If you are presently in the U.S. on a valid visa, but want to enter school and switch your immigration status to “student,” submitting a “change of status” application may be a good option. For example, if you are a worker whose H-1B visa will soon expire, spending time studying in the United States may be a natural next step.
Not everyone is eligible to change status, however. If you entered on the Visa Waiver Program or as a crewman, you cannot submit this application. If you entered as a tourist, you should have gotten a special notation on your visa indicating that you would be looking at and possibly applying to schools while in the United States. If you did not receive this "prospective student" notation, you can still apply to change your status in the United States, but the process might be more difficult because you will have to prove why you are now deciding to stay for school when your original intent was just to visit. If in doubt, consult an attorney over your right to change status.
The Change of Status application requirements are nearly identical for F-1 (academic) and M-1 (vocational) applicants. You’ll start by getting what’s called a SEVIS Form I-20 from the school that admits you, and paying the SEVIS fee. After that, you’ll fill out and assemble more paperwork , including Form I-539 Application to Change Nonimmigrant Status, and send it all to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a decision.
If you are applying to academic programs, start contacting schools at least a year before you plan to start your studies. Vocational programs tend to follow their own schedules. Just remember to leave enough time for an admission decision by your program (ask the school for a time estimate) as well as a Change of Status decision by USCIS (allow at least four months).
When you receive the SEVIS I-20, you’ll see that the front has been signed by the school’s Designated Student Officer (“DSO,” the school’s link between international students and USCIS). Sign the bottom of the form. If you are under age 18, one of your parents will have to sign as well. Then hang onto the form until ready with the rest of your Change of Status application.
Before signing your I-20, review it carefully for errors. If there are errors, send it back to the school for correction. It’s better to have the school fix any errors now than to have to explain them to a -consular or USCIS officer later.
The Application Form: I-539
You will need to fill out Form I-539, available for free download from USCIS. Attach a Supplement-1 page if your spouse or children will be staying in the U.S. with you. Form I-539 has more than one use—don’t be confused by the presence of questions that don’t apply to you.
The questions on this form are mostly self-explanatory, but we’ll focus on some potentially confusing ones here.
In Part 1, if you have a Social Security number but haven’t had a visa allowing you to work in the U.S., filling in a number here could send the message that you’ve worked illegally. If you have a solid explanation for having had a Social Security number, attach a letter giving the details. If not, consult a lawyer.
You will have an “A-number” (an eight- or nine-digit -number following the letter “A” for Alien) only if you have been in deportation or removal proceedings or submitted certain immigration applications, particularly for permanent residence. If you were in proceedings or had any applications denied, see a lawyer.
Your “I-94 number” may be on the small white card that you received at the airport or border. However, if you entered the U.S. after April 2013, you may have instead received an automated I-94 that is accessible on the Customs & Border Protection website. If the date on Form I-94 has passed, you are no longer in status and cannot file this application.
For “Current nonimmigrant status,” enter the type of visa you have now, such as “B-2 visitor.” The date your status “Expires on” will be on your Form I-94.
In Part 2, Application Type, for Question 1: As a first-time applicant for student status, you should check box 1b and enter the code “F-1” for academic student status or “M-1” for vocational student status.
In Question 2, count up any spouse or children who will be staying in the U.S. with you. Check box 2b, and then write in the total number of them plus you. Also, fill out the Form I-539 Supplement-1 page.
For Part 3, Processing Information, Question 1: Ignore the fact that this seems to only mention extensions. Enter the same date as the one given on your I-20 for the expected completion of your program. For Questions 2 to 4: As the primary applicant, your answer to these questions is “no.”
For Part 4 Question 3: These questions are designed to see whether you are inadmissible. Think carefully before entering your answers; or see a lawyer. Regarding Question 3a: If you (or any members of your family) have submitted an application for an “immigrant visa,” this indicates that you’re seeking a green card. USCIS may naturally conclude that you have no intention of returning home after your student stay and will deny your Change of Status application. There isn’t a solution for this—and hiding the other application is impossible.
Question 3b: This is similar to the question above except that instead of referring to an application that you filed yourself, it asks whether someone else has filed a petition to start the process of you obtaining permanent U.S. residence. For example, some petitions filed by family members will place you on a waiting list that will last many years before you see an immigrant visa. Nevertheless, USCIS may deny your application if your answer to this question is Yes.
