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.

F-1 (I-20) vs. J-1 Student (DS-2019)

F-1 Visa

To enter the U.S. in F-1 status, DISSA must provide the student with an I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility) that is used to obtain the F-1 visa. DISSA is required to determine if students have enough financial resources to attend school and pay for their living expenses while attending school without resorting to illegal employment or relying on public funds.

The F-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa; therefore, students must prove to the U.S. consulate that they have ties to their home country and will not remain in the United States upon completion of their 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 DISSA or recommendation from DISSA 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.

J-1 VISA

Another visa category that is 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 which is the Certificate of Eligibility cannot be given to students who have 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.
  • Cannot work off-campus without approval from DISSA (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

  1. 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 those individuals 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.
  2. 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.

If you have any questions, please contact International@psu.edu or DISSA-Adviser@psu.edu. Immigration rules change frequently and it is important to confirm current rules regarding status and study.

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 Directorate of International Student and Scholar Advising (DISSA) is not involved with the academic admission process.  DISSA 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 hosts a Pre-Arrival Checklist for newly admitted international students which will list all of the required steps before you arrive to your campus.

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.

5. Shipment of your document

Be sure to complete the Express Mail eForm in iStart.  You can complete the Express Mail Request now, but your document cannot be shipped until it is issued and prepared by our office.  Completing the shipping request early will not speed the review of your I-20 or DS-2019 request.

I-20 Issuance

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 DISSA.

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.  

Watch the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) I-901 SEVIS Fee tutorial, and then Pay the I-901 SEVIS Fee on-line.

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

  1. 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)
  2. Complete the DS-160 visa application
  3. Pay the Visa Application fee (MRV)
  4. Schedule the visa appointment with the Embassy/Consulate closest to your location.
  5. Go to the visa appointment with:
  • your DS-160 bar code receipt
  • the MRV receipt
  • the SEVIS fee receipt
  • original I-20/DS-2019
  • passport
  • 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.

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.

U.S. Customs

Restrictions

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

Country-Specific Requirements

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 advisor at the Directorate of International Student and Scholar Advising (DISSA) to determine how overseas study will affect their current immigration status. DISSA can be contacted through email at DISSA-Adviser@psu.edu or via walk-in at 409 Boucke Building.

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.

Basic Process

  1. Accept your offer of Admission from The Pennsylvania State University
  2. Complete the New Student SEVIS Transfer Request in iStart
  3. 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.
  4. Contact your current institution and complete any requirements for their “transfer-out process”
  5. Complete the New Student Shipping Request in iStart to receive the Penn State document.

Important Notes

  • 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. 

J-1 Change of Status

Eligibility for Change of Status to J-1

There are two ways to gain a new immigration status - Travel and change of status:

  1. Applying for the appropriate visa at a U.S. consulate and re-entering in the new status. This option may be the quickest way to change status.
  2. It is also possible to change your immigration status to J-1 status within the United States, unless your current status prohibits a change. Applying for a change of status within the U.S. can take months. 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-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.

Note Regarding Change of J-1 Category: If you are currently not a student but in J-1 exchange visitor status in another category such as scholar, professor, au pair, high school student, etc., changing to J-1 student status is not possible without the permission of the Department of State. This is not a change of immigration status but a change of category. Change of category requests are most often not approved.

If you are eligible and provide the financial guarantee required for your program, DISSA will issue a DS-2019. It is important to understand that as an J-1 student you must follow the J-1 rules.

Steps

Current Students: obtain an updated financial guarantee form (from our Financial Guarantee Requirements site) and go to the Change of Status eForm to request your new DS-2019. Your request will be assigned to an International Student Adviser who will issue the new DS-2019 and help you with your application.

Newly Admitted Students: you will be contacted by a Pre-Arrival Adviser.

Read information about Possible Requested Documents.

Submit the following documents to apply for a change of status to USCIS:

  • Form I-539
  • Filing Fee [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 Form DS-2019. If you have dependents, include a copy of Form DS–2019 of each dependent.
  • Proof of having paid SEVIS I-901 fee
  • Copies of financial support documents
  • Copy of Form I-94. Click here to retrieve your I-94 if you don't have a copy.
  • Copies of any other documents that establish current maintenance of nonimmigrant status.
  • Properly completed and endorsed I-566 if changing from A (diplomatic) or G (international organization) status

NOTE: Please visit USCIS Filing Addresses for Form I-539 to mail your package to the correct USCIS filing address. We recommend using certified mail and making copies of all documents before sending to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

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 Option

Sometimes 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:

Application Process for Travel Option

  1. Obtain the 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.
  1. Pay the I-901 (SEVIS) fee. We recommend paying the fee on-line.
  2. Complete the visa application (DS-160) and print the DS-160 receipt.
  3. Pay the Visa Application Fee (also known as the MRV fee).
  4. Schedule the visa appointment at a U.S. Embassy outside of the U.S..
  5. 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
  • Passport
  • Financial guarantee
  • Photos, and any other information the consulate website indicates.
  1. Keep all of your documents with you when traveling.

