Before You Arrive
In this section prospective international students will find information about requesting or refusing an I-20 or DS-2019, insurance and financial requirements, and other essential pre-arrival information.
Our goal is to assist and advise incoming international students on U.S. immigration related issues and regulations. We also help direct students to finding answers to many questions about the transition to Penn State as a newly admitted student.
For Frequently Asked Questions, visit the Pre-Arrival FAQs page.
F-1 (I-20) vs. J-1 Student (DS-2019)
To enter the U.S. in F-1 status, a student must be issued a form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility) by International Student and Scholar Advising of Penn State Global. ISSA is required to determine if a student has financial resources to attend school and pay for living expenses without resorting to illegal employment or relying on public funds.
The F-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa; therefore, a student must prove to the U.S. consulate there are ties to the home country and that the student will not remain in the United States upon completion of the academic program. In addition, the program must be a full-time program.
In general, F-1 students must do the following:
- Register full-time each fall and spring semester although there are some federal regulations that allow for a Reduced Courses Load (RCL). The RCL Form must be approved by an international student adviser in advance before the semester of enrollment or before the student drops below the number of credits required to maintain visa status.
- Work no more than 20 hours per week on-campus.
- Not work off-campus without approval from ISSA or recommendation from ISSA and approval from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
- Report their non-U.S. address, local address and all telephone numbers (local, permanent, cell, and emergency).
- Keep their I-20 and passport valid at all times.
- Maintain health insurance. Health insurance is mandatory at Penn State.
- Not enroll for more than 3 credits of distance education or online courses to be counted towards full-time enrollment requirement.
- Must enroll full-time in summer if it is the first semester. Otherwise, summer is a vacation period as long as there is enrollment in the following fall semester.
Dependents (spouse and children) can also obtain an I-20 for F-2 status. F-2 dependents may not work under any circumstances. F-2 children may attend kindergarten through high school full-time. F-2 children and spouses may attend college part-time only.
Another visa category for study is the J-1 (student category). The Certificate of Eligibility for J status is the DS-2019, and the J-1 is also a non-immigrant visa status. While the rules for the J-1 are sometimes similar, there are differences. The DS-2019 cannot be issued to a student with private funding unless they attend under an agreement such as an exchange agreement or are extending their program when they were on non-private funds.
In general, J-1 students must do the following:
- Register full time each fall and spring semester. There are some federal regulations that allow for reduced course loads, but these must be approved by an international student adviser in advance. Students admitted to Penn State for a summer start date must enroll in summer.
- Work no more than 20 hours per week on-campus with authorization.
- Cannot work off-campus without approval from ISSA (if DISSA issued the DS-2019 to the student) or the sponsor (i.e., IIE) who issued the DS-2019
- Report their non-U.S. address, local address and all telephone numbers (local, permanent, cell, and emergency).
- Keep their DS-2019 and passport valid at all times.
- Maintain health insurance.
- Not enroll in any distance education or on-line courses.
- Students must enroll as a full-time in summer if it is their first semester.
However, there are two important differences
- Those in J-1 status may be subject to what is referred to as the "two-year home residency requirement" or subject to 212(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The two-year home residency requirement means that an individual must return home for two years before applying for the H, L, or permanent residency visas. In addition, those subject to the two-year home residency requirement cannot change status to another within the U.S. A J-1 becomes subject to 212(e) by coming from a country and studying a field on the skills list, being sponsored by the U.S. government or the home country government, or studying in a program for graduate medical education.
- Dependents in J-2 status may apply for work permission and go to school as a part-time or full-time.
Attending Penn State in Another Visa Status
A Pennsylvania State University student who is not a U.S. citizen or U.S. permanent resident is classified as an international student. Not all international students are in F-1 or J-1 visa status, and the information below may provide some general guidelines on which visa statuses allow study.
You may not need an I-20 or DS-2019 from Penn State if you are in the U.S. on an unexpired visa (other than an F-1 or J-1) which allows full-time degree study. Important note: You must remain eligible for the other visa status by following the regulations of that status.
No Study Permitted
B-1, B-2, WB, WT- Individuals in one of these statuses should not begin studies until a change of status to “student” is approved. In restricted circumstances, the individual may study part-time in avocational and recreational subjects.
