Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility

Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility

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What is Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility?

The Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, is a document issued by U.S. schools and universities to eligible international students. 

It is a crucial part of the process for obtaining an F or M student visa, which allows individuals to study in the U.S.

The Form I-20 serves as evidence that a student has been accepted to a Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)-approved school and has paid the necessary fees. 

SEVIS is a web-based system that the U.S. government uses to track and monitor F and M visa holders throughout their stay in the U.S.

Key information on the Form I-20 includes:

  • Student’s personal details
  • Program of study
  • Program start and end dates
  • Financial information.

Once the student receives the Form I-20, they can use it to apply for a student visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country. 

Additionally, the Form I-20 is required for entry into the United States and must be presented at the port of entry.

What is the purpose of Form I-20?

The Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, serves several important purposes:

  • Proof of Acceptance: The Form I-20 is issued by U.S. schools and universities to officially accept an international student into a program of study. 
  • SEVIS Record: The information on the Form I-20 is entered into the SEVIS database, a web-based system used by the U.S. government to track and monitor F and M visa holders. 
  • Visa Application: The Form I-20 is a required document for international students applying for an F or M visa to enter the U.S. The student must present the Form I-20 when applying for the visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
  • Entry into the United States: The Form I-20 is presented to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the port of entry when the student arrives in the U.S. It is a key document for establishing the student’s eligibility to enter the country.
  • Maintaining Status: The Form I-20 contains important details, including program start and end dates, required academic level, and any conditions or restrictions associated with the student’s stay. Students must adhere to the information on the Form I-20 to maintain their legal status in the U.S.
  • Employment Authorization: In some cases, the Form I-20 is used to request authorization for certain types of employment in the U.S., such as Optional Practical Training (OPT) for F-1 students.

How is Form I-20 issued?

The issuance of Form I-20 involves several steps:

Step 1. Admission to a SEVIS-Approved School: The first step is for an international student to apply and be admitted to a U.S. school or university that is authorized by the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to enroll nonimmigrant students.

Step 2. Creation of SEVIS Record: Once the student is admitted, the school’s designated official (DSO) will create a SEVIS record for the student. This involves entering information about the student, the program of study, and financial details into the SEVIS database.

Step 3. Payment of SEVIS Fee: Before the Form I-20 can be issued, the student is required to pay the SEVIS I-901 fee ($350). This fee helps support the operation of the SEVIS system.

Step 4. Generation of Form I-20: The school’s designated official will use the information in the SEVIS system to generate the Form I-20 electronically. The form includes details required for the student visa application.

Step 5. Distribution to the Student: Once the Form I-20 is generated, the school will provide the student with the printed, signed copy. It’s important for the student to carefully review the information on the form for accuracy and to sign the form before submitting it with their visa application.

Step 6. Visa Application: The student uses the Form I-20 to apply for an F or M visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country. The Form I-20 must be presented to the consular officer during the visa interview.

Step 7. Entry into the U.S.: Upon approval of the visa, the student uses the Form I-20 to enter the U.S. The form is presented to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the port of entry.

Can Form I-20 be issued electronically?

Yes, the Form I-20 can be issued electronically through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). 

When a student is accepted by a U.S. school and the school creates the student’s SEVIS record, the Form I-20 information is typically generated electronically in the SEVIS system.

After the school generates the Form I-20 electronically in SEVIS, they will provide the student with a printed copy for their records. The student must sign the printed Form I-20 before submitting it with their visa application.

In certain cases, the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) may also accept electronic versions of the Form I-20. 

Do all students need Form I-20s?

No, not all students need Form I-20s. 

The Form I-20 is specifically associated with nonimmigrant students in the U.S. who are applying for an F (academic or language training program) or M (vocational or nonacademic program) visa. 

For example, individuals coming to the U.S. for participating in exchange visitor programs may require a Form DS-2019 instead of an I-20.

Do I need Form I-20 to travel outside the U.S.?

Yes, if you are an international student on an F or M visa and you plan to travel outside the U.S. temporarily, you will generally need a valid Form I-20 with a travel signature from your designated school official (DSO). 

