2020 - 2021 Current Student FAQs

Reviewed on January 7, 2021

Please find below answers to immigration-related questions. Be aware that this situation is fluid and federal guidance may change. We review this information weekly and update as needed. 

In the absence of new guidance from SEVP for Spring 2021, fall guidance remains in effect.

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Student FAQs

Return to Campus

Columbia University has set requirements for individuals arriving to campus. A great resource is a video of the University Life Forum for Students on Returning to Campus, recorded on July 22, 2020.

Campus requirements are on the university's COVID-19 page for students. Additionally, the State of New York Travel Advisory specifies quarantine requirements for international arrivals as well as domestic arrivals from other US states.

Immigration status

SEVP has not updated their guidance for spring 2021 and indicated in December 2020 that COVID-19 guidance from March 2020 is still currently in place until further notice.


SEVP has not updated their guidance for spring 2021 and indicated in December 2020 that COVID-19 guidance from March 2020 is still currently in place until further notice.

Fall 2020 guidance, a continuation of March 2020 COVID-19 guidance, confirmed that continuing students who were in active F or J status on March 9, 2020 when COVID-19 changes became effective were able to maintain their immigration status while studying entirely online in the U.S. or abroad, provided they continued to be enrolled full-time and making normal progress toward their degree. See explanation of full-time enrollment here. *Note that if you are in your final semester you are permitted to be less than full-time and maintain status if you do not require a full-time course load to complete degree requirements.

New students who arrived in the US after March 9, 2020 with an initial I-20/DS-2019 do not appear to be covered by the guidance above for continuing students. Therefore, ISSO recommends that you continue to enroll in at least one hybrid course to maintain your visa status in the U.S. in Spring 2021. We will update this information if and when SEVP provides further guidance.

Students should prioritize personal well-being and health when making academic plans.

Refer to Columbia's Methods of Instruction offered during the 2020-2021 academic year for definitions of Online, In-person, Hybrid, and HyFlex courses.

Yes. Continuing/active students continue to maintain status while abroad, as long as they continue to be enrolled full-time and make normal progress toward their degree.

F-1 regulations refer to a gap semester or year as a Leave of Absence (LOA). If you are considering an LOA, contact the ISSO for case-specific advice, as this decision can have a significant impact on your F-1 student status. There are no special instructions or accommodations for those considering a LOA. 

To initiate a leave of absence, you must begin with your school/department. Please review our website for information on Leaves of Absence and returning from a leave

Travel and Visas

You may need a new I-20 with an updated travel signature if your current signature has expired or will be expired on the date you plan to travel back to the U.S. Check to see if you require a new signature and how to request a new I-20/DS-2019 with updated signature here.

Travel documents: To return to the U.S., you will need valid travel documents, including an I-20 or DS-2019** with a program end date that is after the date you return to the U.S. and a travel signature that has not expired on the date you plan to return. 

Travel and visa restrictions: In addition you will need to check the travel and visa restrictions that may be in place at the time you are planning to travel. Check these travel resources for current information. It is impossible to predict if and when other restrictions will be put in place or lifted by the U.S. Department of State.

Visa: You don't need a new visa if your current visa will be unexpired on the date you plan to return to the U.S.  If the visa in your passport has expired* or will be expired when you plan to return to the U.S., you will need to obtain a new visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate before you can re-enter the U.S. (Canadian citizens do not need a visa to enter the U.S.). on July 14th, the Department of State (DOS) announced the phased resumption of routine visa services on a post by post basis. We recommend you continue to review the website of the consulate or embassy at which you intend to apply for your US visa to stay informed of any further updates in their services.

  * If you will be traveling to Canada, Mexico, or adjacent islands, please read here to see if you can benefit from automatic revalidation.

  **Students who have a J-1 Exchange Visitor program sponsor other than Columbia University should check with their sponsor for guidance.

Please refer to our Travel Resources.

The Department of State updated national interest exemptions for certain travelers from the Schengen Area, the U.K. and Ireland on July 16, 2020.

Students traveling from the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, and Ireland with valid F-1 visas have been granted an exemption from the Presidential Proclamations that suspended entry from these areas, and do not need to seek an individual national interest exception.

J-1 students should contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to obtain a national interest waiver. 


Unfortunately, F-1 regulations require you to be physically in the U.S. at the time you submit your OPT application. If you are abroad make sure you return to the U.S in F-1 status before the end of your final semester. Refer to the OPT Application process on our website.

You are allowed to leave the U.S. when an OPT application is pending at USCIS, but there has always been an element of uncertainty. The basic risk factor is that if you receive correspondence from USCIS in the mail to your U.S. address, you would not be there to respond. That has always been true and in these extraordinary times it remains to be true.

In the best case scenario, if your application goes through smoothly, your EAD is delivered to a valid U.S. address, and someone checking your mail takes an image of your EAD and emails it to you for you to print, you may be able to enter the U.S. with your travel documents (I-20, EAD print out and valid visa).

If you are outside of the U.S. with an approved OPT application but without the EAD in hand, it may be a problem reentering the U.S.

An additional risk factor in the time of COVID-19 is that international travel and visa restrictions are unpredictable.

US government guidance indicates that for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency, students who are working on OPT fewer than 20 hours per week are still engaging in OPT and are NOT accumulating any days of unemployment. They have not specified a minimum number of hours that must be worked.

Yes, you can work remotely temporarily for a U.S. employer while on OPT and you do not need to do a second report that the job is remote. If you are currently engaged in the STEM OPT Extension, you don’t have to submit a new I-983 if working remotely. 


Yes, the ISSO will continue to process CPT applications as normal. SEVP guidance confirms that students may engage in CPT abroad, “...provided they are enrolled in a program of study of which the CPT is an integral component, the [ISSO adviser] has authorized the CPT in advance, and either the employer has an office outside the United States or the employer has a means to assess student engagement and attainment of learning objectives."

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