Overview: Maintaining Valid F-1 Student Status

A foreign national is subject to specific, strict requirements as a condition of obtaining F-1 status as a full-time student. Failure to follow legal requirements can lead to status violations, which can have potentially devastating effects for many international students. Foreign national students must stay informed regarding these requirements to avoid inadvertent status violations. The information contained here is a follow up to our August 1, 2011 NewsBrief, Factors for F-1 Students to Consider in Selecting a College or University. Common F-1 status problems are discussed and MurthyDotCom and MurthyBulletin readers are provided with suggestions for avoiding certain pitfalls that could put the valid F-1 status of an international student in jeopardy.

Background: Raids on TVU and UNVA Impacts Students

As our regular readers will recall, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted a raid of Tri-Valley University (TVU) in January 2011. The school was closed, and the students were all considered immediately out of status. More recently, ICE raided the University of Northern Virginia (UNVA), as reported August 1, 2011 in our NewsBrief, The University of Northern Virginia: Tri-Valley Version 2. Some of the students faced accusations of status violations even though they were acting in accordance with school policy and had all required documents and approvals.

Some of the students at TVU were deemed to be status violators for taking only online courses, as was the school’s practice. Other TVU students were viewed as engaging in unauthorized employment, due to working on school-issued Curricular Practical Training (CPT) immediately after enrollment. These problems highlight the need for students to be more proactive and informed when it comes to the law and legal requirements to maintain F-1 status. They can no longer simply rely on what they are told by the designated school official (DSO) or upon the fact that their school has SEVP certification to sponsor F-1 students.

Consequences of Failing to Maintain F-1 Student Status

Students who are found to have violated their F-1 status may face serious consequences, including the initiation of removal (deportation) proceedings against them. Other potential consequences include: ineligibility for reinstatement to F-1 status, inability to transfer to a different university or program, inability to change status to another nonimmigrant status, and difficulties reentering the United States after traveling abroad.

Unauthorized Employment and its Impact on Students

Unauthorized employment is one of the commonly used allegations of F-1 status violation. Its consequences typically include unavailability of reinstatement as an option to resume status. Unauthorized employment may result from a variety of scenarios, such as off-campus work, or on-campus work without proper Curricular Practical Training (CPT) authorization. However, in the case of TVU, even students working under authorized CPT were not always safe. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has categorized some of these CPT authorizations as invalid. This, in turn, results in an after-the-fact determination that some students failed to maintain status. Therefore, students applying for and receiving employment authorization should be familiar with the rules. This allows them to identify and avoid situations that could create problems for them in the long run.

Curricular Practical Training: Basic Rules of CPT

As a general rule, only students who have completed one full academic year in F-1 status are eligible for CPT authorization. The exception to this is limited to students enrolled in graduate programs that require immediate participation in CPT. It is generally not enough for a program to require practical training that can be completed at any time during the course of study. The program must specifically require practical training during the first year of the program. This is not a particularly common requirement.

Other typical examples of CPT violation include employment other than that which was authorized. This includes working for an employer other than the one for which the I-20 authorization was issued as well as CPT employment that is not an integral part of an established curriculum. It should be noted that there are many other CPT requirements that must be met in order for the employment to be valid, but early enrollment in CPT is perhaps the most frequently-seen problem area for F-1 students using CPT.

Avoid Inadvertent Unauthorized Employment

Most students know they are not supposed to work without any authorization. However, like foreign nationals without work authorization, students must be careful not to inadvertently engage in unauthorized employment by “helping” with friends’ businesses or multilevel marketing schemes, internet selling, and other such ventures. Additionally, students must be careful to avoid committing violations when they are engaged in on-campus employment. This can occur when students exceed the allowed number of hours (i.e. 20 hours per week when the school is in session and full-time during scheduled breaks) or continue on-campus employment after expiration of the I-20.

Overview of Rules for Online Classes

The limits to enrolling in online classes were brought to the forefront during the aftermath of the TVU raid. Under current regulations, F-1 students are limited to enrollment in one online class per academic session in a graduate program. No online classes are permitted for students engaged in undergraduate study. Students should be wary of schools that advise their foreign national students that taking all or most of their classes online will not result in a status violation.

Requirement to Maintain a Full Course of Study

F-1 students should be aware that they must take a full load of classes during each regular session, unless authorized for a reduced course load by the DSO under limited circumstances. While the regulations and guidance provided by the Student and Exchange Visitors’ Program (SEVP) are clear that a student taking at least 12 semester hours in an undergraduate program is considered full time, the interpretation of the full-time requirement is less clear with regard to graduate study.


Rules for maintaining F-1 status are complex and can be confusing for students. It is common for students to rely upon the school and the DSO to advise them regarding all legal requirements. For many, this is sufficient. Most reputable schools undertake the time and incur the costs of hiring knowledgeable DSOs to keep their F-1 programs in full compliance, and to provide their students with proper guidance. Ultimately, however, the F-1 student is responsible for his/her own status and needs to be aware of basic requirements in order to identify common mistakes before a violation occurs.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.