Visa and Immigration

Immigration Documents

A passport is an official document issued by a national government that certifies the holder's identity and citizenship. A passport entitles the holder to travel under it to and from foreign countries. Students should keep their passports valid for at least 6 months into the future while studying in the United States. If they lose their passport or their passport will soon expire, they must contact their home country's embassy in the United States for information about the application or renewal process. >Click here for a list of Foreign Consular Offices in the United States.

Visa Update (September 14, 2021)

The visa interview requirement may be waived for F and academic J visa applicants who:

  • Were previously issued any type of U.S. visa, and who have never been refused a visa unless such refusal was overcome or waived, or
  • Have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility, or
  • Are first-time F and academic J visa applicants who are citizens or nationals of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), provided they have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility

See Important Announcement on F, M, and Academic J Visas (state.gov)

F-1 Visa

A citizen of a foreign country who wishes to study in the U.S. as a degree-seeking student at SF State must first obtain an F-1 student visa.  F-1 visas are issued by U.S. Embassies and Consulates outside the United States. F-1 visas cannot be issued from within the United States.  An F-1 visa stamp may be valid for 1 month, 1 year, or 3 to 5 years. However, the length of a student’s F-1 visa validity does NOT determine how long that student may remain in the U.S. See the “Status vs. Visa” section for further details.

Canadian citizens:

Canadian citizens are not required to apply for a visa to enter the U.S. as an F-1 student.  However, they must obtain the Form I-20 from SF State and pay the I-901 SEVIS Fee. They should enter the U.S. with their passport, I-20 issued by SF State, and other supporting documentation.  

Additional visa and immigration resources for F-1 students:

J-1 visa

A citizen of a foreign country who wishes to participate in the Exchange Visitor Program (EVP) in the United States must first obtain a J-1 visa. At SF State, this includes all students participating in the Exchange Program, as well as J-1 Research Scholars. 

J-1 visas are issued by U.S. Embassies and Consulates outside the United States and cannot be issued from within the United States. For exchange students, the J-1 visa will generally be issued for the duration of the student’s program of study (one or two semesters). 

The purpose of the J-1 visa is to gain legal entry into the United States. A valid J-1 visa does not verify the length of time a student may remain in the U.S. or that the student is in status. The length of a student’s J-1 visa validity does NOT determine how long that student may remain in the U.S. See the “Status vs. Visa” section for further details.

Canadian citizens:

Canadian citizens are not required to apply for a visa in order to enter the United States as J-1 students. However, they must obtain a Form DS-2019 from SF State and pay the I-901 SEVIS Fee in order to participate in the exchange program. When entering the United States, Canadian citizens should be prepared to present their passport, Form DS-2019 issued by SF State, and other supporting documentation.  

Additional visa and immigration resources for J-1 students:

Visa Application Process

When F-1 students are accepted into a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified school, International Undergraduate Admissions or the Division of Graduate Studies will issue students pursuing an SF State degree the Form I-20, "Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status.”

For students participating in SF State’s J-1 Exchange Student Program, the Office of International Programs’ Responsible or Alternate Responsible Officers will issue the Form DS-2019, "Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status.” 

Forms I-20 and DS-2019 permit a prospective student or exchange visitor to seek an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate in order to obtain an F-1 (I-20) or J-1 (DS-2019) visa to enter the United States.

Students must have a Form I-20 or Form DS-2019 in order to:

  • Pay the I-901 SEVIS Fee, which funds the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) and SEVIS and is required for those who will apply for an F-1 or J-1 visa.
  • Apply for a nonimmigrant visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Read the embassy or consulate’s website for specific instructions. Visa seekers may apply for an F-1 or J-1 visa up to 120 days before the Program Start Date listed on their Form I-20 or Form DS-2019.

Entering the United States:

In addition to a valid F-1 or J-1 visa, F-1 international and J-1 exchange students must present their Form I-20 or Form DS-2019 to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the port of entry upon arrival. Visa holders may arrive up to 30 days before the program start date listed on their Form I-20 or Form DS-2019.

Form I-20

The Form I-20 is the immigration document issued by an international student's sponsor in the United States. This document is required in order to apply for an F-1 visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate and must be presented upon entry into the United States. Upon entering the United States for the first time on an F-1 visa, a Customs & Border Patrol (USCBP) officer will stamp the student’s I-20 at the port of entry.

As of Nov. 1, 2021, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) published SEVP Policy Guidance: Use of Electronic Signatures and Transmission for the Form I-20, which permanently establishes the procedures for the use of electronic signatures and transmission of the Form I-20, "Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status."

