Current Students FAQs

Revised on April 1, 2021

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

We are hopeful that we will be able to return to normal university life in Fall 2021. Read more in President Bollinger’s message.

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Student FAQs

Coming to Campus

Columbia has set requirements for individuals arriving to campus, described on their COVID-19 Public Health Protocols page, with extensive information about quarantining

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.

Stay up to date by regularly checking University Communications in the University's COVID-19 Hub.

Immigration status

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


Fall 2020 guidance is still currently in place for 2021. Continuing students who were in active F or J status on March 9, 2020 when modifications for COVID-19 became effective are able to maintain their immigration status while studying entirely online in the U.S. or abroad, provided they continue to be enrolled full-time and are 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 this guidance. Therefore, ISSO recommends that you continue to enroll in at least one hybrid course to maintain your visa status in the U.S. in 2021. 

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 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.). 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, that issued your DS-2019 should check with their sponsor for guidance.

Please refer to our Travel Resources section.

The Department of State updated national interest exemptions for certain travelers from the Schengen Area, the U.K. and Ireland on July 16, 2020. The Department of State confirmed the continuation of this policy on February 10, 2021.

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. 

CPT (Curricular Practical Training)

If you are in "active" status in SEVIS and meet eligibility requirements, the answer is yes. The terms “active” and “initial” refer to your status in the SEVIS database, not to your enrollment in an academic program. Your SEVIS record is in “initial” status until you enter the U.S. and report your arrival to the ISSO, after which your SEVIS record is updated to "active". 

You need to have been in active F-1 status for one academic year in the U.S. (two consecutive full-time terms) to be eligible for elective CPT. Students in programs with required internships may have different criteria for how long they need to be in active status. 

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."

See the ISSO CPT webpage for further 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

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 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. 

OPT/STEM OPT Application Delays (Updated March 11, 2021)

Once your application is delivered to USCIS, unless you hear otherwise, you can assume it will be processed accordingly, although delayed. Your original 60-day Grace Period is no longer relevant after you apply for post-completion OPT within the time limit and your application is pending.

Unfortunately, USCIS has been significantly delayed in issuing receipt notices since October 2020. This has been a nationwide issue, especially at the Texas Lockbox. ISSO is aware of the delays and is a part of a national effort to bring attention to the delays. Please see the February 18th update from USCIS regarding OPT processing delays for the steps you can take while waiting.

No. All application submissions are date stamped upon arrival at the Lockbox, so regardless of when the Lockbox processes your application, your received date will reflect the date it actually arrived at the Lockbox.

No, ISSO does not recommend that you refile since OPT applications are processed in the order they are received. Do NOT send another application to USCIS. Your best option is to wait. If there are any issues with your application, USCIS will contact you. If you receive a Notice of Rejection or Denial, please reach out to the ISSO immediately so we can assist you with the next steps moving forward.

USCIS has stated that they do not anticipate any receipting delays that would result in a payment that is past its validity date. 

USCIS suddenly changed the lockbox mailing address to the Chicago lockbox on January 8, 2021 without warning. As a result, they will not reject applications solely because they were filed at the lockbox address in use prior to the change to the filing address instructions.  

USCIS clarified the following in an OPT update on February 18th:

If you have timely filed Form I-765 based on STEM OPT, and your post-completion OPT period expires while the application is pending, we will automatically extend the employment  authorization for 180 days.

The Form I-20 endorsed by the designated school official recommending a STEM extension together with the expired Form I-766 employment authorization document (EAD) issued for post-completion OPT establishes identity and work authorization for purposes of documenting employment authorization.

You should ultimately confirm work eligibility with your employer. They should refer to the USCIS Handbook for Employers Form M-276, section 6.4.2 F-1 and M-1 Nonimmigrant Students, under the heading "F-1 STEM OPT Extension.

Yes! USCIS modified some of their practices. Refer to our news item posted on February 26th and NAFSA's summary page on OPT delays. These flexibilities apply only to applications received on or after October 1, 2020, through May 1, 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 you lost some allowable OPT time because of a long USCIS 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.

Unfortunately, current USCIS guidance does not address this. Refer to Question 1 above, listed under OPT Employment (General).

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