Current Students FAQs

Updated August 25, 2021

We review this information regularly and update as needed. 

Columbia is returning to in-person instruction in fall 2021. Review registration requirements for maintaining F/J status.

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Student FAQs

Coming to Campus

Since January 26, 2021, CDC requires all air travelers arriving in the U.S. to have a negative COVID-19 viral test with 3 days of departure. Also refer to ISSO's Travel Resources during the pandemic.

Refer to Columbia University's COVID-19 Resource Guide, information on its Vaccine Page and the Vaccine FAQs that are updated frequently as new information becomes available.  

Stay up to date by regularly checking

Immigration status (Updated July 16, 2021)

Columbia University is resuming in-person instruction and activities. The University expects all students to take in-person courses in Fall 2021.

Refer to the University’s Fall 2021 Instruction Guidelines for additional information, and review registration requirements for maintaining F/J status.

F-1 I-20: Current SEVP guidance permits the ISSO to email a digital I-20 in PDF Format to F-1 students and their F-2 dependents. This I-20 is valid and acceptable for travel and visa appointments, SSN applications, CPT authorizations, OPT applications, program extensions and F-2 dependent requests. If you receive a digital I-20, be sure to print and sign it. 

J-1 DS-2019: The Department of State administers J-1 regulations, and has not provided guidance that permits digital DS-2019 forms. ISSO will continue to ship original DS-2019 forms, signed in ink, to J-1 students and their dependents. 

It depends. Continuing students outside the US with an active SEVIS status may continue to maintain status with full-time registration (or approved post-completion OPT). Doctoral students who have finished coursework may be registered with a full-time residence unit while conducting research or working on their dissertation. For other students, the options for a fulltime courseload while studying remotely may be limited. You will need to contact your academic department to see what your options are if you cannot arrive on campus.

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 and your eligibility for OPT when you return, if that was something you wished to pursue. SEVP has not provided special instructions or accommodations for an LOA taken during this COVID emergency period. 

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 reprint 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.). 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 which issued your DS-2019 should check with their sponsor for guidance.

Please refer to our Travel Resources section, which includes COVID-19 Restrictions on U.S. Visas and Entry.

Presidential Proclamations have suspended entry to the U.S. to individuals who were physically present in the 14-day period before entry to the United States from the following countries, with some exceptions.

  • China (January 31, 2020 )
  • Iran (February 29, 2020)
  • Ireland (March 12, 2020)
  • Schengen Area (March 12, 2020)
  • United Kingdom (March 12, 2020)
  • Brazil (May 26, 2020)
  • South Africa (January 30, 2021)
  • India (effective May 4, 2021)

Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland

Students traveling or transiting from the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, and Ireland have had an National Interest Exception (NIE) since the proclamations were first issued. Students and their dependents with valid F visas can travel to the U.S. without seeking an individual NIE from a consulate. Applicants for new F visas will automatically be considered an NIE to travel

Students and their dependents from these areas who are traveling on J visas need to contact the nearest embassy or consulate to initiate a National Interest Exception request. Individual NIEs are valid for 30 days.

China, Brazil, Iran, South Africa, and India

According to the US State Department, students from China, Brazil, Iran, South Africa and India Iran may qualify for the National Interest Exception
“...only if their academic program, including optional practical training (OPT), begins August 1, 2021 or later [emphasis added]. Students with valid F-1...visas intending to begin or continue an academic program, including OPT, beginning August 1, 2021 or later do not need to contact an embassy or consulate to seek an individual National Interest Exception to travel. They may enter the United States no earlier than 30 days before the start of their academic studies.”

The language in the announcement is clear that new F-1 students who have an I-20 program start date on or after August 1, 2021 qualify for the NIE, and may not enter the U.S more than 30 days before the start date, but there is confusion about how the NIE applies to continuing students and those on OPT.  

Our current understanding, based on a Q & A session with a State Department official at a national professional conference on June 2, 2021, is that continuing and OPT students qualify for an NIE and may return to the US up to 30 days before August 1, 2021, i.e. July 2nd, with a valid visa. Applicants for new F visas will automatically be considered an NIE to travel. However, there are reports that some consulates are asking to see an I-20 start date or OPT start date on or after August 1, which is not possible for students who started their programs or OPT in the past. Hopefully this will be sorted out soon.

Students and their dependents from these countries who are traveling on J visas need to  contact the nearest embassy or consulate to initiate a National Interest Exception request. Individual NIEs are valid for 30 days.

Note that the August 1 date refers to the "blanket NIE" for students, but the Department of State also continues to grant National Interest Exceptions for qualified travelers seeking to enter the United States for purposes related to humanitarian travel, public health response, and national security, and students who believe they qualify for this should contact the closest consulate.

Consult with your local Embassy/consulate and airline carrier prior to travel, and keep in mind that Custom and Border Protection (CBP) officers at ports of entry make the final determination regarding admissibility to the U.S.

For updated information, refer to COVID-19 Restrictions on U.S. Visas and Entry, maintained by the premier professional international education association NAFSA.

CPT (Curricular Practical Training)

Beginning Fall 2021 and onward, students are expected to be on-campus to resume their studies in-person. Students may engage in remote CPT as long as they are physically residing in the NYC tri-state area in order to attend their classes. The U.S.- based employer will need to have means to assess student engagement and attainment of learning objectives via a remote/online option.

See the ISSO CPT webpage for additional information.

OPT Employment (General)

Unfortunately, F-1 regulations still require you to be physically in the U.S. at the time you submit your OPT or STEM OPT Extension application to USCIS.

Post-completion OPT - 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

STEM OPT Extension - You must return and apply before the expiration of your current OPT. Refer to the STEM OPT Extension application information here

Yes, it is possible to apply online by creating a USCIS Online Account. USCIS maintains the requirement that you are in the U.S. when you  submit the application. 

Full application instructions are on our OPT webpages.

Pre-Completion OPT

Post-Completion OPT

STEM OPT Extension

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 USCIS may contact you requesting additional information. You will need to be able to respond in a timely manner. That has always been true and in these extraordinary times it remains to be true.

In the best case scenario, if your application is processed smoothly, your EAD is delivered to a valid U.S. address, where someone is checking your mail. If they take an image of your EAD and email 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.

If your application is denied while you are abroad, please contact the ISSO for guidance.

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 may work remotely for a U.S. employer while on OPT and you do not need to do a second report that the employment has become 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! Refer to our news item for further information and instructions. These flexibilities apply only to applications received on or after October 1, 2020, through October 31, 2021, inclusive.

You do not need to contact the ISSO if you filed within the approved dates and your application was rejected (returned back to you). You can follow the USCIS instructions to refile and do not need an updated I-20.

If your application was received on or after October 1, 2020 through October 31, 2021, inclusive, and you lost some allowable OPT time on your EAD because of a long USCIS processing delay, you may request a correction due to USCIS error. USCIS will issue a corrected EAD with a new end date, as requested, to cover the full amount of OPT time recommended in the original application. Go to this USCIS page on EADs and refer to the information in the tab "Replace an EAD" and follow the instructions for "If your EAD contains incorrect information because of a USCIS error..."

Before you return your incorrectly shortened EAD to USCIS, be sure you have met your employer’s requirements for the onboarding/hiring process which may require viewing your actual card, not a copy.  Make a copy of all documents submitted to USCIS for your own records.

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