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Studying on an F-1 vs H-4 Visa

There are advantages and disadvantages to both the F-1 and H-4 visas, making it important for you to understand the differences so that you can make the decision that makes the most sense for your situation and plans.

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If you are the spouse or minor child of an H-1B visa holder, you are eligible to travel to the U.S. with your spouse or parent on an H-4 visa. If you want to pursue your education while you are in the U.S. at a university or college during your stay, you will have a few options, including studying on your H-4 visa or choosing to study on an F-1 visa. There are advantages and disadvantages to both options, making it important for you to understand the differences so that you can make the decision that makes the most sense for your situation and plans.

What is an H-4 visa?

An H-4 visa is a dependent visa that is available to the spouses and minor unmarried children who are younger than 21 of H-1B visa holders. The H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant visa that is dual intent. It allows the visa holder to live and work for a sponsoring employer for up to three years and is renewable. If the H-1B visa holder renews the H-1B visa, he or she can work for an additional three years for his or her sponsoring employer. After working in the U.S. for six years on an H-1B visa, the visa holder will be eligible to petition to change his or her status to a green card.

H-4 visa holders have some restrictions. They are generally not allowed to work unless their spouses meet specific eligibility criteria. H-4 visa holders are allowed to study in the U.S. during their stays, however. Many H-4 visa recipients choose to study in the U.S. to further their educations while their spouses or parents work with their H-1B visa statuses. However, studying in the U.S. on an H-4 visa is not the only option available to dependents of H-1B visa holders.

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Options to study in the U.S. as a nonimmigrant

You will have three primary options for pursuing your degree at a college or university in the U.S. You can choose an F-1 visa to pursue your studies, study with your H-4 visa, or study with an H-4 visa and an F-1 visa. The option that will be right for you will depend on your situation. You will want to consider your current visa status, your financial situation, and the career goals that you have for your future. We will explore each option in-depth to provide you with more information.

What is an F-1 visa?

The F-1 visa program is designed to allow eligible international students to study in the U.S. at approved colleges and universities. The schools must be certified by the Student Exchange Visitor Program or SEVP. The SEVP is responsible for managing F-1 students and approved educational institutions on behalf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

To secure an F-1 visa, you must first apply to a SEVP-approved school, be admitted, and enroll. Once you are accepted, the designated school official or DSO at the school will enter your information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System or SEVIS and issue a Form I-20 to you. You will need to pay the SEVIS I-901 fee. The SEVIS fee for F-1 students is currently $350 and is separate from the visa application fee.

After you receive the Form I-20 from your school, you will need to complete the Form DS-160 online. Once you complete it, you will need to print out the confirmation page and save it because it contains a bar code that you will need. You must also pay the visa processing application fee of $160. Next, you will need to schedule a visa interview at the U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country. When you attend your interview, you will need to bring your passport, Form I-20, your confirmation page, and your receipts for the fees. You should also bring supporting documentation that demonstrates your intent to return to your home country after your studies are completed and proof that you will be financially able to support yourself while you are in the U.S. If the embassy or consular official approves you, the F-1 visa will be stamped in your passport. You will then be able to enter the U.S. up to 30 days before the start date of your academic program.

Applying for the H-4 visa

To be eligible for an H-4 visa, you must be the spouse or dependent child of an H-visa holder, including the H-1B, H-1B1, H-2A, H-2B, or H-3 visa. You will need to complete the Form DS-160 online, pay the visa application processing fee of $190, and print out the confirmation page with the barcode. You will then need to schedule a visa interview with the U.S. consulate or embassy in your home country. You will need to bring several documents with you to your visa interview, including the following:

  • Confirmation page from the DS-160 application form

  • Valid passport

  • Two U.S.-approved passport photos

  • Receipt for the payment of the application fee

  • Photocopy of your spouse or parent's H visa

  • Photocopy of your spouse's or parent's Form I-129, Form I-797, and the labor certification application

  • Photocopy of your spouse's or parent's passport containing a photo

  • The letter of employment for your spouse or parent

  • Photocopies of your spouse's or parent's prior work experience

  • If your spouse or parent is already working in the U.S., photocopies of his or her tax filing information and recent paystubs

  • Your original birth certificate if you are the dependent child of the H visa holder

  • Marriage certificate if you are the spouse of the H visa holder

If you are the spouse of the H visa holder, you should bring additional documents proving your valid relationship. These might include wedding pictures, a guest list, receipts for wedding and honeymoon expenses, and a copy of your wedding invitation.