Question 3c: See advice for Question 3a. Form I-485 is simply the U.S. version of a green card application.
Question 3d: Note that if you were arrested and not charged (for example, the police picked up the wrong person), you are safe entering “Yes” here and attaching a written explanation and a copy of the police report. But for more serious arrests, you must consult a lawyer before going any farther.
Question 3e: To determine whether you have violated your current immigration status, consider the type of visa you are on and what you agreed to do to get that visa. For example, if you came to the U.S. as a tourist, but worked for pay, this would be a status violation, and USCIS will probably deny this Change of Status application.
Question 3f: If you are now in “removal proceedings” talk to a lawyer immediately. It’s likely that USCIS has no power over your application because your immigration situation is in the hands of the courts.
Question 3g: If you have been employed in the U.S., your work needs to have been permissible under the visa or status that you had at the time. You may also have been required to obtain a work permit card from USCIS. If your work wasn’t permitted, talk to a lawyer. If your work was permitted, look at the paragraph below the question to see what additional information you’ll need to supply (do so on a separate piece of paper, and put your name at the top in case it gets separated from the main form). Also add a photocopy of both sides of your work permit (EAD) if you had one.
Documents You’ll Need to Submit With Form I-539
You’ll need to assemble documents confirming your ability to support yourself during your studies and attesting to your intent to return home at their completion. Below is a list of the required documents:
- copy of the primary pages of your passport, which must be valid for at least six months longer than the current date
- your original I-94 card (received at the U.S. border) or if you received an automated one, a printed out copy
- documentation that you have not fallen out of lawful immigration status (by overstaying or violating the conditions of your visa) since arriving in the U.S.; normally your I-94 will be enough to show this
- documents showing that you will return to your home country, such as home title documents or leases, a letter from your employer showing that a job awaits you, or birth and marriage certificates showing that you have close family in your home country. This can be difficult for young applicants who have not had the opportunity to establish such ties back home. USCIS officers should be used to seeing younger applicants who wish to change their status for school. It will be very helpful if you submit a personal affidavit that explains your intent to return home and that lists family ties you still maintain there.
- documents showing that you have the academic credentials to attend the school or program of your choice, including diplomas, transcripts and scores from standardized tests required by the school that you will be attending
- documents showing that you can pay your tuition, fees and living expenses, which can include copies of your or your family member’s bank or investment statements and pay stubs or an employer letter, plus a Form I-134 Affidavit of Support (in which a friend or family member promises to support you) if necessary
- Fee ($290 as of early 2014, but check the Forms page of the USCIS website for updates). Pay by check or money order, payable to the Department of Homeland Security. Do not send cash.
Processing Your Change of Status Application
Send your Change of Status application by mail to the USCIS Dallas Lockbox Facility. Check the USCIS website for details because the filing location can change. Use either a courier service such as FedEx or U.S. certified mail with a return receipt. This will help to track the application if it’s lost.
If you are filing for a change of status without dependents, you may be eligible to submit your application through USCIS's electronic immigration system (ELIS). More information about eligibility and directions for using ELIS is available on the “USCIS ELIS” page.
When to Send the Application
You are not permitted to apply for a Change of Status until 30 days have passed since you entered the United States. On the other hand, you cannot apply later than the expiration date of your current stay and should allow for at least three months for USCIS to make a decision. The safest course is to apply no later than three months before the expiration of your current stay.
What Happens After You Submit Change of Status Application
After you have mailed your Change of Status application, USCIS should send you a receipt notice within a few weeks. The notice will predict how long the agency will take to approve or deny your application. USCIS may or may not ask you to attend an interview.
What if classes have started and you still haven’t gotten an answer from USCIS? If you are eligible, it’s best to start attending class. If you are changing to F-1 status from B-1, B-2, or F-2 status, however, you are not eligible to start attending classes until your change of Status application is approved. If you are not eligible, your DSO will advise you to defer your attendance. Otherwise, if your approval comes and you haven’t been attending school, you’ll find that you have violated your student status before getting to enjoy it — and you could be deported as a result. The school’s DSO will understand this dilemma, and should be able to make sure the school doesn’t hold up your registration over your lack of immigration status.