As a foreign student in the United States on an F-1 visa, you are required to register for a full-time course load every semester in order to maintain your status. Each university will have its own requirements for how many credits are needed to be full-time. You will want to confirm the number of credits with your Designated School Official (DSO). Remember that it is your job to make sure that you register for enough classes each semester to maintain full-time status in your program.
Maintaining a full-time course load sounds simple enough, but students do slip up. Sometimes they are overwhelmed by the pressures of starting at a new school in a foreign country and drop classes without thinking. Other times, they become too relaxed because their program is coming to an end and they don’t need a full-time course load to graduate.
Fortunately, there are circumstances where you can request a reduced course load from your DSO, register as a part-time student, and still maintain your status in the United States. It is important for you to be aware of what these circumstances are because, in most cases, you can ask for a reduced course load only early in the semester, during the drop/add period at your university. If you wait, it may be too late.
You can request a reduced course load from your DSO under any of the following circumstances:
Academic difficulties. Certain academic difficulties will justify a reduced course load. These include difficulties with English, reading requirements and/or the American teaching style during the first year of your program. It can also include being placed in an improper course level at any point during your program.
Medical illness. Having a medical illness may justify a reduced course load if your doctor believes that a full-time course load is not good for your health.
Final semester. If it’s your final semester and you do not need a full-time course load to graduate, you can receive a reduced course load.
You can request one reduced course load for an academic difficulty stemming from your understanding of English, reading, and/or American teaching styles during your first year, or for an improper course level at any point during the program.
Difficulties with English are something you should be aware of before beginning your program. Your school will have a minimum English proficiency requirement and if you scored below this, you may have been accepted on a part-time basis in order to study English within your program.
If you were admitted on a full-time basis but you have concerns about your English abilities, you should talk to your academic advisor at the beginning of your program to find out whether a part-time schedule is right for you. Academic difficulties with reading and/or American teaching styles may not be obvious until you start your classes. You need to try and recognize these difficulties as soon as possible so that you have time to receive authorization for a reduced course load if you need one.
If you are concerned that you were placed in an improper course level, the first thing you should do is speak to an academic advisor. This exception focuses only on academic level, and not your course of study. If you want to drop a class because you think you will fail it, that is not enough for you to request a reduced course load. Your DSO will probably seek the advice of your academic advisor in determining whether or not you were in fact placed in the wrong academic level. You can request a reduced course load for this academic difficulty at any point during your program, but remember that you will not be eligible if you already received one for first-year struggles with English, reading, or American teaching styles.
Coming down with a medical illness that prevents you from attending class is a valid reason for taking a reduced course load. You can request a reduced course load for a medical reason, even if you already received one for an academic difficulty. You will need to documentation from your healthcare provider that advises you to register part-time in order to request this reduced course load.
The most common reason for requesting a reduced course load is that it’s your final semester and you don’t need a full-time course load to complete your program. A lot of students make the mistake of not requesting a reduced course load their final semester because they don’t know what else they would register for to be full-time. "Do I really have to register and pay for an elective course I don’t need?" The answer is yes, if you don’t receive a reduced course load.
You should know before the semester starts how many credits you need, and request a reduced course load as early as possible. You will be eligible for one, even if you already received one for an academic difficulty or a medical illness.
If you have other reasons for not maintaining a full-time course load, talk to your DSO before you register for classes. Failing to register for a full-time course load without receiving authorization from your DSO for a reduced course load will result in you being out of status, the legal consequences of which can be severe, as discussed in Nolo's articles on "Life in the U.S. on a Student Visa."