Here are the key points to consider:

  • Travel Signature: Before you travel, you must have a valid travel signature on your Form I-20. The travel signature is typically located on page 2 of the form and is provided by your DSO. The signature confirms that you are eligible to re-enter the U.S.
  • Signature Validity: The travel signature is valid for a specific period. For F-1 students, the signature is usually valid for 1 year. For M-1 students, the signature is valid for 6 months. It’s important to check the expiration date of the travel signature before traveling.
  • Visa Validity: Ensure that your F or M visa is still valid for re-entry. If your visa has expired, you will need to apply for a new one at a U.S. embassy or consulate before returning to the U.S.
  • Passport Validity: Check the expiration date of your passport. Your passport should be valid for at least 6 months beyond your intended date of re-entry into the U.S.
  • Maintaining Status: Ensure that you are in compliance with the requirements of your visa category and that you will not exceed the authorized period of stay in the U.S.

Why do I have multiple Form I-20s?

There are several reasons why an international student may have multiple Form I-20s:

  • Program Changes: If you change your major, degree level, or program of study, your school may issue a new Form I-20 to reflect the updated information. Each Form I-20 corresponds to a specific program, and if there are changes to your academic plans, a new I-20 may be necessary.
  • Extension of Stay: If you need more time to complete your program, your designated school official (DSO) may issue a new Form I-20 to extend your program end date. It’s crucial to apply for an extension before your current I-20 expires to maintain your legal status in the U.S.
  • Transfer to Another School: If you decide to transfer to a different SEVIS-approved school, your current school will issue a new Form I-20 to facilitate the transfer process. The new I-20 will reflect the details of your transfer and your new school’s information.
  • Change of Funding or Financial Information: If there are changes to your financial situation, such as a change in funding sources or amounts, your school may issue a new Form I-20 to reflect these changes.
  • Travel Signatures: Before international travel, you may need a valid travel signature on your Form I-20. If your previous travel signature has expired, your DSO may issue a new I-20 with a current travel signature.
  • Lost or Damaged I-20: If you lose your Form I-20 or if it becomes damaged, your school may issue a duplicate I-20 to replace the lost or damaged document.

What is the Form I-20 completion date?

The I-20 completion date, also known as the program end date, is a critical piece of information on the Form I-20 for F and M visa holders in the U.S. 

This date signifies the anticipated completion or end of the student’s program of study.

Here are some key points related to the I-20 completion date:

  • Anticipated Program End Date: The completion date is an estimate of the time it should take for a student to finish their academic or vocational program. It is based on the expected length of the program as indicated by the school.
  • Authorization Period: The completion date on the Form I-20 authorizes the student to stay in the U.S. until that date, provided they are maintaining their status and meeting the program requirements.
  • Extensions: If a student needs additional time to complete their program, they must apply for an extension before the current completion date expires. The school’s designated official (DSO) will issue a new I-20 with an updated completion date if the extension is approved.
  • Grace Period: There is a 60-day grace period after the completion date during which the student is allowed to stay in the U.S. This grace period is intended to provide time for practical matters such as preparing to depart the country, transferring to another school, or applying for Optional Practical Training (OPT).
  • Maintenance of Status: It is crucial for students to complete their program by the indicated date and to comply with all visa regulations to maintain legal status in the U.S.
  • Early Completion: If a student completes their program earlier than the anticipated completion date, the DSO can shorten the program end date on the I-20 accordingly.

The 60-day Grace Period

The 60-day grace period is a provision that allows F and M visa holders in the U.S. to remain in the country for up to 60 days following the completion of their program of study or any authorized practical training (such as Optional Practical Training or OPT). 

This period is designed to provide students with time to prepare to depart the U.S., transfer to another institution, or take other actions to maintain legal status.

Here are some key points about the 60-day grace period:

  • Start Date: The 60-day grace period begins on the day the student completes their program or authorized practical training. The completion date is indicated on the Form I-20.
  • Maintaining Status: During the grace period, the student is still considered to be in legal status. This means they can remain in the U.S., but they are not allowed to work or study during this time.
  • Transfer: Students who plan to continue their studies at another SEVIS-approved institution or begin a new program at the same institution may use the grace period to transfer their SEVIS record. The transfer process must be initiated before the end of the grace period.
  • Departure: If the student does not transfer to another school or begin a new program, they are expected to depart the U.S. within the 60-day grace period.
  • No Re-entry: Once the grace period expires, the student is not allowed to re-enter the United States using the expired Form I-20. If they depart during the grace period, they would need a new visa and Form I-20 to return for further studies.

