Many students come to the United States to pursue a course of studies, usually at a college or university. However, under the terms of the F-1 student visa, a student who fails to comply with the visa terms is no longer in valid status, and can be removed from the United States.
Common ways that students violate the terms of the F-1 visa include failing to pursue a full course of studies, forgetting to renew your passport and keep it with you, or failing to notify the appropriate school official of your arrival and any changes of address.
If you have fallen out of F-1 status, but wish to return to your studies, you’ll need to apply first for what’s called reinstatement. Don’t wait, there’s a deadline on this of five months after you fell out of status (unless exceptional circumstances stopped you from filing for reinstatement sooner).
The exception is working without authorization. If you lose F-1 status on this basis, you cannot apply for reinstatement.
Whether You Are Eligible for Reinstatement
Your chances of being reinstated as an F-1 student are highest if you do not have a history of repeatedly or willfully violating USCIS rules. You must be pursuing, or plan to pursue, a full course of study at your school. You also must not have been engaged in unauthorized work or become deportable under the U.S immigration laws.
Most importantly, you will need to establish that this violation was either:
- beyond your control, perhaps due to a serious injury or illness, school closure, a natural disaster, or a mistake or neglect on the part of your school’s international student adviser (ISO), often called a designated student officer (DSO), or
- was related to a reduction in your course load that would have been within the ISO’s power to authorize in the first place, and that failure to approve your reinstatement would result in extreme hardship to you.
As discussed below, you’ll be expected to prove the grounds upon which are asking for reinstatement, such as with letters from doctors or school officials.
Reinstatement Application Process
Assess your eligibility for reinstatement with the help of your school’s international student adviser. If the adviser feels that you have a valid case, then the following need to be provided to USCIS:
- USCIS Form I-539. This form is used for multiple purposes, so it can be confusing. When filling it out, in Part 2, Question 1, check "c". In Part 3, Question 1, write “D/S” (which stands for duration of status, meaning until you’ve completed your studies). In part 4, Question 3e, you’ll need to check “yes”. Then print REINSTATEMENT in red ink at the top of the form. Download the form here: http://www.uscis.gov/files/form/i-539.pdf
- A check for the appropriate fee ($290 in 2011, but check the USCIS website at www.uscis.gov for the latest).
- A cover letter detailing the circumstances that led to your loss of F-1 status and why these were either beyond your control, or were due to your ISO and you’d suffer extreme hardship if you weren’t reinstated.
- Proof of any reasons that you’ve stated for why the circumstances were beyond your control, such as a notice from your school describing closure after a natural disaster, or a letter from your doctor and hospital records if you were sick or injured.
- A newly issue I-20 form from your school.
- A photocopy of your old I-20.
- A photocopy of financial support papers to prove that you can pay for your continued schooling.
- A photocopy of your currently valid passport photo page as well as the page showing your latest visa entry stamp.
- A photocopy of your Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record.
- A photocopy of your latest transcript and upcoming course registration.
After making a complete photocopy for your records, mail the entire application to USCIS, at the address stated on the I-539 page of its website.
How Long You’ll Wait for an Answer
The waiting period for USCIS action on a reinstatement request varies. Waits of between two and four months are typical. You can check the USCIS website for the status of your application, using your receipt number.
While you wait, you cannot work on campus. You also cannot leave the United States without prior approval.
If the application is approved, your new I-20 will be mailed to your address. If your application is denied, you will be expected to leave the U.S., and might be barred from reentering for three or ten years (depending on whether your overstay was more than six months but less than a year or more than a year).
Getting a New F-1 Visa As Well
If you leave the U.S., your reinstatement alone may not be enough to let you back in. Particularly if you overstayed your permitted time under your visa, you may need to visit a U.S. consulate for a new visa. Talk to your ISO before departing.