanent resident through marriage. But If not you need to stay focused on employment-based options. If your employer wants to keep you here longer, the H-1B visa is the most common option.

The H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant, temporary visa for a worker with a bachelors degree or equivalent in a specialty occupation and who is paid the prevailing wage for a worker in that occupation. Your employer must petition for you. It is a dual intent visa which is very important; this means you can have immigrant intent so you do not have to prove you plan to return abroad to live when the visa expires. And this means an employer can petition you for a permanent, green card visa while you are in this status.

There’s a strict numerical limit or cap (quota) for H-1Bs unless the employer is exempt. Exempt employers are educational institutions and nonprofits affiliated with an educational institution, and nonprofit and governmental research organizations. If your employer is subject to the cap, it’s going to be much harder. The annual limit is 65,000 employees with bachelors degrees, and an additional 20,000 for those with masters. The employer can apply starting April 1 of each year for an October 1 employment start date. For the past several years, the government received many more than the allowed number in the first week of the filing period. USCIS held a “lottery” to determine which petitions would go forward and be considered on their merits. the rest were returned.

Your employer can petition you for an employment-based immigrant visa if you meet the qualifications. Some exceptionally qualified applicants can file a petition themselves. See USCIS Permanent Workers for specifics. If you become a lawful permanent resident through employment, you will qualify to apply for citizenship after five years.

That’s it! It’s a long, expensive, complicated path to go from student to citizen. It’s very important to follow all the rules at every stage, as violations of status or criminal convictions can end your eligibility. Always be sure to wait for authorization from the government for your next step, and consult an immigration attorney to discuss the best options in your case.

Click here to schedule a consultation on your case by Skype, phone or email (or in person in Oregon, US).