Changing to F or M Student Status
by Atty. Reuben S. Seguritan
F-1 (academic student) or M-1 (vocational student) visas are available for foreigners who want to study in the United States. It is important to acquire the F-1 or M-1 visa first, before enrolling and studying in the US. If a foreigner enrolls in a class without first acquiring the F-1 or M-1 visa, then he has committed a violation of his status.
If a foreigner is in the US with a valid nonimmigrant visa and he would like to enroll in a class, he does not need to leave the US in order to change his status to F-1 or M-1. However, he must meet the following requirements: 1. He was lawfully admitted to the US with a nonimmigrant status; 2. His nonimmigrant status remains valid; 3. He has not violated the conditions of his nonimmigrant status; and 4. He has not committed any crimes or engaged in any other actions that would make him ineligible to change his status. Once the foreigner applies with the USCIS to change his status to F-1 or M-1, he must wait for the approval notice from the USCIS. Hence, the foreigner should not enroll in classes or begin his studies until the USCIS has approved the change of status. Also, if the foreigner is in the US on a M-1 visa, he may not change to F status while he is in the US.
Before the USCIS may approve the application, the following steps must be taken: 1. Apply to and receive acceptance from a US Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)- certified school; 2. Obtain an initial Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, from the SEVP-certified school. The Designated School Official (DSO) should give change of status in the Issue Reason section of the Form I-20; 3. Pay the I-901 SEVIS Fee and 4. File a Form I-539, Application to extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status with the USCIS.
If the USCIS has not made a decision on the application at least 15 days before the program start date as indicated on the Form I-20, the foreigner should contact the DSO at the school. If the USCIS does not grant the application prior to the start of classes, the foreigner must defer attendance and wait until the next school term to begin his studies with the valid F-1 or M-1 visa. Furthermore, all applicants must maintain a valid nonimmigrant status in the US while their applications are pending.
If there is a gap of time between the date the current nonimmigrant status will expire and the date when the F-1 or M-1 program will start, and the foreigner would like to remain the US, he must find a way to the obtain valid status for these days up to the date that is 30 days before the school program begins. This is known as “bridge the gap.” This “bridge the gap” can be obtained by filing a new Form I-539 application to request to extend the current status or change to another nonimmigrant status. If the foreigner fails to file this new Form I-539, the USCIS will deny the first Form I-539 filed to change to F-1 or M-1 student status. Hence, the foreigner may need to file multiple Form I-539 applications in order to ensure that there is no gap time wherein he did not have a valid status in the US. If it would be burdensome to remain in the US while the F-1 or M-1 visa applications are pending, it would be better for the foreigner to return to his home country and apply through consular processing.
Applying for the F-1 or M-1 visa while in the home country of the foreigner, requires the following: 1. Apply to and receive acceptance from a SEVP-certified school; 2. Receive a new initial Form I-20 from the DSO; 3. Pay the I-901 SEVIS fess; and 4. Apply at a US Consulate or Embassy for an F-1 or M-1 visa to travel to the US to study and be admitted as a student. If a visa is not required for the foreigner to enter the US, he may proceed directly to a US port of entry or a US pre-clearance/ pre-flight inspection station and apply for admission to the US as an F-1 or M-1 student. Once admitted by an immigration officer as an F-1 or M-1 status, he may begin his studies.