Understanding Your F-1 Documents

If you will be traveling outside the U.S. while you are in F-1 status, you will need to follow certain procedures in order to return to the U.S. to continue your study.

Passport is an official document issued by a government, certifying the holder's identity and citizenship and entitling them to travel under its protection to and from foreign countries.  You should keep your passports valid for at least 6 months into the future while studying in the United States.  If you lost your passport or your passport is expiring soon, contact your home country's embassy in the United States for information about applying or renewing a passport.
 
The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is an electronic means of providing information to the U.S. Government on all F-1, M-1, J-1 students, scholars and their dependents. It is also a system for tracking a student’s immigration history.  
 
When you are accepted into a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified school, the designated school official (DSO) will issue you the Form I-20, "Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status.
 
You will need the Form I-20 for any of the following:
 
  • Paying your I-901 SEVIS Fee: Use the Form I-20 from the school you decide to attend to pay the SEVIS fee
     
  • Applying for your nonimmigrant visa at your U.S. embassy or consulate: Read the embassy or consulate’s website for more specific instructions.  You can apply for an F-1 visa up to 120 days before the Program Start Date listed on your Form I-20.
     
  • Entering the United States: Bring your Form I-20 with you when you enter the United States.  You will present it to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the port of entry when you arrive.  You may arrive up to 30 days before the start date listed on your Form I-20.
     
  • Maintaining up-to-date records: If you fail to maintain your legal status, your SEVIS record will terminated and you become out of status.

Transfer I-20

You must have a current, valid Form I-20 from the school that you are attending.  If you are currently attending another school in the U.S. and wish to attend SF State, you must notify your current school with the intent to transfer. You should request your SEVIS record to be transferred to SF State.  If you have submitted all the financial documents to International Admission Office or Graduate Studies, a transfer I-20 will be issued to you.

Please keep in mind that you must receive a transfer I-20 within 15 days of your program start date at SF State.  Fail to receive a transfer I-20 within 15 days of program start date will result in loss of your legal status in the U.S.  See I-20 Transfer Procedures.

Lost I-20

You can request a replacement I-20 from OIP if your I-20 is lost or damaged.  Please submit the F-1 Document Request Form.

Travel Signature on the I-20

If you are travelling outside the United States, you must obtain a travel signature (see image below) under the "Travel Endorsement" section of the Form I-20.  International Student Advisors at OIP are the only school officials who are authorized by U.S. Department of Homeland Security to sign the I-20.  You may not be allowed to return to the U.S. without an updated signature.  We recommend that you to request a travel signature at least 2 weeks before leaving the United States.  Please note that the travel signature on the I-20 is valid for one year.  We recommend you to request a travel signature at least 2 weeks before leaving the United States.  See Travel Information.
 
 

A citizen of a foreign country who wishes to study in the U.S. must first obtain a F-1 Student visa.  F-1 visas are issued by U.S. Embassies and Consulates outside the U.S., and visas cannot be issued inside the U.S.

Canadian citizens are not required to apply for a visa to enter the U.S. as an F-1 student.  However, they need to obtain the Form I-20 from SF State and pay the SEVIS fee. They should enter the U.S. with their passports, I-20 issued by SF State, and other supporting documentation.  

Here is a list of useful resources:

A visa allows a foreign citizen to travel to a U.S. port-of-entry (generally an airport) and request permission to enter the United States.  The expiration date shown on your F-1 visa does not reflect how long you are authorized to stay within the United States.  You can stay in the U.S. on an expired F-1 visa as long as you maintain your student status.   However, if you are returning home or traveling to a country where automatic re-validation does not apply, you must have a valid visa to return to the United States.

Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record is a critical record, which shows that you have been legally admitted to the U.S., the class of admission, and the authorized period of stay.  It is very important that the information on the record is correct.  If you arrive by a land port, you will receive a paper Form I-94.  If you arrive at the port of entry by air or sea, an automated Form I-94 record will automatically be generated for you by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers.  CBP will provide you with an admission stamp on your passport that is annotated with date of admission, class of admission and admitted-until date.  The electronic arrival/departure record can be obtained online.  F-1 students may visit this website to print their electronic I-94 number before applying for immigration or public benefits, such as a driver’s license or Social Security Number.

In addition, CBP will provide each student with an admission stamp that is annotated with date of entry, class of entry (F-1) and admitted until date (D/S for F-1 students) in the passport:

Duration of Status (D/S) is defined as:

  • The time during which you are pursuing a full course of study (12 units for undergraduates/ 8 units for graduates per semester) and making normal progress toward completing that course.
  • The time you may be working in authorized "practical training" after you complete studies (if you qualify and are so authorized).
  • 60 days to depart the country after the program completion and 15 days to depart the country after authorized withdrawal from school*(*Please consult with an advisor at OIP).  

Those who haven't traveled overseas after April 26, 2013 may still have an I-94 card (a little white card stapled in the passport). If you lost an I-94 card, you need to request to a replacement card by filling out the I-102, Application for Replacement/Initial Non-immigrant Arrival-Departure Document application. You will need to submit the form with the application fee to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Form I-515A

If you arrive at the U.S. border without all the necessary paperwork, CBP officials may issue you a Form I-515A, "Notice to Student or Exchange Visitor". To learn more, visit What is a Form I-515A?