If you have violated your F-1 or M-1 student status—even if you haven't been caught at it—you may want to step up and apply for "reinstatement." If your request for reinstatement is approved, USCIS will officially recognize that you have gotten back your student status (and are no longer accruing unlawful time) as of the date your reinstatement is approved.
Common forms of violating one's status include dropping out of school or enrolling part-time without requesting a reduced course load from a DSO.
COVID-19 NOTE: Normally, one of the rules of a student visa would be that you must attend classes, in person. However, in light of the pandemic, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has said it will be "flexible with temporary adaptations" adopted by the schools sponsoring foreign students. This doesn't mean that you can invent your own rules if your school is closed or is conducting online classes. Rather, it means you should stay in close touch with your DSO about what arrangements the school is making for foreign students, and how to best maintain your status so as to avoid having to request reinstatement.
Of course, more serious issues like a run-in with police can lead to loss of status. Working without authorization is another common form of violating student status, but reinstatement is not available in this situation.
The process of applying for reinstatement is the same for F-1 and M-1 visa holders. You will need to work with your DSO to assemble certain forms, attach some supporting paperwork, and mail it all to a USCIS office, as described below.
Acting in a timely manner is important here: You will need to get an answer from USCIS before the expected completion date on your Form I-20 has passed. Otherwise, and even if the delay was not your fault, you will have reapply for a student visa the next time you are in your home country.
When you send in your application, include a cover letter making clear what date you need a decision by.
You need to fill out only one form to apply for reinstatement, USCIS Form I-539, together with a supplemental sheet if you have family members with you in the United States. Your DSO, however, will also need to issue a new Form I-20 authorizing reinstatement.
When you've got a copy of Form I-539 in hand, follow our line-by-line instructions for filling it out. (This discussion refers to the version of the form issued 03/10/2021.)
Part 1. Information About You
This section is mostly self-explanatory.
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 U.S. lawful permanent residence (a green card). If you were in court proceedings or had any applications denied, especially for a reason such as fraud, see a lawyer.
Similarly, you will not have an online account number unless you registered with USCIS to submit various sorts of applications.
You will probably not have a Social Security number unless you formerly had a visa or status that allowed you to work. If you don't have a number, enter "None."
For a few people, the I-94 number appears on a small white card that they received upon entry at the border. More likely, however, you will have not received a paper I-94, and can download the needed information from the U.S. Customs & Border Protection website.
For "Current Nonimmigrant status," write "Out of Status Student." Your "expiration date" will be on Form I-94, and might just indicate "Duration of Status" (D/S), in which case you would check the box for that.
Part 2: Application Type
Check box 1, for reinstatement to student status.
Question 5: This is where you make sure your family members, if any are accompanying you in the U.S., get included in your application. If you want them to have visa status after your reinstatement, check box a. The number you should enter is the total number of family members plus you.
Part 3: Processing Information
Question 1: Answer this even though it seems to mention only extensions. Enter the program end date on your latest I-20 form.
Questions 2 and 3: Answer No, and don't fill in any of the other information requested in this section.
Part 4. Additional Information About the Applicant
Questions 1 and 2: Self-explanatory questions based on the information in your passport and calling for your overseas address.
Take another look at when your passport expires. If it's within the next six months or less, you should have it renewed. You can usually do this at a consulate of your home country in the United States. If there isn't a consulate in the city where you're living, try searching for locations in Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Chicago.
Question 3: If you (or any members of your family) have submitted an application for an immigrant visa, which shows that you're seeking a green card, USCIS will probably conclude that you have no intention of returning home after your student stay. Your application might therefore be denied. There isn't a solution for this, and hiding the other application is impossible.
Question 4: 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 permanently immigrating to the United States. Some petitions will only place you on a waiting list that will last many years before you see an immigrant visa. Nevertheless, USCIS will likely deny your application if your answer to this question is Yes.
Question 5: See advice for Question 3. Form I-485 is simply the U.S. version of a green card application.
Questions 6 through 15 are designed to see whether you are inadmissible to the United States.
Question 6: If you were simply 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 any more serious arrests, you must consult a lawyer before going any farther. Most convictions will make you inadmissible to the United States.
Questions 7-15: If you answer yes to any of these questions, you will need to see an attorney. These situations are not easily explained and are likely to result in a finding of inadmissibility.
Question 12: If you have violated your status you will have to apply to USCIS for not only reinstatement but an extension of your status.
Question 13: If you are now in removal proceedings, see a lawyer. It's likely that your immigration status is completely in the hands of the court, which would mean the USCIS administrative office will have no power to act on your application.
Question 14: If you have been employed, this is no problem so long as it was within the conditions of your student status and, if required, specifically authorized by USCIS. Attach a photocopy of both sides of your work permit (EAD) if you had one and explain your employment in "Part 9 Additional Information." If you answer "No" to this question, you have to explain how you are supporting yourself in "Part 9 Additional Information."
Question 15: If you were ever in J-1 or J-2 status, you will need to provide copies of your DS-2019 forms with your application.
Part 5. Applicant's Statement, Contact Information, Declaration, Certification, and Signature
Part 6. Interpreter's Contact Information, Statement, Certification, and Signature
If an interpreter helped you fill out this application, that person must complete this section.
Part 7. Contact Information, Certification, and Signature of the Person Preparing this Application, If Other Than the Applicant.
This is where a lawyer, accredited representative, or other person would sign. If you simply had some typing help, the person does not need to sign.
Line-by-Line Instructions for Form I-539 Supplement A
Form I-539 Supplement A includes extra pages attached to the I-539 application. You'll need to use it only if you have a foreign-born spouse and/or children staying with you in F-2 or M-2 status. The form has repeating blocks for information about your spouse and children. Most of it is self-explanatory.
Under Date of Arrival, put the person's most recent arrival into the United States (many people mistakenly put their first arrival).
The spouse or children's Current nonimmigrant status is either F-2 overstay or M-2 overstay.
"Expires on" refers to the date their status expires, which will be on Form I-94 and might just be "Duration of Status" (D/S).
When you enter the expiration date of the family member's passport, make sure that it is at least six months into the future. If not, get the passport renewed. However, if waiting for the renewal will cause problems for this application, simply submit this application, write in the existing passport expiration date, and then add "renewal pending."
Any public benefits received in the U.S. by your family members will also need to be listed on this form.
In addition to the forms described above, you'll need to submit some documents and other items with your reinstatement application. These include:
If you have been out of status for more than five months, you have to pay a new SEVIS fee and include proof of payment with your application.
Your DSO can choose to write a letter of support to include with your application. Ask your DSO to do this if the reason for falling out of status could have been prevented by the DSO.
When you have put your reinstatement application together, submit it to USCIS at the address on its instruction page for Form I-539. You may also submit it online through USCIS's Electronic Immigration system. Make a complete copy of the entire submission for your records.
Once your reinstatement is approved, USCIS will return your Form I-20 with written entries ("endorsements") to show your reinstatement. It will also send word to your school.
Note that your pre-violation student time still counts to your benefit. If you will be applying for any benefits that require you to add up how much time you have been a student—such as a practical training work permit that requires one academic year of F-1 student status—you can count the months before you violated your status as well as the months after you were reinstated. The months in between, however, don't count.
If your reinstatement is denied, you have no right to appeal the denial. However, if you acquire some new evidence showing why you shouldn't have been denied, you can ask USCIS to reopen the decision—but get the help of a lawyer for this, and act quickly.
After a denial, you will probably receive a Notice to Appear in court (NTA) placing you in removal proceedings. At the conclusion of these proceedings the judge could order you deported.