Overview of F-1 and J-1 Student Regulations

It may be useful to be familiar with immigration-related requirements and concepts pertaining to F and J international students. Please refer to the brief summary below that covers the basics.



International students at Columbia are predominantly here in F-1 immigration status, but some study in J-1 student status as well. 

Whether F-1 or J-1, it’s important to keep in mind that they have two parallel statuses while enrolled at Columbia—an academic status and an immigration status.

Your students are subject to immigration laws and regulations that occasionally conflict with—and almost always take precedence over—university academic policies and procedures. They have unique records in SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor System), a federal database through which we process their immigration documents and update their records. 

See Guidelines for Maintaining Student Status.

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Full-Time Registration

Full-time registration is required every term—with limited exceptions. In addition to staying registered full-time, students also need to be making progress that is consistent with standard departmental expectations and academic requirements, i.e. taking classes that earn credit toward the degree.

Part-Time Enrollment

Part-time enrollment (referred to as an RCL—Reduced Course Load—in regulations) is permitted only under certain circumstances. Students who are eligible request permission for an RCL here.

1) Final term exception

Your students who don’t need a full-time course load to complete degree requirements may be less than full-time in their final term—unless this is in conflict with the policy of your school or department.  This is one instance where academic policy would prevail.

2) Academic difficulty exception

This may be used only once and only in the first year, except for the improper course placement*. This includes:

  • Initial difficulty with the English language in the first year
  • initial difficulty with reading requirements in the first year
  • unfamiliarity with US teaching methods in the first year
  • * improper course level placement (lack of prerequisite preparation for a course) * this may be used any time during the student’s program.

What is needed: An academic advisor will need to identify the primary reason for recommending an RCL. More details here.

3) Temporary medical condition

A student may be authorized a reduced course load for a reason of illness or medical condition on more than one occasion. However, the aggregate period cannot exceed 12 months. We can approve an RCL—or if necessary, no courses at all—on a semester basis to accommodate a student’s medical situation.

What is needed: Regulations require written certification from a licensed physician, doctor of osteopathy, or licensed clinical psychologist. More details here.

Leaves of Absence, Withdrawals, or Cancellations of Registration

If you have an international student who is granted a non-medical leave of absence he or she must leave the United States within 15 days of the effective date and remain outside the US for the duration of the approved leave. Permission to remain in the US while on a medical leave of absence is subject to strict regulatory guidelines. 

What is needed: Please consult with us before granting leaves, withdrawals, or canceling registration to ensure that compliance issues are appropriately addressed. More details here.

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Employment During Academic Program

F-1 Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

Eligibility for CPT permission to work is dictated by your school or department's academic requirements. It is an option only when a student’s program:

  • has an internship as a degree requirement or
  • offers an elective for an internship or practicum that earns credit-toward the degree as part of its  established curriculum

Learn more here.

F-1 Pre-Completion Optional Practical Training (OPT)

If your students are not eligible for CPT, but want to work in their field of study they may apply  for Optional Practical Training. Learn more here.

J-1 Academic Training (AT)

Can be used before and/or after a program of study to authorize employment in your student's field of study. Learn more here.

Employment After Completion of an Academic Program

F-1 Post-Completion Optional Practical Training (OPT)

F-1 students have a 5-month window in which to apply for post-completion OPT, starting with 90 days before the completion date of the program, through the end of the grace period. Learn more here.

J-1 Academic Training (AT)

J-1 students need to apply for Academic Training permission before the completion date of their program. Learn more here.

What is the completion date?

Except for the spring term when the commencement date is used, the completion date is not tied to the degree conferral date.  It is usually the last day of the student’s final semester. Students who miss the application deadline lose their eligibility.

Social Security Number Application

Print the F-1 On-campus Employer Letter on your department's letterhead. Original signature is required.

Timelines for Departing the US (Post-Completion Grace Periods)

Students in F-1 status have a 60-day “grace period” following the completion date of their programs to remain in the US in F-1 status to prepare for departure.  Students who do not depart—or take appropriate steps to remain in the US—before the expiration of their grace period—violate immigration regulations.

Students in J-1 status have a 30-day “grace period” following the completion date of their programs to prepare for departure.