Understanding SEVIS and Your F-1 Documents

A 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.  

The F-1 international student advisors at OIP are the Designated School Official (DSO) authorized by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).  We are required to report all SF State F-1 students' enrollment by registering you in SEVIS every semester, and keep your SEVIS records in ACTIVE status.  This process is called SEVIS reporting. 

We will contact you via email if there is any problems with your F-1 status.  Be sure to check your SF State email account regularly, and read the emails from F-1 Student Advisors f1@sfsu.edu.   

When you are accepted into a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified school, the International Undergraduate Admissions and Division of Graduate Studies 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 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.

Length of I-20

The standard length of I-20 is 5 years for undergraduate Students, and 3 years for graduate students.  However, it does not mean you can stay in the U.S. for 5 or 3 years.  You have to maintain the validity of your I-20 by pursuing full-time study and making normal academic progress in the program that is indicated on your I-20.  It is possible to take additional classes for personal enrichment BEFORE you complete the program indicated on your I-20, but not after.  
International students are required to make academic progress during their studies in the U.S.  It is against the F-1 visa regulation if you continue to enroll classes that are not required by the program indicated on the I-20 AFTER your program completion, even if your I-20 is still looking valid to you or you haven’t submitted graduation application online.  
If you did not pursue full-time study, make normal academic progress, or take classes that are not required by the program on your I-20 after your program completion, you may lose legal status to remain in the U.S. and eligibility for any U.S. employment benefit for F-1 students.

I-20 Extension

If you will not complete your program before the "Program End Date" indicated on your I-20 (not your F-1 visa!!), you must request an I-20 extension before your I-20 expires.

Lost I-20

You can request a replacement I-20 from OIP if your I-20 is lost or damaged.  To request a I-20, email a signed New I-20 Request Form  (PDF, 129 KB) to f1@sfsu.edu from your SF State email account. Include your full name and SF State student ID in your email to OIP.   An F-1 international student advisor will review your request and issue a I-20 within 5 business days. 

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.

Initial I-20

Your first I-20 from SF State is an "Initial I-20". Once you started attending SF State and wish to travel overseas, OIP will issue you a "Continued attendance" I-20 to show that you are a current student in the U.S.

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.

You can register for classes (you must clear all the registration holds) and attend orientation while waiting for your transfer I-20 to be issued by SF State.  You can also leave the U.S. while waiting for your transfer I-20, but keep in mind that you MUST enter the U.S. with SF State's I-20.  Be sure to make an arrangement how you want to receive your I-20 with the International Undergraduate Admissions or Division of Graduate Studies when you plan your travel. 

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.

If you failed to maintain F-1 status due to various reasons - drop below full-time without prior approval from OIP or fail to keep your U.S. contact information current - OIP will report your violation of F-1 status by terminating your SEVIS record and your I-20.

If your SEVIS record and I-20 is terminated, you are considered out of F-1 status.  You will not be able to use the same I-20 to travel or applying for work authorization.  However, you can take action to fix your F-1 status by reaching out to one of the F-1 international student advisors for help.  See SEVIS Termination/Out of F-1 Status for more information.

OIP will not terminate your SEVIS record and I-20 without notifying you in advance.  Be sure to check your SF State email regularly. We will contact you in writing if there is any problems with your F-1 status.

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.  A F-1 visa stamp could be valid for 1 month, 1 year, or 3 to 5 years.  However, it does not mean you can stay in the U.S. for 1 month, 1 year, or 3 to 5 years.  The length of your F-1 visa has nothing to do with how long you can stay in the U.S.  See "F-1 Visa v.s F-1 Status" section below.  

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 I-901 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.
A visa and immigration status are two separate things. A "F-1 visa" stamp on your passport is a ticket for you to enter the U.S.  Your F-1 visa must be valid at the time you come to the U.S. You can legally remain in the U.S. as long as you maintain good "F-1 status", even if your F-1 visa has expired.

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?


Last updated: November 2020

For PDF files, you'll need Adobe Acrobat 5.0 or above to view it. If you need Adobe Acrobat Reader it's available free from Adobe (link is external).