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

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.

Application Process for Non-travel Option

  1. 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
  1. 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.
  1. Read information about Possible Reqeusted Documents
  2. G-1145, E-Notification of Application/Petition Acceptance
  3. Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status
  4. 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.]
  5. Copy of the I-20 or DS-2019 signed by you.
  6. Receipt indicating payment of the SEVIS fee
  7. Copies of financial support documents used to obtain the I-20 or DS-2019
  8. Letter explaining the reason to change status
  9. 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).
  10. 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.
  11. These 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:

USCIS
P.O. Box 660166
Dallas, TX 75266

If using U.S.P.S. Express Mail or another Mail Courier:

USCIS
ATTN: I-539
2501 S. State Highway 121 Business
Suite 400
Lewisville, TX 75067

Mandatory Health Insurance

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.

Fulfilling the Health Insurance Requirement

Students must either purchase insurance through the Penn State Insurance Office or apply for a waiver by providing evidence of current health insurance coverage that meets the Penn State insurance standards.

Students are required to complete this requirement each August by the deadline established by University Health Services. There is a late fee charged to students who fail to meet the mandatory health insurance requirements by the deadline.  The first time late penalty fee is $50 and the late fee is $100 the second time.

The financial guarantee required for the I-20 or DS-2019 includes the estimated amount for health insurance.

Graduate Assistants and Graduate Fellows are automatically enrolled in the Penn State insurance plan.  Penn State covers 80% of the insurance premium for the graduate assistant/fellow and 70% of the premium for dependents.  Students must work with Student Insurance in 302 Student Health Center to decline insurance or to add dependents.

Contact:

Student Health Insurance
The Pennsylvania State University
302 Student Health Center
University Park, PA  16802

Email:  UHS-insurance@psu.edu
Tel.: 1-814-865-7467

Mandatory Document Check In

Federal laws and regulations require nonimmigrant student information to be updated and maintained.  Penn State must register all F and J students in SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System).  To do so, all students in ‘Initial” or “Transfer” status must complete Mandatory Document Check In. 

You can begin this process before entering the United States, but you MUST return to iStart and complete forms after you arrive and have the I-94 record. 

There are 3 options for the Mandatory Document Check-In.  Complete the eForm group that is appropriate for your admission semester:

Mandatory Spring Document Check-In For students who begin classes in January
Mandatory Summer Document Check-In For students who begin classes in May or June
Mandatory Fall Document Check-In For students who begin classes in August

Step 1 

Before you log into iStart for Mandatory Document Check-In, please complete the following: 

  • Get your U.S. student visa
  • Scan and save the following documents (PDF is preferred):
    • Passport photo (not the passport page) - This photo is 2 in. X 2 in. and has a white background.
    • Passport biographical page (containing photo, number, issue date, expiration date, etc.) 
    • U.S. student visa stamp (F-1 or J-1)
    • Penn State I-20 or DS-2019 visa document SIGNED by you (the one issued by Penn State – not by another school)
    • Any Employment Authorization Documents (EAD) if you worked under a previous immigration status
  • Retrieve your I-94 record – You will not have an I-94 record until you have entered the United States with the above documents 

    Step 2 

    Complete all required eForms in the group.

    Mandatory Document Check In will not be approved until you have registered contact information in LionPATH. You must update a CURRENT U.S. ADDRESS (where you sleep), a PERMANENT ADDRESS (outside of the U.S.), a LOCAL OR MOBILE PHONE NUMBER, and a NON-PSU EMAIL. 
     

    • Arriving by air or sea - go to https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/ to "Get most recent I-94" record. (Print as a PDF file and save it.)
    • Arriving by car – you should receive a small white card at the port-of-entry 
    • Log into iStart.
    • Look under “Admission” on the left side menu.
    • Click on the proper Mandatory Document Check In link.
    • Read instructions.
    • Click on “Begin a new Request.”  If you are returning to a previously started Mandatory Document Check In, you will click on the dated link under the eForm group.