Working with International Students

Enrolling international students at The Pennsylvania State University is complicated and involves the academic area, International Student and Scholar Advising, (ISSA) and as many as three U.S. Government agencies.

The considerations necessary for the enrollment of international students are many and should be understood by anyone entering into discussions which may result in new programs.  It is important to be familiar with the many implications of these activities.

Questions and Concerns 

Questions or concerns related to these matters should be addressed to International Student and Scholar Advising (ISSA) at 1-814-865-6348, 410 Boucke Building or to

Legal Considerations

Penn State is authorized to issue eligibility documents to bring international students to study in the U.S. under two separate visas.  Only certain staff of International Student and Scholar Advising are Designated School Officials and permitted to issue and sign these documents on behalf of the University.  These staff are required by law to certify “under penalty of perjury” several items before the I-20 or DS-2019 can be issued.


Penn State Global is not involved in the academic portion of the admissions process. Students may be admitted as undergraduates, graduate students, or professional students. After an admission offer has been accepted, ISSA contacts the student to gather any required materials for issuance of a Certificate of eligibility for F-1 or J-1 visa (I-20/DS-2019). Requested materials may include biographical information, financial guarantee and copies of current immigration documents.

In rare situations, a DS-2019 may be issued to a non-degree students. In most cases, students on exchanges that are one or two semesters in duration are enrolled in non-degree status. Please see Non-Degree Study for more information.

Once the visa document is received by the student, the process of obtaining the visa from the U.S. Embassy or Consulate begins -- this process is usually a few days, but can take months depending on the country of origin. Penn State cannot interfere with this process.

In all cases, therefore, Penn State faculty and staff are urged to allow sufficient time to complete this process. A minimum of three months from submission of a complete application is recommended.

Program and Credit Concerns

International students in in F or J visa status in the United States must pursue a defined and approved program of study on a full time basis.

It is possible to establish "ad hoc", non-degree programs for purposes of maintaining a particular exchange agreement; however, these ad hoc programs must have structure. For example, a typical exchange program might call for a student to attend Penn State for one year to study architectural engineering in a non-degree status in order to enhance the curriculum being offered in the student's home country. The goals of this enhancement should be clear and show structure as to what the student will learn while in the U.S.

Non-Degree Enrollment

While ISSA will issue to immigration documents to visiting students, those student must be in programs initiated by the academic departments.  In other words, ISSA does not issue immigration documents to students in casual study.  Most students issued immigration documents for non-degree study are students in formal exchange programs.  Before formalizing any informal or formal agreements involved with bringing international students, departments should consult with International Students and Scholar Advising.

Financial Aid

There is little financial aid available at The Pennsylvania State University for international students. Many international graduate students studying at Penn State do so with primary support from a graduate assistantship. Most students rely on funding from their own savings, from their families or, in some cases, from an outside sponsor. There is virtually no financial aid for international undergraduate students.


Employment for international students is highly restricted and, with the exception of graduate assistantships, can never be used in meeting the financial guarantee requirement.  International students are allowed to work on-campus for no more than 20 hours per week during the semester. Students may work on campus full time (more than 20 hours per week) during summer if they were registered for spring and are registered for summer or plan to be registered for fall. Students may also work full-time during the winter break only if they were enrolled for fall and will be enrolled for the upcoming spring semester. Off-campus employment requires either authorization from the staff in ISSA or a recommendation from ISSA with final authorization from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). No one else can approve work off-campus. Illegal employment is a deportable offense.

DS-2019 Issuance

The J-1 exchange visitor visa is controlled by the U .S. Department of State (DOS) and requires the DS-2019 Certificate of Visa Eligibility issued by ISSA or an agency authorized by DOS such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The regulations government the issuance of the DS-2019 are prescribed as the following:

  • Students must meet the same academic criteria for admission as required by the institution.
  • Students must possess sufficient English proficiency as determined by the institution – except for those entering the Intensive English Communication Program (IECP).
  • Students are admitted into a defined and approved program of study which is full time and is in residence.
  • Students must be primarily supported by non-private funds.
  • Students will pursue a program of study on a full-time basis. Students may not enroll in any on-line courses to meet the full-time enrollment requirement.
  • Students have sufficient funds to provide for their educational and living expenses and any accompanying dependents “without resorting to unauthorized employment or becoming a public charge.”


Penn State is not an inexpensive institution and even those students with full financial support, such as those with a graduate assistantship, are funded sufficiently to support themselves only. Dependents of international students are, in almost all cases, not authorized to work. Even if they could work, projected employment income cannot be used to establish the financial means necessary to receive a visa document. Those international students who consider bringing dependents must have considerable additional financial resources available to them. This consideration has become even more significant since 1990, when Penn State made health insurance mandatory for all international students and accompanying dependents (this requirement is required by law for all those on J-1 visas).  Health insurance for spouses and children alone represents a large financial commitment.


Accommodation for international students is a major issue, particularly at locations other than University Park. Most internationals are unfamiliar with U.S. practices of locating and securing rental dwellings, with leases and with other such matters. Transportation is also usually an issue. Most international students prefer to live on campus, at least initially. When residence hall space is not available, extra care must be given to assist students in finding housing which is suitable and affordable.

Personal Support

International students are largely unfamiliar with American society and culture and with available resources in the community. They may need assistance with matters ranging from where to shop for appropriate foods to how to ship things home. This support is offered in a systematic and programmatic way at University Park, especially if students arrive in time for Global Program’s International Student Orientation. In recent years other campus locations have started to provide support for international students. It is suggested that a "mentor" be appointed for all international students enrolling at non-University Park locations in order to provide the one-on-one support needed in order to appropriately adjust to life in the U.S.  Anyone who has lived, worked or studied abroad will instantly recognize the value and necessity of this kind of support.