At your interview, the embassy or consular official will review your documents and ask questions to determine that your relationship with your spouse is real. If you are approved for the H-4 visa, you will be notified. The H-4 visa will be stamped in your passport, allowing you to travel to the U.S. to join your spouse or parent. The processing time will vary if you apply separately from your spouse or parent. If you apply at the same time as your spouse or parent, your visas will be processed together.

Advantages of studying in the U.S. with an H-4 visa

Many H-4 visa holders wish to study in the U.S. Some are not eligible for employment authorization documents and wish to pursue their educations to reach their goals instead of staying at home. Many H-4 visa holders who are married to H-1B visa holders are educated professionals who would like to pursue post-graduate studies to obtain a Master's degree or Ph.D.

Whether you want to pursue a Bachelor's degree or a postgraduate degree while you are in the U.S. as an H-4 dependent, you are allowed to apply and enroll if you are admitted. You might also be eligible for in-state tuition, depending on the state in which you live.

Eligiblity for in-state tuition for H-4 visa holders

Many states offer in-state tuition to H-4 visa holders who choose to study while they are living in the U.S. Your eligibility for in-state tuition will depend on your school and your state, however. While in-state tuition is available at most public universities and colleges, it is not available at private institutions.

In-state tuition is substantially cheaper than regular tuition rates for international students. In some cases, it might be one-half of the cost. To qualify for in-state tuition, you must be married to the H-1B visa holder and have been dependent on him or her for a minimum of one year. You and the H-1B visa holder must have lived in the state where the school is located for a year or more and have proof of your residency. Finally, the H-1B visa holder will also have had to pay state taxes.

To prepare to be eligible for in-state tuition as an H-4 visa holder, you should apply for a driver's license soon after you arrive in the U.S. Register your car and get a registration plate. When you and your spouse rent a home, make certain that the lease is in your spouse's name as the H-1B visa holder. Open a bank account in your state, and make sure that you and your spouse file your income tax return at the end of the tax year. If you do these things, you should be able to establish your residency in the state to qualify for in-state tuition. You might want to check with the school that you plan to attend to learn about any specific rules that it might have.

If you can meet the requirements for in-state tuition, the largest advantage of studying in the U.S. with an H-4 visa is the savings that you can enjoy on your tuition costs. You will be able to study full-time without having to work as long as your spouse is willing to pay for your school. If you complete a Master's degree program, you can then apply for an H-1B visa under the Master's program category.

The H-1B visa program has an annual cap on the number of visas that are issued each year. If you have your Master's degree, there are 20,000 additional visas available for people with advanced degrees. If you can find an H-1B employer to sponsor you, you might be able to secure an H-1B visa to work in the U.S. by taking advantage of the additional number of H-1B visas that are available to people with Master's degrees.

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Disadvantages of studying in the U.S. on an H-4 visa

While you can enjoy tuition savings with an H-4 visa at a state-funded school, there are several disadvantages to choosing to study with your H-4 visa status. H-4 visa students are not allowed to work on campus and are unable to serve as teacher's assistants, graduate assistants, or resident assistants at their colleges or universities. These types of positions help with the costs of tuition for attendance.

You will also not be eligible for curricular practical training or pre- or post-completion optional practical training. OPT allows you to work in a job that relates to your major field of study for up to one year either before you graduate or after you do. You also will not be eligible for the 24-month STEM OPT extension if your degree is in a STEM field. CPT, OPT, and the STEM OPT extension are programs that are available to F-1 students but are not available to H-4 students. Finally, if you want to take advantage of in-state tuition for H-4 visa holders, you will have to wait for a year before you will meet the requirements.

Employment authorization for H-4 visa holders

Certain spouses of H-1B visa holders may be eligible to receive employment authorization documents to work in the U.S. To be eligible for the H-4 EAD, your spouse must hold an H-1B visa and have an approved I-140 petition for immigrant status. Alternatively, your H-1B visa spouse must have been granted an H-1B visa extension of seven or more years under AC21(a) or (b). To apply, you will need to submit Form I-765 and pay the filing fee. You will need to include the receipt number of your spouse's approved I-229 extension or the approved I-140 petition. If you are granted an employment authorization document, you can work in the U.S. Dependent children who are present in the U.S. on H-4 visas are not eligible for EADs.