Incidental Study Permitted
Principal holders of A-1, A-2, E-1, E-2, G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, I, L-1 and those in H-1B, H-1C, H-2A, H-2B, H-3, J-1 (Professor), J-1 (Researcher), J-1 (Short-Term Scholar), J-1 (Specialist), J-1 (Trainee), J-1 (Physician), J-1 Au Pair, O-1, O-2, P-1, P-2, P-3, R-1, TN
Individuals in one of these statuses may engage in incidental study while continuing to maintain valid status. You must continue to do what the current immigration status requires.
Full-Time or Part-Time Study Permitted
Those in A3, H-4, J-2, L-2, M-2, NATO-1-7, O-3, P-4, R-2, TD and Dependents of A-1, A-2, E-1, D-2, G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, I, L-1 Q-1, Q-2, and Q-3. Individuals in one of these statuses may engage in part-time or full-time study as long as the individual continues to maintain valid status.You must continue to do what the current immigration status requires.
Part-Time Study Towards Degree
Individuals in F-2 status can only study part-time towards a degree, (less than 9 credits for undergraduate & law students and less than 6 credits for a graduate student).
Request your I-20 or DS-2019 to Obtain a Student Visa
The International Student and Scholar Advising (ISSA) is not involved with the academic admission process. ISSA is responsible for the processing of visa eligibility documents and advising, and works with students once they have been officially admitted to the University. Refer to the Admissions Office for admission inquiries.
The process for requesting your documentation is outlined below.
1. Accept your Offer of Admission
- Undergraduate Students: Access your acceptance letter and pay the acceptance fees through MyPennState.
- Graduate Students: After final review by the Graduate School, you will receive formal notification of your admission. Questions concerning your admission or denial should be directed to your intended program/plan of study.
- EA International Exchange Students: You will be contacted by an international student adviser directly via email. Please refer to the EA International Exchange Students webpage.
- Non-Degree-Seeking: Please refer to our the Non-Degree Study webpage.
2. Access iStart to complete the request
Pre-Arrival Advising will contact you via email and provide a set of instructions and a link to our secure on-line system called iStart. You cannot access iStart until we send you the instructions.
iStart will guide you through a series electronic forms (eForms), to be completed. The eForms include biographical and immigration-related information and instructions for uploading required documentation such as visas, passports, bank statements and/or certification of financial support.
- All newly admitted international students will need to complete the iStart process.
- International students who are not requesting an I-20/DS-2019 do not need to provide any financial information.
- The process to request an I-20 for F1 visa or a DS-2019 for J1 visa is the same.
- Undergraduates cannot access iStart until our office receives notification that you have paid any acceptance fees.
3. Case Review by Pre-Arrival Advising
Once you have submitted your document or clearance request through iStart, a pre-arrival adviser will review your case. The review process can take approximately 3 weeks during peak season from May to July.
You may be asked to submit additional information or documentation which can further the issuance of your document.
Your request cannot be reviewed until you complete all of the required eForms and submit your file for review.
4. Case Decision
- When your I-20 or DS-2019 is prepared, you will receive an email from the pre-arrival adviser.
- If you did not request a document, but clearance to study on your current visa, you will receive an email from the pre-arrival adviser when your request is approved.
- If you are transferring your SEVIS record from another U.S. school, you will receive an email notice with instructions from a pre-arrival adviser. The SEVIS Transfer information, also known as a "transfer-in form" will be in email format once your request is approved. The data is not available on our website.
The F-1 student visa is controlled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and is obtained with the I-20 Certificate of Eligibility issued by ISSA.
The regulations governing the issuance of the I-20 are prescribed as the following:
- Students meet the same academic criteria for admission as an admitted American students.
- Students possess sufficient English skills to study-except for those entering the Intensive English Communication Program (IECP).
- Students will pursue a defined and approved program of study.
- Students will pursue a program of study on a full time basis.
- Students have sufficient funds to provide for their educational and living expenses and those of any accompanying dependents “without resorting to unauthorized employment or becoming a public charge.”
Visa Application Steps and SEVIS I-901 Fee
SEVIS I-901 Fee
Before applying for a visa, you are required to pay the SEVIS I-901 fee if you have a new (Initial) I-20 or DS-2019. Students who receive a “transfer pending" I-20 or DS-2019 from Penn State do not need to pay the SEVIS I-901 fee as long as they begin classes within 5 month of their last enrollment. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has more information available about this fee.