This guidance permits international students advisors/designated school official (DSO) to electronically sign (digital signature) and email the Form I-20 to F-1 students and any dependents. Once a F-1 student receives their electronically signed I-20 over email, they must print the I-20 and physically sign it in blue ink in order to use the I-20 at the U.S. Port of Entry.

SEVIS Database

SEVIS is the database that contains a student's up to date F-1 status, including major, duration of study, new/continuing status, etc. The I-20 a student initially receives should contain the most up to date information when they receive it. Students only need an updated form I-20 if they wish to use the I-20 to re-enter the U.S.

Types of I-20s

Not all students will need all types of I-20s below:

  • “Initial Attendance” I-20s: Starting point of F-1 status.
    • “Initial Attendance” I-20: For students with first time entry to the U.S. or returning to the U.S. after taking time off.
    • “Change of Status” I-20 (in the U.S): For students who change from other immigration status to F-1 status.
    • Travel Re-entry I-20 for change of status or regain F-1 status (Initial I-20): For students applying to regain F-1 status after loss of status.
    • Change of Education Level I-20: For students who change from Bachelor level at SF State to Master level.
  • “Transfer Pending” I-20: For students who have transferred to SF State from another U.S. institution. 
  • “Continued Attendance” I-20s
    • Travel I-20: For continuing students who wish to travel outside the U.S. and return to the U.S. 
    • Replacement I-20 for Lost or damaged: For students who lost or damaged their I-20.
    • Reinstatement I-20: For students applying to regain F-1 status after loss of status.
    • OPT Requested I-20: For students applying for OPT. The end date of the I-20 will be shortened to reflect students’ program completion.  
    • OPT Approved I-20 / Request Employer Information on I-20: For students with approved OPT and the employer is requiring an I-20 with employment information.
    • OPT Approved I-20 / STEM OPT Requested: For students with approved OPT and are applying for STEM OPT.
    • STEM OPT Approved I-20 / Request Employer Information on I-20: For students with approved STEM OPT and the employer is requiring an I-20 with employment information.
    • Cap-Gap Extension I-20: For students with approved OPT or STEM OPT and have an H-1B application (selected/approved).

If you have lost your I-20, fill out the following request form:

Length of I-20

The standard length of an I-20 is 5 years for undergraduate students and 3 years for graduate students. However, this does not mean that students can automatically stay in the U.S. for 5 or 3 years. During this time, students must maintain proper F-1 status by pursuing full-time study, making normal academic progress in the program that is indicated on their I-20, and meeting other requirements as mentioned in the Maintaining Status section.  

It is possible to take additional classes for personal enrichment (i.e. classes that do not directly contribute to the student’s program of study) BEFORE a student completes the program indicated on their I-20. However, it is against F-1 visa regulations to enroll in classes that are not required by the program indicated on the I-20 AFTER program completion. This is true even if the student’s I-20 appears to be valid or if the student has not yet submitted the SF State graduation application.

F-1 international students who do not pursue full-time study, fail to make normal academic progress, or take classes that are not required by the program on their I-20 after program completion may lose legal status to remain in the United States and eligibility for any U.S. employment benefits.

I-20 and SEVIS Termination / Losing F-1 Status

If a student fails to maintain F-1 status, OIP will report the violation of F-1 status by terminating the student’s SEVIS record and I-20. If a student’s SEVIS record and I-20 are terminated, they are considered to be out of F-1 status and may not use their I-20 to travel or apply for work authorization.

Students who are out of F-1 status should contact the F-1 international student advisors as soon as possible for support. OIP will work with students to help them regain status.  

OIP will not terminate a student’s SEVIS record and I-20 without notifying them in advance. Students should therefore check their SF State email regularly, as OIP will contact them in writing regarding any F-1 status concerns.

The Form DS-2019 is the immigration document issued by a sponsor in the United States (San Francisco State University in the case of SF State exchange students). Students need the DS-2019 to apply for a J-1 visa and must present this document upon entry into the United States.

Students should keep their DS-2019 even after their program has ended, as information from the DS-2019 may be requested as part of the application for other types of U.S. visas.

  1. Student's individual SEVIS ID number
  2. SF State Program number
  3. Program dates
  4. Field of study information
  5. SF State RO or ARO signature

The program dates on a student’s DS-2019 will coincide with the planned duration of their studies. Exchange students generally study at SF State for one to two semesters (a duration of 4 to 9 months). 

