The two types of nonimmigrant visas that are available for student visitors to pursue their education in the United States are the F-1 visa and the M-1 visa. Foreign nationals that wish to participate in cultural and exchange programs may do so under the J-1 visa category.
The F-1 student visa is the most common type of student visa in the United States. The F-1 visa is reserved for nonimmigrants who wish to pursue academic studies and/or language training programs. An application for study pursuant to an F-1 visa is processed through the Student Exchange and Visitors Program (SEVP). Vocational education is not included in the F-1 visa category. For vocational education, the M visa should be obtained.
During the first academic year, F-1 students are not authorized for off-campus employment but may accept on-campus employment of less than 20 hours per week (subject to restrictions and conditions). Off-campus employment is permitted during school recess periods and after completion of the first academic year.
Three programs are available to F-1 students who seek to work off-campus after the completion of the first academic year:
- Curricular Practical Training (CPT): for students who have completed nine (9) months of an undergraduate degree program, or students pursuing a graduate degree program, to participate in an internship or training program that is part of the curriculum.
- Optional Practical Training (OPT): for a period of one year, either before or after completion of studies. OPT employment is not limited to a specific employer but must be related to the student’s major area of study.
- STEM Optional Practical Training Extension (post-completion OPT): for students who receive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees in designated degree programs.
Spouses and children under the age of 21 of an F-1 student may be issuedF-2 visas to accompany the F-1 visa holder. Spouses cannot pursue full-time course of study at any level. Children may attend primary and secondary school; however, they cannot pursue post-secondary education unless they too obtain a F-1 visa. Neither spouses nor children are eligible to work in F-2 visa status.
The M-1 visa is a student visa reserved for persons pursuing vocational and technical training. To obtain a M-1 visa, a designated school official must issue a Form I-20 for the qualifying student; the student must present the signed Form I-20 and supporting documentation at a United States embassy or consulate in the home country. M-1 students are admitted into the United States for a period of up to one (1) year. M-1 students may extend their stay to pursue practical training after the completion of their studies. A thirty (30) day grace period is given to prepare to leave the country upon completion of the course of study; a student who is in violation of status is not eligible for the grace period.
Spouses and children under the age of 21 of an M-1 student may be issuedM-2 visas to accompany the M-1 visa holder.
The J-1 visa category is designated for exchange visitors participating in various cultural and educational programs to promote mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. The exchange visitor must be accepted into a designated Exchange Visitor Program. Students must meet certain eligibility criteria and are sponsored by private or public entities that are approved by the U.S. Department of State. J-1 exchange visitors are expected to leave the United States at the completion of their program and to return to their home country to utilize the experience and skills acquired during their stay in the United States. Employment for a J-1 exchange visitor is authorized only pursuant to the terms of the exchange program.
Spouses and children under the age of 21 can accompany the J-1 visa holder in the J-2 visa classification. J-2 visa holders are permitted to work in the United States if they receive work authorization. They also are permitted to study without having to obtain a separate F-1 student visa.