What happens if I lose my Form I-20?

If you lose your Form I-20, it’s important to take appropriate steps to address the situation. 

Here’s what you should do if you lose your I-20:

  • Report the Loss to Your Designated School Official (DSO): Contact your school’s designated school official (DSO) as soon as possible to report the loss. They can provide guidance on the next steps and assist in issuing a replacement I-20.
  • Request a Duplicate I-20: Your DSO can help you request a duplicate or replacement Form I-20. You may need to provide certain information, such as your SEVIS ID and other identifying details, to facilitate the issuance of a new I-20.
  • Obtain a New Travel Signature (if needed): If you had a valid travel signature on the lost I-20 and you plan to travel outside the U.S., you should request a new travel signature on the replacement I-20 before your departure.
  • Verify Information on the New I-20: Once you receive the new I-20, carefully review the information to ensure accuracy. Check that your personal details, program information, and any other relevant information are correct.
  • Keep Records: Keep a copy of the replacement I-20 in a safe place, and consider making additional copies for your records. You may need the I-20 for various purposes, including travel, employment authorization, and future immigration processes.

Should I keep all copies of my Form I-20s?

Yes, it is advisable to keep copies of all your Form I-20s throughout your time as an international student in the U.S. 

Keeping copies serves several important purposes:

  • Record of Changes: If there are any changes to your program, such as a change of major, degree level, or program of study, a new I-20 will be issued. Keeping copies of each version of your I-20 helps you track these changes over time.
  • Program Completion and Extensions: The Form I-20 includes your program completion date. If you extend your program or apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT), a new I-20 with an updated completion date may be issued. Keeping copies helps you document these changes.
  • Travel Signatures: The I-20 includes a travel signature, which is required for international travel and re-entry to the U.S. Keeping copies of I-20s with valid travel signatures ensures that you have the necessary documentation for travel.
  • Employment Authorization: If you apply for work authorization, such as Optional Practical Training (OPT), the corresponding I-20 will document your eligibility for employment. Keep copies for your records and for potential future employment verification.
  • Visa Renewal or Change of Status: If you apply for a new visa or change your immigration status, previous I-20s may be required as part of the application process. Having copies readily available can simplify these processes.
  • Reference for Future Immigration Processes: If you pursue additional education or apply for other immigration benefits in the future, having a record of your I-20s can be helpful for providing a complete immigration history.

Do student’s family members need Form I-20s?

The Form I-20 is specific to the F and M visa holders (students) themselves and is not issued for their family members. 

However, family members of international students who wish to accompany or join the student in the U.S. may be eligible for dependent visas.

For F-1 students (academic programs), eligible dependents typically include:

  • F-2 Spouse: The legal spouse of the F-1 student.
  • F-2 Children: Unmarried children under the age of 21 of the F-1 student.

For M-1 students (vocational programs), the eligibility criteria for dependents are generally similar to those for F-1 students.

To bring eligible dependents to the U.S., the student must request an I-20 for each dependent. The process usually involves the following steps:

  • Requesting Dependent I-20s: The F or M student must contact their designated school official (DSO) to request dependent I-20s. 
  • Proof of Relationship: The student may need to provide proof of the family relationship, such as a marriage certificate for a spouse or a birth certificate for a child.
  • Financial Documentation: The student may need to demonstrate that they have sufficient funds to support their dependents in the U.S.
  • Dependent Visa Application: Once the dependent I-20s are issued, the family members can use them to apply for the corresponding dependent visas at a U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country.

Common dependent visa categories include:

  • F-2 Visa: For dependents of F-1 students.
  • M-2 Visa: For dependents of M-1 students.

It’s important to note that while F-2 and M-2 dependents can accompany the student to the U.S., they are generally not permitted to work. Additionally, they are not eligible for the same benefits, such as attending school, as the primary F-1 or M-1 visa holder.

Related Links:

F-1 Student Visa