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What is an F-1 visa extension? How do I obtain one?

Sometimes, an F-1 student may need more time to complete their coursework before the completion date noted on item 5 on Form I-20. Below, we explain how to request an extended I-20 before your current I-20 expires by filing Form I-539 with the USCIS.

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Most international students studying full-time in the U.S. hold F-1 visa status. In some cases where the F-1 student may need more time to complete their coursework before the completion date noted on item 5 on Form  I-20. In this guide, we explain how to request an extended I-20 before your current I-20 expires by filing Form I-539 with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Is it important to file for a visa extension?

If you fail to receive an extension of stay in the U.S. beyond the listed end date on your Form I-20, you may be removed from the U.S. or barred from reentering the country. People who are unlawfully present in the U.S. for a continuous period of 180 days to less than one year will face a three-year bar against re=entering the U.S. while those who overstay for one full year or more will be barred from re-entry for 10 years.

F-1 visa holders should file for an extension as soon as they find out they need more time to finish their degree due to the risk of incurring these penalties. Ideally, the request for extension should be filed 45 days before the student's authorization period expires.

Eligibility requirements for an extension

To receive an F-1 visa extension, the following requirements should be met:

  • You entered the U.S. lawfully with a nonimmigrant F-1 visa

  • Your F-1 visa status is still valid

  • You have not committed crimes that can be

  • You have not violated any of the conditions of your F-1 visa

  • Your passport is valid for the remainder of your intended stay

As soon as you find out you need additional time to finish your program, talk to your designated school official (DSO) to help you determine your eligibility for an extension, as well as the validity of your F-1 status.

Your DSO will verify that you've legally maintained your F-1 student visa status and are applying due to academic or medical reasons, such as:

  • Documented medical illness

  • Change of desired major or research topic

  • Unforeseen challenges encountered during research

Problems related to your health or academic pursuit may have a higher chance of being approved for an extension as long as you're able to prove your ability to support yourself financially during your extension period and if there's enough time before the end date indicated on your Form I-20.

If you're applying for an extension for other reasons, it's important to know that USCIS may not consider the following situations as valid reasons: 

  • For personal interests, such as to take extra classes to raise your GPA

  • To retake a class after receiving an incomplete grade

  • To take delayed classes because you participated in curricular practical training that was not required by your program

  • To take classes after an academic suspension

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F-1 visa renewals

Normally, the U.S. consulate or embassy grants F-1 visas that last the entire length of your academic program. There may be cases, however, where the embassy or consulate issues visas that don't cover the entire length of the program. While you're allowed to remain in the U.S. on an expired F-1 visa for as long your Form I-20 is valid, this may lead to problems when you try to re-enter the country in the future. In any case, it's better to renew your F-1 visa and have a valid Form I-20, if possible.

If you have an expired F-1 visa but a valid I-94 document, you also have the option of renewing your F-1 visa by applying at your country's U.S. consulate or embassy. Traveling to countries adjacent to the U.S. such as Canada or Mexico for 30 days or less with a valid I-94 document and an expired F-1 visa may also grant you entry though the automatic visa revalidation process. If, however, your degree program has ended, you won't be allowed to renew your F-1 visa.

F-1 visa renewal process

You may be able to apply for a renewal of your F-1 status in any country (aside from Mexico or Canada), however, you may stand a better chance of getting approved if you're applying at an embassy or consulate in your home country.

To renew an expired F-1 visa, you'll need to file Form DS-160. After completing the form and submitting it, print out the confirmation page and bar code. In most cases, the U.S. embassy won't request you to attend a new interview if you've previously been approved for an F-1 visa. However, you may still be required to submit documents that support your renewal request.

Examples of supporting documents:

  • University transcripts

  • Proof of financial resources to support you during your stay 

  • Document describing your degree program

  • Letter from your academic advisor that confirms your enrollment

  • Receipts showing you have paid all associated F-1 visa fees

  • Proof of your intention to return to your home country 

After you submit the documents, you'll need to wait for them to be processed and approved by the embassy or consular officer before you can travel or return to the U.S.

Automatic visa revalidation

Automatic visa revalidation is a process that is available to F-1 students who have valid I-94 documents but whose F-1 visas are about to expire. Under this option, F-1 students can travel to Mexico, Canada, or any U.S. territory for under 30 days and have their visas automatically renewed when they reenter the U.S. This can be one of your options for getting your F-1 visa renewed if you were originally granted less than the duration of your academic program without having to return to your home country and go through a renewal application process there.

If you're traveling to Canada and require a visa to enter, it may benefit you to do so before your F-1 visa expires. The Customs and Border Protection officers will verify that you're a student in the U.S. and automatically revalidate your F-1 visa while you're enrolled in the degree program.