Advantages of studying in the U.S. with an F-1 visa

F-1 visa students are eligible to work part-time in on-campus jobs during the school year. After they complete their first year of full-time academic studies, they may be eligible to work off-campus through the pre-completion OPT program or the curricular practical training program.

The pre-completion OPT program allows eligible F-1 students to work for up to 12 months at an off-campus job that directly relates to their major areas of study. This allows F-1 students to earn incomes while receiving training in their degree fields. When school is in session, F-1 students are limited to working 20 hours per week or less. During breaks from school between academic terms or during the summer months, they can work up to 40 hours per week.

Post-completion OPT is available to F-1 students after they graduate with their degrees. Students who are approved for post-completion OPT may work for up to 12 months in jobs related to their degrees. However, if the students worked in pre-completion OPT, the amount of time that they spent doing so will be subtracted from the total allotment of 12 months.

The STEM OPT extension allows F-1 students in post-completion OPT who have completed specific types of STEM degrees to extend their OPT employment authorizations for up to 24 months. Many F-1 students who participate in post-completion OPT or the STEM OPT extension use that time as a springboard for finding an H-1B visa employer to sponsor them for H-1B visas. If they are successful, and the sponsoring employer can secure the H-1B visas for them, they can then adjust their statuses from F-1 visas to H-1B visas and continue to work and live in the U.S. for a longer period.

Curricular practical training or CPT is training that is an integral part of the F-1 student's degree program. An example might include working in nursing rotations at a hospital for a specific amount of time for nursing program students or completing student-teaching practicums at K-12 schools for education majors.

Disadvantages of studying with the F-1 visa

The main disadvantage of choosing to study with an F-1 visa instead of an H-4 visa is that in-state tuition will not be available to you. However, you will be allowed to work at an on-campus job or an off-campus job through the CPT or OPT programs. It might also be easier for you to secure an H-1B visa as an F-1 OPT participant than it might be as an H-4 visa student.

Adjusting your status from an H-4 visa to an F-1 visa

Some H-4 visa holders choose to study at universities or colleges in the U.S. with their H-4 visas and later apply to adjust their statuses to F-1 visas. Doing this might allow you to take advantage of in-state tuition for the time that you study as an H-4 student while later being able to participate in OPT as an F-1 student. You should talk to the international students' office at your school to learn about the process that they require for students wishing to adjust their statuses from H-4 visas to F-1 visas.

To apply to change your status from an H-4 visa to an F-1 visa, you will not be required to leave the U.S. and to go through the normal F-1 visa application process. Instead, you can file Form I-539 while you are in the U.S. and continuing to study with your H-4 visa. There is a $370 filing fee that you must pay to adjust your status, and you will also have to pay a fee of $85 for biometric services. You will also need to submit your Form I-20 from your school and a copy of your Form I-94. You will need to maintain your H-4 visa status for up to 30 days before the start date of your studies as listed on your Form I-20 to qualify to adjust your status to an F-1 visa.

Which choice is the right one for you?

Whether to enter the U.S. on an F-1 visa, an H-4 visa, or an H-4 visa with the intention to adjust your status later to an F-1 visa will depend on your circumstances and goals. If your spouse has a job offer from an H-1B sponsoring employer and has received notice that the employer's petition has been approved, you can choose to enter the U.S. with an H-4 visa or apply for an F-1 visa if you know that you want to pursue your education while you are in the U.S. If you want to participate in the OPT program while you are living in the U.S., it might be simpler for you to apply for the F-1 visa after you are admitted and enrolled at a SEVP-approved school instead of later going through the process of adjusting your status from an H-4 to an F-1 visa.

However, if you want to begin your studies with your H-4 visa to take advantage of in-state tuition, you can choose to enter the U.S. with an H-4 visa. Remember that you will not be eligible for in-state tuition until you have established residency in the state where your intended school is located by living in the state with your H-1B visa holding spouse for a minimum of one year. You also will not receive an in-state tuition discount if you plan to attend a private college or university.

Wrapping everything up

There are advantages and disadvantages to studying in the U.S. on an H-4 visa or an F-1 visa. After you have reviewed your options and decided which path to take, you can apply for the visa that you want and wait for your approval. Once you are approved, you should begin preparing to join your spouse in the U.S. and pursue your studies.

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