Understanding Your I-20 and Visa

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Carla Tyree
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What is an I-20?

The I-20 is a multi-purpose document issued by a government-approved, U.S. educational institution certifying that you have been admitted to a full-time program of study, and have also demonstrated sufficient financial resources to stay in the U.S. The I-20 is officially titled the "Certificate of Eligibility" because with it, you are "eligible" to apply for an F-1 student visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Your spouse or children will also each need their own I-20 to obtain F-2 dependent status, if desired.

Getting the I-20 from a U.S. school is not enough to become a legal F-1 student; you must also be allowed entry to the U.S. as an F-1, or be approved for a change of status from another type of nonimmigrant visa.

How the I-20 is created

After a school completes their admissions process, the admitted students' names and other biographic information are entered into a U.S. government database called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System). The SEVIS database processes the information and produces a "PDF" file of the I-20 that is sent back to the school via the internet. The school official (called the Designated School Official or DSO) prints and signs the I-20 and then delivers it to the student. If a student needs to update or change information on the I-20, the DSO makes these requests through SEVIS and the document can be easily reproduced.

How the I-20 is used by the student outside the U.S.

After receiving an I-20 from their school, an international student must make an appointment to apply for the F-1 visa at the local U.S. embassy or consulate in their country. The visa is the document needed to be allowed entry into the U.S. The student must present both the F-1 visa and the I-20 to a U.S. Immigration inspector upon arrival at the port-of-entry.

How the I-20 is used by a student inside the U.S.

Once you have arrived in the U.S. and passed through the border inspections process, it is used for identification purposes and proof of your legal status. If you get a job on or off-campus, you will be required to show the I-20 to your employer during the hiring process. Off-campus employment information will be printed on page 2 of your I-20.

Traveling with the I-20

If you will be traveling abroad and then returning to the U.S. to resume your studies, you must take your I-20 with you. The I-20 is required to reapply for a visa if you need one and for re-entering the U.S. Before your departure from the U.S., make sure that you have an unexpired travel endorsement from an Advisor at Coppin State University on page 2 of your I-20. This signature is valid for one year for multiple visits outside the U.S. In most cases, a travel endorsement can be done easily; however, be sure to plan ahead and get your travel endorsement several weeks before you depart the U.S. to avoid the holiday rush.

Page 2 of the I-20 = F-1 Regulations

Immigration regulations governing the F-1 status are listed on page 2 of the I-20. It is important that F-1 students read this page to understand the rules that apply to their stay in the U.S.

Your I-20 Completion Date

A "completion date" was entered onto your I-20 based on your particular major and degree level. This is an estimate of time the University feels it may take you to fulfill all degree requirements. However, if you are not able to finish your program on that date, you must request an extension from the International Student Services Advisor office at least one month before the completion date expires.

According to U.S. immigration regulations, the "completion date" is defined as the day you complete your final degree requirements. Your actual completion date may not necessarily be the day of your graduation ceremony or the date on your I-20 (In fact, many students actually finish their degree requirements before the completion date on their I-20).

Undergraduate Students:

Your completion date is considered to be the last day of final exams of the semester your degree requirements are fulfilled.

Graduate Students:

Your completion date is the day on which all degree requirements are fulfilled, such as filing the thesis or dissertation in the Graduate Division. If you do not have a research component to your degree program (such as in the MBA program or other professional schools), your completion date would be the last day of final exams of the semester your degree requirements are fulfilled.

The 60-day Grace Period

When you complete your study program, you are allowed a 60-day grace period to depart the U.S., request a school transfer, or change your status. Note: Students who are interested in working in the U.S. following their program completion must apply for Optional Practical Training work authorization at least 90 days before the actual program completion date.

Does Everyone Need an I-20?

Some international students do not need I-20s. If you are maintaining another nonimmigrant status in the U.S., you do not need an 1-20 and may be able to attend school full- or part-time. Dependent children in E, H, I, J, L, M, N, 0, P, R, or S status need to change status after their 21st birthday. 

Understanding Your US Entry Visa

To enter the U.S., all nonimmigrant international visitors (except Canadians) are required to have the proper visa stamp placed in their passports. “Nonimmigrant” means a person has no intention of staying in the U.S. permanently. Visas are obtained at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Visas cannot be obtained within the U.S., since it is an "entry" document only.

People come to the U.S. for many different reasons, and the type of visa you request should match the purpose for your visit. Visa types are classified using an alpha-numeric system. For example, a visitor coming to study in the U.S. may be given an “F-1” or “J-1” student visa classification. A person coming to the U.S. for travel may be given a “B-2” visa, otherwise known as a tourist visa. The sample here shows what a tourist visa looks like:

Sample United States visa document with explanatory captions for each section of the visa

Why do I need a visa?

Your visa allows you to travel to a U.S. port-of-entry (airport, for example) and present yourself to a U.S. Immigration Inspector. The Inspector will ask you some questions about your intentions for coming to the U.S. and check to make sure you have the appropriate visa. Once admitted, you will be given another document, called the I-94 Arrival/Departure Record, which indicates which nonimmigrant status you are allowed to use and the amount of time you are allowed to stay.

Visa expiration and Your Length of Stay in the U.S.

Although a visa has an expiration date, it does not determine how long you can remain in the U.S. (a visa is an ENTRY document only). Once you are in the U.S., there are other factors that determine your length of stay. International visitors coming to the U.S. as F-1 or J-1 students are generally allowed to remain for the length of their academic programs.