ISSO COVID-19 Student FAQs
Department of Homeland Security guidance confirms that students will maintain their immigration status while continuing their semester’s courses online in the U.S. or abroad. You must continue to be enrolled full-time and make normal progress toward your degree.
- If you are in your final semester and you do not require a full-time course load to complete degree requirements, you are allowed to be less than full-time and maintain status.
- SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Program) has confirmed that if not all your courses can be delivered online the full-time requirement can be waived as a direct result of the impact of the Covid-19 emergency situation.
Yes. You are considered to be maintaining status until the end of the Spring Semester, after which you are then entitled to your annual summer vacation. You are considered to be in status during the annual (or summer) vacation if you are eligible and intend to register for the next term. SEVP has confirmed that the five-month temporary absence provision will not apply during the COVID-19 crisis.
You don't need a travel signature to leave the U.S., but you will need to have one that is unexpired on the date you plan to return. If needed, you can request a new I-20/DS-2019 with an updated signature online and the ISSO will cover the cost of shipping it to you. Be sure to have up-to-date travel documents with you for your return. Be aware that there may be some risk involved in your return because of the uncertainty of international travel. If you need a new visa, it is difficult to predict when consulates will resume visa processing and how long it will take.
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.
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 the travel resources at our COVID-19 Hub for current information.
It is impossible to predict if and when other restrictions will be put in place by the U.S. Department of State for travelers returning from high-risk countries, or whether consulates will have resumed routine visa services and if so, what the processing time may be if you require a new visa.
*Students who have a J-1 Exchange Visitor program sponsor other than Columbia University should check with their sponsor for guidance.
If you are an international student studying abroad this spring semester and have questions and concerns, please contact the ISSO via email at email@example.com to discuss how a decision to remain or depart early may affect your U.S. immigration status. In addition, you should consult your academic department for advice.
Your visa is an entry document and does not determine how long you may stay in the U.S. It is not a problem if it expires while you are in the U.S. You may stay in the U.S. with an expired F-1 or J-1 visa as long as you maintain your immigration status by being in possession of a valid I-20 or DS-2019 and by meeting normal academic requirements. (Canadian citizens do not need a visa to enter the U.S.)
If you leave 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.) Keep in mind that international travel and visa restrictions are unpredictable, and when U.S. consulates resume visa processing there may be significant backlogs for appointments.
If you will be travelling to Canada, Mexico, or adjacent islands, please read here to see if you can benefit from automatic revalidation.
Currently, regulations require you to be physically in the U.S. at the time you submit your OPT application. The most recent guidance in SEVP FAQs: "DHS is evaluating these issues and may issue additional guidance. USCIS adjudicates OPT employment authorization and status requests for F and M students and has yet to issue official guidance on these issues. SEVP continuously shares these stakeholders’ concerns with our partners at USCIS to assist them in their deliberations." We are waiting for an update and will post it as soon as it is available.
ISSO continues to process OPT applications in the order they are received. If you have not applied for OPT, but plan to do so, we strongly encourage you to submit your application as soon as possible.
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 .after May with an approved OPT application but without the EAD in hand, you may have a problem reentering. However, we are seeking additional guidance as this is a new situation. We would hope the authorities would be more lenient under the extenuating circumstances but we can’t be sure.
An additional risk factor in the time of COVID-19 is that international travel and visa restrictions are unpredictable.
We will update this answer as more information becomes available.
Yes, the ISSO will continue to process CPT applications as normal. In recent SEVP guidance, they confirmed 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."
Options to remain in the U.S. after graduation
You have four options:
- Remain in the U.S. and apply for Post completion OPT (for F-1 students) or Academic Training (for J-1 students).
- Remain in the U.S. during the grace period after your program end date (on your I-20 or DS-2019). The grace period is 60 days for F-1 students and 30 days for J-1 students. Note that you are not allowed to work during your grace period.
- Pursue another degree in the United States and transfer (if eligible) your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record to another institution. See here for F-1 Transfer, and here for J-1 Transfer.
- Change to another non-immigrant visa classification (H-1B for example).
Text adapted by permission of Yale University.