F-1 visa extension

If you require an extension due to valid academic or health reasons, you're normally required to apply for an F-1 visa extension rather than a renewal. You normally have limited options for extending your stay with an F-1 visa. The most popular of these options, however, is to extend your stay by completing an Optional Practical Training, or OPT program, after you graduate.

The OPT program lets F-1 visa holders to work in the U.S. for up to 12 months after or before graduating. There are two types of OPT programs: pre-completion and post-completion OPT. 

Any time spent during a pre-completion OPT will be deducted from the total 12 months, with the remaining months available for post-completion OPT. If your goal is to use OPT to obtain F-1 visa extension beyond the length of your degree program, you best option may be to participate in a post-completion OPT program.

With a post-completion OPT program, you can work part-time or full-time for a U.S. employer in your degree field. Once the 12 months end, your employer may then be able to sponsor you for an H-1B visa. However, it’s important to note that the H-1B visa program is highly competitive, making it important for you to discuss with your employer the possibility of being sponsored for an H-1B visa as early as possible. 

If your degree is in a specific science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, you may be eligible to participate in the STEM OPT program, which lets you extend your OPT for two more years. Once the OPT program is completed, your F-1 visa will expire and can’t be renewed.

What happens when your F-1 visa expires?

When you’ve completed your academic degree and post-completion OPT, you will have a grace period of 60 days to return to your home country. You might be able to change your status if you wish to remain in the U.S. for a longer time, however.

Most F-1 visa holders who participate in OPT and hoping to stay in the U.S. try to find employers willing to sponsor them for an H-1B visa. If successful, getting an H-1B visa will allow you to live and work in the U.S. for up to 6 years. Since the H-1B visa is a dual intent visa, after you have worked for your H-1B employer for six years, you will be allowed to apply for a Green Card to remain in the U.S. permanently. 

If you’re unable to obtain an H-1B visa, you have other options for staying in the U.S. For example, if you’re someone with extraordinary abilities in athletics, business, science, or the arts, you can petition for an EB-1 visa. There are stringent requirements, however, for the EB-1 visa, making it very difficult to obtain.

Another option is to make a sizeable investment in a U.S. business that creates jobs in order to obtain an EB-5 investor visa. To qualify, you must be prepared to invest from $500,000 to $1,000,000. This is a hefty sum and not a lot of people can afford to donate such an amount, making the EB-5 visa an unlikely option for many foreign nationals. 

Another common option to change your status to remain in the U.S. is to get married to a U.S. citizen. Many international students studying in the U.S. on F-1 visas end up meeting Americans and starting romantic relationships that result in marriage. After getting engaged, you may qualify for a K-1 fiance visa, which your citizen fiance will need to petition on your behalf using Form I-129F. After your marriage, your spouse may then petition for a marriage visa or an IR-1 visa. Expect to be put under scrutiny by the U.S. government regarding the authenticity of your relationship and marriage to your spouse. This may mean having to attend an interview and presenting documents that demonstrate how your marriage is real and not a sham. 

USCIS will ask you and your spouse questions to make certain that you know each other intimately. You’ll also need to demonstrate that you have been in a relationship for a lengthy period. After you are married, you are typically required to submit a copy of your marriage certificate, wedding pictures, declarations from the witnesses, and receipts from your honeymoon or reception. After the USCIS determines that your marriage is valid, you will be allowed to continue living and working in the U.S. permanently.

The takeaway

There can be a number of different reasons why you’d like to remain in the U.S. for a longer time than your degree program lets you. Extending your F-1 visa status is one option, while applying for a change of status is another. Moving and living in the U.S. will require plenty of preparation if you’d like to ensure a smooth transition.  In the U.S., credit history is important in securing things necessary for everyday life from credit cards to utilities and even your apartment. 

Lenders and landlords will depend on your credit history to make decisions such as approving a loan or credit card application. 

How Nova Credit can help you establish credit in the U.S.

Nova Credit’s Credit Passport® helps people bring their credit history with them when they move to the U.S. While your credit history won’t be transferred to national bureau databases, creditors and lenders can use your Credit Passport® to evaluate your application for a loan, apartment, and other services and help you build a U.S. credit score in the process. 

Nova Credit currently connects to international credit bureaus in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, Nigeria, South Korea and the UK.

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More from Nova Credit:

The ultimate guide to the F-1 visa

Credit cards for international students

How international students can get financial aid

The best universities for international students

Everything you need to know about the F-2 visas for F-1 dependents 

How to obtain an F-1 visa extension

The difference between CPT and OPT

Everything you know about obtaining OPT EAD