Be careful and avoid SCAMS! FMJFee.com is the ONLY site certified to collect I-901 SEVIS Fee Payments.
You Must Pay the SEVIS I-901 Fee If:
- You are seeking an initial F-1 or J-1 visa from a U.S. consulate.
- You are a Canadian citizen seeking admission at a port-of-entry to begin initial attendance. (Canadian citizens are visa exempt, but the SEVIS fee must be paid before going to the border.)
- You are currently in the U.S. as a J-1 applying for a change of category-such as a change from J-1 scholar to J-1 student.
- You are in the U.S. in J-1 status and are applying for reinstatement after a substantive violation or you have been out of status for more than 120 days but less than 270 days.
- You are in the U.S. in F-1 status and are applying for reinstatement after failing to maintain status.
- You were in F-1 status but left the U.S. more than five (5) months ago.
Instructions for Visa Applications
- Pay the SEVIS I-901 fee at least 3 days before the visa interview (or earlier if you are not paying with a credit card)
- Complete the DS-160 visa application
- Pay the Visa Application fee (MRV)
- Schedule the visa appointment with the Embassy/Consulate closest to your location.
- Read important visa application tips from this NAFSA WEBSITE.
- Go to the visa appointment with:
- your DS-160 bar code receipt
- the MRV receipt
- the SEVIS fee receipt
- original I-20/DS-2019
- financial guarantee
- photos, and any other information the U.S. Consulate website indicates
You will find more information regarding locations and visa wait times on the individual Embassy websites.
Preparing to Enter the United States - Customs and Border Protection
The United States has rules and restrictions about who can enter, what activities are permitted, and what is required for each length of stay. You need to be aware of the many rules as you prepare to enter the United States.
I-94 Arrival/Departure Forms
Form I-94 is the DHS arrival/departure record. The I-94 is an extremely important piece of your travel record and status while in the United States. You should have a copy of the actual Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record which provides evidence of your legal admission to the U.S.
- Each time you enter the U.S., you will be issued a new I-94. Immediately after each entry, you should go to the I-94 website to pull up the new I-94 PDF and PRINT a copy for your records and as evidence of legal entry.
- You are required to upload your I-94 record in iStart as proof of your arrival into the United States during the Mandatory Document Check-In process.
- If you have been granted F-1 or J-1 status through a Change of Status process and do not have a visa stamp in your passport, you will receive an I-797 Approval Notice instead of an I-94 as proof of your status in the U.S.
Some items cannot be brought into the United States. Others may require permits, and yet others may only be restricted from certain locations. Read more information regarding Clearing Customs and Border Protection before you travel into the United States.
Under U.S. law, you can bring into, or take out of, the United States as much money as you wish. However, if it is more than $10,000, it must be reported to Customs and Border Protection. In addition, destination and transit country requirements may apply. Please read more about reporting currency on the Customs and Border Protection webpage.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Resources
F-1 Change of Status
F-1 Change of Status
There are two ways to change your F-1 status: Leave the United States with a new I-20 marked, "initial attendance" or remain in the United States and apply for a change of status. Be aware that F-1 students are required to carry medical insurance.
TRAVEL TO OBTAIN A DIFFERENT VISA STATUS
Traveling to obtain a new visa and then returning to the U.S. is the quickest method in getting a new immigration status. The steps are as follows:
- Obtain an initial I-20. If you are admitted into a program of study or are a current student and provide the financial guarantee required for your program, you are eligible to obtain an I-20.
- Newly Admitted Students will work with Pre-Arrival Advising to obtain form I-20.
- Current students must obtain an updated Financial Guarantee and go to the Change of Status eForm to request your new I-20. Your request will be assigned to an International Student Adviser who will issue the new I-20 and help you with the application process.
- Pay the I-901 (SEVIS) fee. We recommend paying the fee on-line.
- Complete the visa application (DS-160) and print the DS-160 receipt.
- Pay the Visa Application Fee (also known as the MRV fee).
- Schedule the visa appointment at a U.S. Embassy outside of the U.S..
- Keep all your documents with you when traveling.
- Go to the visa appointment with the following:
- DS-160 bar code receipt
- The MRV (visa application fee) receipt
- The SEVIS fee receipt
- Visa application receipt
- Original I-20 or DS-2019
- Financial guarantee
- Photos, and any other information the consulate website indicates.
