Foreign Student Documents and Maintaining Legal Immigration Status-Office of International Education - Carnegie Mellon University

Foreign Student Documents and Maintaining Legal Immigration Status

International students are required to abide by United States immigration regulations throughout their stay in the US. International students are admitted to the US by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for the purpose of being full-time students. Participation by students in any other activity, from employment to vacation, is considered to be a privilege and is only allowable in accordance with strict DHS rules. Penalties for violations of immigration law can be severe and include deportation and 10-year bars from reentry to the US, so it is extremely important for students to understand their responsibilities.

International students are normally admitted to the US for "Duration of Status" (D/S). This means that they are allowed to remain in the US for as long as they "maintain legal student status," NOT for the length of time listed on their visa or Certificate of Eligibility (I-20 or DS-2019 form - see below). Listed below are the documents that F-1 or J-1 students need to keep current while they are residing in the US along with the basic rules that students must follow in order to maintain legal student status in the US.

Remember that it is the student's responsibility to be informed about immigration rules and any rule changes which occur during their stay in the US. The Office of International Education (OIE) provides Carnegie Mellon international students with the necessary information to do this, but it is the student and not the university who is ultimately responsible for abiding by the rules and maintaining legal student status.



The passport is the legal document issued by your country of citizenship. It must be kept valid at all times during your stay in the US and must be valid at least 6 months into the future to re-enter the US or apply for a visa. The passport can usually be renewed through your home country's Embassy or Consulate in the United States.

Certificate of Eligibility

I-20 or DS-2019

The I-20 (for F-1 status) or DS-2019 (for J-1 status) is the document issued by your school or a sponsoring agency. It is specific to the institution and program of study you will attend in the US. It must be presented to the US Embassy or Consulate abroad to obtain an entry visa and to immigration officials to enter the US in student status. Extensions or updates may be made by contacting OIE or your sponsoring agency. After your initial entry, a travel signature less than 12 months old is required in order to re-enter the US in student status. Signatures can be obtained at OIE.  The I-20 "instructions to students" can be referenced here.

I-94 Arrival/Departure Record

Upon entry to the US, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officer will stamp your passport with your arrival date, classification (F-1, J-1, etc.), and expiration date of your status. The expiration should be D/S (duration of status) and not an actual date. F-1/J-1 students are permitted to remain in the US as long as they have a valid I-20/DS-2019, are enrolled in the academic program listed on the I-20/DS-2019, and have otherwise maintained their immigration status. After entry to the US, go to to view your I-94 record. Check the website, verify the information, and print or save a copy for your records every time you re-enter the US. Contact CBP and/or your OIE advisor for assistance if the information is not correct. If you enter the US at a land crossing you will receive a paper I-94 (from Canada or Mexico) stamped with the date and port of your entry. Check this document for accuracy.

Entry Visa

The US entry visa is a sticker on a page of your passport which permits you to enter the US. Students will have either an F-1 or a J-1 entry visa. The visa may expire while you are in the US. You cannot and need not renew it while you are here. A new entry visa will be required if the original expires and you travel outside and then wish to re-enter the US in legal student status.

You Must Always:

1.      Maintain a valid passport throughout your stay in the US.

2.      Attend the school you are authorized to attend by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This is the school whose name appears on the I-20 or DS-2019.

3.      Be registered as a full-time student (36 units or ABD units for doctoral students) for 2 out of 3 consecutive semesters in the school year. You cannot drop below this except under specific circumstances which must be authorized in advance by an OIE advisor.

4.      Keep your Certificate of Eligibility (I-20 or DS-2019 form) valid at all times and apply for extensions of stay at least one month before the document expires.

5.      Keep local and permanent address information current while in the US. Enrolled students may do this through the HUB's Student Information On-Line web site. The "off campus residence" address must be completed with your current US residential address (except for undergraduate students living on campus). "Permanent address" must be an address in your home country. Students on post-completion work authorization should email address updates directly to Office of International Education.

