Like all countries in the world, the United States has laws and regulations governing foreigners who are temporarily within its borders. The immigration regulations are administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). These regulations can change frequently and are difficult to interpret. It is important for you to understand the immigration rules as they apply to your student status. DHS does not consider ignorance of the law a legitimate reason for failing to obey it. Questions should be directed to a Designated School Official (DSO) in the International Programs Office. DHS requires that a copy of your passport, visa, I-94 and other immigration documents be kept on file with the International Programs Office, as well as your local address and telephone number, so it is important that you check in with IPO upon your arrival to UT. The local DHS office address is as follows:
U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services
5524 W. Cypress
Tampa, FL 33607
Be sure to keep your passport in a safe place. It is your most important document. Most passports are good for a limited period of time. Your passport must be valid at all times while you are in the United States, and should be valid for six months in the future upon each entry into the U.S. It is your responsibility to remember when it will expire and contact the nearest consulate or embassy of your country if it will expire while you are in the U.S. Your passport can only be extended by your government, and it usually takes several weeks for a passport to be renewed, so be sure to allow enough time. Remember that you are in this country illegally when your passport expires and could be subject to deportation. Do not let this happen!
The visa stamped in your passport at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate is for permission to enter the United States for a specific purpose and period of time. Students are usually given an F-1 visa. Spouses and children of F-1 visa holders are assigned an F-2 visa. J-1 visas are given to researchers, scholars and students who are sponsored by agencies or universities. Spouses and children of these visitors are assigned J-2 visas. Since this stamp is only important for entry and re-entry to the United States, there is no need to worry if it expires while you are here if you are maintaining your student status. If you need to leave the U.S. temporarily and your visa has expired, a DSO will counsel you on how to obtain a new visa. You will need to notify the International Programs Office well in advance of your departure to allow time to prepare the necessary paperwork. Because a visa is only a permit to apply for entry into a country, it is not possible to obtain a U.S. visa while you are in the U.S. To apply for a visa, you must go to a U.S. consulate or embassy in a country other than the United States, usually your home country.
I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record)
Form I-94, also called the Arrival/Departure Record of Stay Permit, is the small white card given to you at the port of entry to the U.S. This form is very important since it officially determines how long an international student can remain in the U.S. Students on the F-1 and J-1 visas should have their I-94 stamped "D/S" (Duration of Status) which means that the student can remain in this country for the length of time required to complete his/her studies as long as the student follows all of the regulations of the student visa. (See section on Duration of Status for more information.) The eleven digit number written on your I-94 is your DHS admission number which is used by the DHS to monitor your entry into and departure from the U.S. You surrender the I-94 upon departure and obtain a new one at each entry.
If you are on a visa other than an F or J, or if you have a specific date stamped on your I-94 card instead of the “D/S” designation, you must apply for an extension or exit the U.S before the expiration date or you will be considered out of status and a visa overstay, which can have serious DHS consequences.
When The University of Tampa accepts an international student for full-time study, it sends the student a Form I-20 as proof of acceptance and to to use to apply for an F-1 Student Visa. A DHS inspector at the port of entry will stamp your I-20 upon arrival and give it back to you to use as your travel document. It must be signed by a DSO before you leave the United States, and at least once every 12 months when traveling. Students should keep copies of all I-20s issued to them.
Maintaining Status/Being "In-Status" with DHS
An F-1 student is considered in status for the entire length of time during which he/she is enrolled as a full-time student in an educational program if adhering to the conditions of the visa designated on the I-94 card, plus any authorized period of practical training and an additional 60 days to prepare for departure. Be sure to pay close attention to the conditions described below:
- You must be enrolled as a full-time student at the university you are authorized to attend. This means that you must only attend the school whose I-20 you last used to enter the U.S. or the school whose I-20 you used to transfer schools. Should you decide to withdraw from school, you are not allowed to remain in the U.S. in student status.
- You must be a full-time student during each semester term of the academic year. At The University of Tampa full-time enrollment is 12 credit hours per semester for undergraduates and eight credit hours for graduate students. Exceptions can be made on the recommendation of a DSO for valid medical or academic reasons as defined by the DHS. Be sure to speak with a DSO about any exceptions BEFORE dropping courses to avoid the serious consequences that may result from being out of status.