DS-2019 example

Length of DS-2019

The program dates on a student’s DS-2019 will coincide with the planned duration of their studies. Exchange students generally study at SF State for one to two semesters (a duration of 4 to 9 months). During this time, exchange students must maintain proper J-1 status by pursuing full-time study, pursuing their program of study as indicated on their DS-2019, and meeting other requirements mentioned in the Maintaining Status section.

Lost DS-2019

Students whose Form DS-2019 is lost or damaged should contact exchange@sfsu.edu as soon as possible so that a replacement can be issued. Once the replacement is issued, the previous Form DS-2019 will be invalid.

DS-2019 and SEVIS Termination / Losing J-1 status

If a student fails to maintain J-1 status, OIP will report the violation of J-1 status by terminating the student’s SEVIS record and DS-2019. If a student’s SEVIS record and DS-2019 are terminated, they are considered to be out of J-1 status and may not use their DS-2019 to travel or apply for work authorization.

Students who are out of J-1 status should reach out to the exchange student advisors as soon as possible for support. OIP will work with students to help them regain status. See the Maintaining Status and Regain J-1 Status sections for additional information.

OIP will not terminate a student’s SEVIS record and DS-2019 without notifying them in advance. Students should therefore check their SF State email regularly, as OIP will contact them in writing regarding any J-1 status concerns.

The Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record is a critical record, which shows that an individual has been legally admitted into the United States, the class of admission, and the authorized period of stay. 

Students who arrive by a land port will receive a paper Form I-94. Those arriving at a port of entry by air or sea will have a Form I-94 record generated electronically by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers. This electronic arrival/departure record may be downloaded and printed free of charge on the I94 Official Website. F-1 and J-1 visa holders may be required to obtain their Form I-94 in order to apply for immigration or public benefits, such as a Driver’s License or Social Security Number.

Upon entry into the United States, F-1 and J-1 visa holders will also be issued an admission stamp on their passport that is annotated with the date of entry, class of entry (F-1 or J-1), and admitted-until date ("Duration of Status" or "D/S" for F-1 and J-1 students). 

Example Passport stamp:

Passport entry stamp example

Duration of Status (D/S)

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

  • The time during which the student will pursue a full course of study (12 units for undergraduates / 8 units for graduates per semester) and make normal progress toward completing their program of study.
  • The time during which students may work in authorized "practical training" upon completion of their studies (if they qualify and are so authorized).
  • The 60-day (F-1) or 30-day (J-1) grace period immediately following the student’s program end date during which the student may prepare to leave the United States.
  • The 15-day grace period (granted to F-1 students only) to depart the country after an authorized withdrawal from school (students should consult with an F-1 advisor at OIP if this situation applies).  

Those who have not traveled overseas after April 26, 2013 may still have an I-94 card (a small white card stapled in the passport). Students who lose their I-94 card must request a replacement card by filling out the I-102, Application for Replacement/Initial Nonimmigrant Arrival-Departure Document application. They must submit the Form I-102 with the application fee to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Form I-515A

F-1 international and J-1 exchange students who arrive at a U.S. port of entry without all the necessary paperwork may be issued a Form I-515A "Notice to Student or Exchange Visitor" by CBP officials. Students issued an I-515A should notify their F-1 or J-1 advisors. To learn more, visit What is a Form I-515A? 

A visa allows a non-U.S. 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 a student’s F-1 or J-1 visa reflects how long the visa holder may use their visa to request entry into the United States.

The expiration date on the visa stamp DOES NOT reflect how long F-1 and J-1 students are authorized to remain in the United States after entry. 

The dates during which a student is authorized to remain in the United States after entry are reflected on the program dates printed on their valid Form I-20 (F-1 visa holders) or Form DS-2019 (J-1 visa holders). This applies as long as students are properly maintaining status.

Students may therefore remain in the U.S. on an expired F-1 or J-1 visa as long as they maintain proper student status and a valid I-20 or DS-2019. However, those who will travel outside the United States and then return to continue their program of study must have a valid visa in order to re-enter the United States.

Some visa holders may be eligible for automatic revalidation of their visas. For more information visit the U.S. government’s automatic re-validation webpage. 

If a student fails to maintain status, OIP will report the violation of status by terminating the student’s I-20 or DS-2019. If a student’s I-20 or DS-2019 is terminated, they are considered out of status and may not use their I-20 or DS-2019 for re-entry into the United States or apply for work authorization.

Students who are out of status should reach out to OIP as soon as possible for support. OIP will work with students to help them regain status.  

OIP will not terminate a student’s I-20 or DS-2019 without notifying them in advance. Students should therefore check their SF State email regularly, as OIP will contact them in writing regarding any status concerns.

See Maintaining Status for additional information.

Last updated: March 2022

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