You can learn about applying for the visa at the Education USA website.
NOTE: International F-1 students must follow the F-1 rules. Please be aware of what they are.
NON-TRAVEL OPTION FOR CHANGE OF STATUS FROM WITHIN THE U.S.
This option takes a longer time. USCIS will generally not approve a change of status more than 30 days before the beginning of the program of study. Also, if you leave the U.S. while this application is pending, USCIS will consider it an abandoned application and deny it. In addition, your current status must be valid at the time of the adjudication. Therefore, if you have a status that ends before USCIS can approve a change of status, you must apply for a bridge application. The bridge application may be an extension of your current status if this is possible or an application for visitor status (B-2) while the other application is pending. Therefore, the timing of a change of status application can be tricky. Because our office will not be notified of the change of status approval, you must inform ISSA of the approval or denial; if the I-20 date expires before adjudication by USCIS, your I-20 start date must be deferred because the I-20 will auto-cancel in 60 days, making the I-20 invalid. Also, if you leave the U.S. while this application is pending, USCIS will consider it an abandoned application and deny it.
Given the difficulty a change of status may pose in some situations, you should consult an attorney who specializes in immigration. We can provide you with a list of immigration attorneys upon request.
Application Process for Non-travel Option
- Remain in the United States while applying for the visa unless your current status prohibits a change. You cannot change your status within the United States if you:
- are currently in C, D, K, or M status
- entered the U.S. under the Visa-Waiver Pilot Program (WT or WB)
- are currently in J-1 or J-2 status and you are subject to the two-year home-country physical presence requirement
- are currently in B-1 or B-2 (visitor) status and it appears that you entered the U.S. for the purpose of study
- Obtain the I-20. If you are admitted into a program of study or are currently a student and provide the financial guarantee required for your program, you will be eligible to obtain an I-20.
- Newly Admitted Students will work with Pre-Arrival Advising to obtain form I-20.
- Current Students must obtain an updated Financial Guarantee and go to the Change of Status e-form to request your new I-20. Your request will be assigned to an International Student Adviser who will issue the new I-20 and help you with the application process.
- Read information about Possible Requested Documents and prepare the following documents to submit with your application:
- G-1145, E-Notification of Application/Petition Acceptance
- Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status
- Check made payable to the Department of Homeland Security. The current fee is $370.00. [Note: Effective Feb. 14, 2018, the filing fee can be paid by credit card using form G-1450, Authorization for Credit Card Transactions.]
- Copy of the I-20 or DS-2019 signed by you.
- Pay the SEVIS I-901 fee and save the Receipt indicating payment of the SEVIS fee
- Copies of financial support documents used to obtain the I-20
- Letter explaining the reason to change status
- Copies of all current immigration documents (e.g. DS-2019, I-20, I-797, paper or print-out of electronic Form I-94, valid passport, visa stamp, if applicable).
- Copies of dependent family member documentation if they too are requesting a change of status. Documents include the new I-20 or DS-2019 and all current immigration documents
- If your status is as a dependent (spouse or child), include copies of documents showing that the principal is in status.
The above documents should be submitted to the Service Center with jurisdiction over the address on the I-539. In Pennsylvania, the package is mailed to:
If using the U.S. Postal Service:
P.O. Box 660166
Dallas, TX 75266
If using U.S.P.S. Express Mail or another Mail Courier:
2501 S. State Highway 121 Business
Lewisville, TX 75067
Immigration and Customs
Like the United States, most countries have rules and restrictions about who can enter, what activities are permitted and what is required for each length of stay. Travelers should be aware of the requirements for entry, stay and exit from each destination and transit country on their itinerary. To find country-specific requirements, contact the country's consulate or embassy in the United States. Below is a link which will allow you to search for the relevant consulate or embassy.
Some items may not be brought into the United States. Others may require permits, and yet others may only be restricted from certain locations. Special restrictions apply to products made from endangered wildlife.
Taking Cash Abroad
Under U.S. law, travelers may bring into, or take out of, the United States as much money as they wish. However, if it is more than $10,000, it must be reported to Customs and Border Patrol. In addition, destination and transit country requirements may apply. Please see the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency’s Currency Reporting Advice for more information.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Resources
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency’s Currency Reporting Advice
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) "Know Before You Go"
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Prohibited and Restricted Items
Passports and Visas
Some countries require passports of travelers to be valid for a certain period of time after entry into their country. Others require the student to have a certain level of international health insurance coverage. Travelers should confirm passport and visa requirements for all transit and destination countries.