6.      Complete necessary immigration transfer procedures when changing from one school to another in the US by consulting the international student advisor at the new school and informing the international student advisor at your current school of your intent to transfer.

7.      Maintain valid health insurance coverage. For students in F-1 status, this is a CMU requirement. For students in J-1 status, this is both a CMU requirement and a federal requirement.

8.      If you are in F-1 status and intend to engage in Optional Practical Training (OPT) after the completion of your program, apply for OPT 90 days prior to program completion or within the 60 day grace period following program completion. OIE strongly recommends applying before completing your program.

9.      If you are in J-1 status, you must apply for Academic Training before your DS-2019 expires.

10.    F-1 students have a 60 day grace period and J-1 students have a 30 day grace period in which to do one of the following:

  • Leave the U.S.
  • Change to another immigration status.
  • F-1 students may also use the 60 day grace period to obtain a new certificate of eligibility for a new school or program.
  • Program completion is also the end date for any on-campus work.  Students lose on-campus work permission upon program completion.
Note:  J-1 students cannot use the 30 day grace period for SEVIS transfer purposes or to change level but must obtain a new certificate of eligibility for a new program before the end date listed on the DS-2019.

You Must Never:

  1. WORK OFF CAMPUS unless you have the necessary authorization from an OIE student advisor (consult an OIE advisor for details).
  2. WORK ON CAMPUS more than 20 hours per week while school is in session.
  3. Take a leave of absence, withdraw from classes, or drop below 36 units without receiving advance permission from the Office of International Education.

Note that once you have completed or terminated your program, or have failed to maintain legal student status, you can no longer legally enter the US with your I-20 or DS-2019 form and the staff of OIE can no longer sign those forms.

Full Course of Study

Immigration regulations require F-1 and J-1 students to enroll for a full course of study for two out of three consecutive semesters. A full course of study at Carnegie Mellon is 36 units. Students must be enrolled full time for their first two semesters in order to take their annual vacation in the third semester. If the summer session is the first term of attendance, students must enroll full time then also. Students are not required to enroll for the summer provided they have enrolled for the preceding spring and intend to enroll for the following fall semester.

All reasons for reducing the required course load must be approved in advance by the OIE Advisor and the Academic Advisor. Students requesting approval for a reduced course load or part-time enrollment need to complete the Reduced Course Load form (.pdf) with their academic advisor and submit it to OIE. If the OIE advisor is able to approve the reduced course load, she will notify the student. Some examples of acceptable reasons for a reduced course load are:

  1. During the first term, a student may need time to adjust to the language and new academic system. The academic advisor can recommend a lower course load.
  2. A student may have been placed in a course for which s/he does not have the background necessary. The academic advisor may recommend the student drop the course.
  3. During the student's last term, s/he is only required to take the number of units needed to meet degree requirements. The academic advisor can document this on the OIE form.
  4. Health problems can also necessitate a reduced course load. If a student is experiencing health problems, a doctor can recommend withdrawal or a reduced course load.

Note: Inadequate funding is not an acceptable reason for dropping below the required course load. Students should feel free to discuss any financial concerns with an OIE advisor.

US Tax Obligations

All international students are required to complete and submit US tax forms to the federal government in April of every year for the previous calendar year whether or not they had any US source income. The Office of International Education will provide relevant information and volunteer tax advising in February and March.

J-1 Health Insurance Requirement

J-1 students are required by the federal government to have health insurance coverage which meets specific requirements. Please check the literature that came with your DS-2019 form to make sure that your insurance plan meets these requirements.

Two-Year Home Residency Requirement

Some students in J-1 status are required to return to their home countries for a period of 2 years after they complete their studies plus any period of academic training before they can change to a more permanent work visa categry. Any student who receives either US or home country government funding is subject to this rule. Also, any student whose field of study appears on the Exchange Visitor Skills List is also subject to this requirement. It is sometimes possible to waive the two-year rule. Consult an OIE advisor if you have questions.

Last Updated On:  January 10, 2017