- You must apply for extensions in a timely fashion. Duration of Status expires if a student takes longer than expected to complete a given academic level (e.g. bachelor's, master's, doctorate.) The amount of time permitted for completing studies at a given level is determined by the date put on the initial I-20 issued at the beginning of each academic level. Students must pay close attention to the expected completion date noted in Item 5 on the form I-20 for each level. If more time is needed, an application for extension of stay must be filed with DHS before the expiration date. There are certain requirements you must meet to be eligible for an extension, so you will need to consult with a DSO at least 45 days before the completion date.
- You must report any change of address to IPO within 10 days of the change.
- You may engage in off-campus employment or practical training only when you have received the necessary permission. (See section on Employment.)
- You must get a reentry signature on your I-20 before traveling out of the U.S.
Students who fail to maintain full-time course enrollment (unless authorized) will have their SEVIS record terminated and are not eligible for any of the benefits of the student visa: on-campus and off-campus employment, practical training, remaining in the U.S. during summer vacation, transfer to another school or change of level, or registration for further courses. They are considered to be "out of status" and must apply to DHS for reinstatement to valid student status. Eligibility for benefits will be regained only if and when DHS approves the reinstatement. If you have any questions regarding reinstatement, see a DSO immediately.
For schools on a semester system, students are required to attend full-time during the fall and spring terms. Students do not have to be enrolled during the summer vacation period and may remain in the U.S. without jeopardizing their immigration status. Students beginning their studies in the summer, however, must be enrolled full-time during their first session of study.
Travel Outside the U.S.
If you plan on leaving the U.S. temporarily to visit your homeland or some other country, a DSO must validate your I-20 for re-entry into the U.S. (Allow at least one week before your departure.). You will not be allowed back into the U.S. without the validated immigration documents, a current visa and a passport which is valid for at least six months after you re-enter the country.
Most students in valid status but having an expired F-1 visa may travel to Canada, Mexico and many of the adjacent islands for a period of 30 days or fewer if they have a valid passport, a valid I-94 and a signed I-20 or DS-2019. If you apply for a visa renewal while in adjacent territory, however, you must wait until an approval is given. If the visa is denied, you will not have the option to re-enter with the retained I-94 and expired visa. Also, remember that Canada, Mexico and the Island nations require entry visas for citizens of certain countries. It is always best to check with the embassy or consulate of any country you wish to visit for visa requirements. And if you intend to travel with an expired visa, check with the International Programs Office to get a letter citing the contiguous territory regulation on visa revalidation.
Transfer to Another School
To be eligible to transfer schools, you must be pursuing a full course of study at your current school. Otherwise you are "out of status" and must apply to DHS for reinstatement to student status which, if granted, will allow you to transfer. Students wishing to transfer to another school must notify the International Programs Office at The University of Tampa of their intent so that their SEVIS record can be released. The transfer institution will issue a new I-20 and upon arrival at the new school, the student should take the I-20 to the international student advisor there. J-1 students wishing to transfer should consult with their sponsor.
How to Get Assistance with Immigration Matters
With the changing climate of regulations in conjunction with the SEVIS international student tracking system, students need to be diligent about maintaining status and keeping their documents in order. The DSOs in the International Programs Office are available to help you process your immigration forms and documents. Working with DHS can be very complicated, detailed and time-consuming. It is important that you do not rely on information that you pick up from friends and other students because circumstances may vary from one student to another and the regulations are in flux. A DSO must work within the federal immigration laws. When making a request, please make sure you allow plenty of time for your request to be processed and plan to be patient. Have your documents, such as your passport, I-94 card, I-20 or DS-2019 with you when you come to the office on an immigration matter.
You should allow at least one week for processing signatures, letters and/or other types of paperwork. Special consideration will be given for emergency situations.
Students should not expect the IPO to keep track of when their documents expire. It is YOUR responsibility to keep track of all immigration documents and keep them current.