Entry/Exit or Import/Export Requirements
Some countries also impose vaccination requirements, entry/exit taxes, or other requirements that you should be aware of before departure. Many countries have restrictions on which items you can bring to, or take from, the country. Many times, this includes medication. More information can be found at the CBP Customs and Import Restrictions Advice page.
International Students Going Abroad
International students at Penn State may face unique requirements for travel outside of the United States. These students should consult with an international student adviser at the International Student and Scholar Advising (ISSA) to determine how overseas study will affect their current immigration status. Click here to Contact ISSA
Transferring SEVIS Data From Another U.S. School
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) considers any move from one U.S. school to another as a "SEVIS transfer," even if the student has graduated from the first institution.
The transfer of your SEVIS record from one school to another allows you to keep the same SEVID ID number for the duration of studies in the U.S.
- Accept your offer of Admission from The Pennsylvania State University
- Complete the New Student SEVIS Transfer Request in iStart
- Have your case approved by Pre-Arrival Advising. The proper school code and transfer-in data will be provided to you and your current school when your iStart request is approved.
- Contact your current institution and complete any requirements for their “transfer-out process”
- Your Penn State I-20 will be sent to you electronically once the document is issued.
- A SEVIS transfer is a transfer of immigration documentation - not academic records.
- Penn State does not have a "transfer-in form." The school information and proper campus will be supplied via email with the approval of your request in iStart.
- It is important that your current school transfers your SEVIS record to the correct Penn State campus. Your SEVIS record must be released to Penn State within sixty (60) days following the completion of study at your current institution or completion of OPT.
- The transfer date is determined by you and your current institution.
- Optional Practical Training: Your OPT will terminate on the date that your SEVIS record is released to Penn State. OPT authorization is not transferrable.
- You have only 15 days after the start of Penn State classes to get into registered status in SEVIS. The registration process includes: completing Mandatory Document Check-in through iStart, and attending all mandatory international student orientation sessions.
- Penn State cannot print your new I-20 / DS-2019 document until after your record has been released to The Pennsylvania State University in SEVIS.
Health insurance is mandatory for all international students in F-1 and J-1 status and their accompanying dependents. The U.S. Department of State requires all J-1 exchange visitors (students, scholars, interns, etc.) and their dependents maintain health insurance. Willful violation of this mandate requires termination of the J-1 status.
Mandatory Immigration (SEVIS) Check-In
All students in initial or transfer F-1 and J-1 status must complete Mandatory Immigration Check-in (MICI) to be registered in SEVIS. The International Student and Scholar Advising staff (ISSA) must receive and review your immigration documents and contact information, including address and telephone data, to register you as an active student in SEVIS.
This process is necessary to maintain legal status in the United States. Federal laws and regulations require nonimmigrant student information to be updated and maintained in SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System).
Failure to be registered in SEVIS will cause the student’s legal status in the U.S. to be terminated. A terminated SEVIS record will prevent a student from working in the U.S., getting a driver’s license, and may result in immediate U.S. departure.
Failure to complete the final steps of MICI upon arrival will result in an academic ‘hold’ on the LionPATH record preventing future academic enrollment. Once MICI is approved, the ‘hold’ will be removed by ISSA.
You will check-in with International Student and Scholar Advising during International Student Orientation. Part of Check-In is completed online in iStart. Part of Check-In is completed in Accounts Management
COMPLETE UPON ARRIVAL TO CAMPUS
- Visa Upload
- I-94 Record and travel history
- Update Personal Information at accounts.psu.edu
- Submit Check-In for Review
Any F-1 and J-1 students with an initial or transfer pending Penn State I-20 or DS-2019 must complete immigration check-in. Students who have been approved for a change of status with USCIS must complete check-in upon approval of the new status. Fulbright students, exchange students, and Intensive English students must complete immigration check-in. Continuing students who have the same SEVIS ID in their 2nd, 3rd, and future semesters do not need to complete the MICI process again unless a new SEVIS ID is issued.
HINT: Graduate Assistants/Fellows: Complete the SSN letter request at the same time!