Understanding Your Legal Requirements

This section contains information about maintaining your F-1 and J-1 immigration status. While Penn State’s international student advisers can assist you in understanding the benefits, requirements, and limitations of your status, it is ultimately your responsibility to maintain your immigration status. Please read the information in this section carefully.

Exceptions to Full Time Enrollment

International students in F-1 and J-1 status are required to be registered full time during fall and spring semesters. Full time for undergraduates is 12 credits, and full time for graduate students is 9 credits. Students do not have to be enrolled in summer unless they were admitted for summer or if it is the last semester of their degree program.

U.S. regulations do allow reduced course loads in restricted situations. Students should never assume that they have the right to a reduced course load at any time during their program of study. Moreover, students must get permission in advance from International Student and Scholar Advising (ISSA) for a reduced course load by completing the Reduced Course Load eForm in iStart. Otherwise, under-enrollment will be reported in SEVIS as a violation and the student’s SEVIS record will be terminated for “unauthorized drop below full course level.”

All authorizations for reduced course loads must meet criteria as set forth in the F-1 and J-1 regulations.


  1. Social Security Contributions:  If you have been in the U.S. for more than five years, you may be subject to having significant Social Security contributions withheld from earnings if you do not meet enrollment criteria for FICA/MEDI exemptions.  These rules differ from immigration regulations; contact the Payroll Office for information.
  2. Tuition Penalty Charges:  If you drop below full-time enrollment or your originally registered level, there may be tuition penalty charges.  See http://www.bursar.psu.edu/adju. Contact the Bursar if you have questions.
  3. Students currently in non-degree status at Penn State are NOT eligible to apply for a reduced course load.

Academic Difficulty

This reason cannot be used more than one time in the program of study. The first two reasons below can only be used if the student is new within the U.S. It would be inappropriate for someone who has studied in the U.S. or who has been at Penn State for more than one semester.

  1. Initial academic difficulty due to student being unfamiliar with American teaching methods
  2. Initial academic difficulty due to problems with English language or due to the reading requirements
  3. Student is placed in an improper course level.

Last Semester of Enrollment

Student will complete the program of study in the semester for which the reduced course load is being requested. For students in non-thesis programs, this is the last semester of any enrollment. For students in programs of study which require a thesis or paper, this is the last semester of any enrollment and submission of the thesis or paper even if it is too late for official graduation.

[Note: Undergraduate and graduate students in non-thesis options MUST be enrolled in at least three credits of in-class instruction.]

Master’s Student Who Requires Less Than 9 Credits While Engaged in Full Time Thesis or Paper Research and Writing

Students must enroll for a minimum of one credit each semester of reduced course load and cannot use this reason in combination of Last Semester of Enrollment. Students writing a thesis will be limited to two semesters, and students writing a paper will be limited to one semester.

Doctoral Student Who Requires Less Than 9 Credits To Complete Required Course Work and Preparing Full Time For Comprehensive Exam

Students must enroll for a minimum of one credit, and approval for reduced course load is limited to one semester because the student should be preparing full time (at least 40 hours per week).

Medical/Psychological Reasons

In general, all requests for medical or psychological reasons will be vetted through University Health Services (UHS) or Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Therefore, students must have been seen for treatment at UHS or CAPS or must submit documentation from a physician or psychiatrist to either UHS (medical) or CAPS (psychological) for review. The director of UHS or CAPS will determine if the health problem was of a serious nature, warranting a reduced course load. Maximum approval for reduced course load based on medical or psychological reasons as set forth in regulations is 12 months.