Not everyone is eligible to change status in the U.S., whether to student or to some other category.
If, for instance, you entered the U.S. either on the Visa Waiver Program (sometimes called "ESTA") or as a crewman, you cannot submit a change of status application. (For details, see Came to the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program: Can I Change to M-1 Vocational Student Status?)
If you entered as a tourist (on a B-2 visa), you should have, before departing your home country, asked for and received from the U.S. consulate 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 difficult. 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 ability to change status.
If you did not get the “prospective student” notation in your B-2 visa, you should be careful about the timing of a request to change status. Officials from the Department of State (which handles immigration matters at embassies and consulates abroad) recently adopted a so-called 60-day rule.
That rule creates a presumption of misrepresentation if you enter the U.S. in one visa category but then apply to change to another visa category (or apply to get a green card) within 60 days of that entry into the United States. That is to say, if you apply to change status quickly without a good reason, officials will conclude that you lied during your previous U.S. entry.
The prospective student” notation would qualify as good reason, and you could likely avoid this presumption. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security (which handles immigration matters within the United States) do not have an official rule on this topic, but they still check for possible misrepresentation when reviewing requests to change status. So for most people, it’s best to wait at least 60 days after you entered the United States to submit any change of status request (unless you have the “prospective student” notation).
Immigration rules for student visas indicate that you can enter the U.S. on a student visa up to 30 days before your school begins. Immigration officials have interpreted this rule to also mean that you must maintain your current status until 30 days before your studies will start. If you cannot show this, your change of status request will be denied.
In practice, this means that you may have to submit multiple requests. The first request will be to extend your current status. The second request will be to change your status to that of student. (For more information about extensions of status, see Filling Out Form I-539 to Extend Nonimmigrant Status.) The best practice is to file the extension request first and then to include a receipt for the extension request with the change request.
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 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 a few months). And don’t forget that you may need to extend your current status as well.
When you receive the SEVIS I-20, you’ll see that the front has been signed by the school’s Designated Student Officer (“DSO”), who is the school’s link between international students and USCIS. Before signing your I-20, review it carefully for errors and send it back for any needed correction. (It’s better to have the school fix errors now than to have to explain them to a consular or USCIS officer later.)
Sign the bottom of the form. If you are under age 18, one of your parents will have to sign as well.
Hang onto the form until you're ready with the rest of your change of status application.
The main application form you will need to fill out is 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 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. This discussion refers to the version of the form issued 12/23/16, expiring 4/30/2018.
Part 1 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 permanent residence. If you were in proceedings or had any applications denied, see a lawyer.
If you have a real Social Security number but haven’t been granted a visa allowing you to work in the U.S., filling the number in 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.
The “I-94 number” was once found on a small white card received at the airport or border. As of April 2013, however, most applicants receive an automated I-94, accessible on the Customs & Border Protection website. If the date on your Form I-94 has passed, you are no longer in status and cannot file this application.
If you have a regular passport, enter your number in "Passport Number," and the same number in "Travel Document Number." (Some applicants, such as some refugees, don't have a passport but have some other sort of travel document.)
For “Current Nonimmigrant Status,” enter the type of visa you have now, such as “B-2 visitor.” The “Expiration Date” will be on your Form I-94, NOT in your visa.
In Part 2, Application Type, for Question 1: As a first-time applicant for student status, you should check box 2.a and in 2.b, enter either “F-1” for academic student status or “M-1” for vocational student status.
Question 4 assists you in changing status for any spouse or children who are staying in the U.S. with you. Check box 5.a if you'd like them to change status too, and then in 5.b, 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 date given on your I-20 for the expected completion of your program, and check box 1/b if appropriate (most students are allowed to stay until their studies are completed; that is, for "Duration of Status").
For Questions 2 to 3: As the primary applicant, you should be able to answer “no” to or skip these questions.
For Part 4, Additional Information: You must show that you are not inadmissible. Think carefully before entering your answers, or see a lawyer. Regarding Questions 3 through 5: If you (or any members of your family) have submitted applications leading to a green card, USCIS may naturally conclude that you have no intention of returning home after your student stay. It will thus deny your Change of Status application. There isn’t a solution for this—and hiding the other application is impossible.
Question 6: 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 any more serious arrests, consult a lawyer before going any farther.
Question 17: 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 18: If you are now in “removal proceedings” talk to a lawyer immediately. USCIS probably has no power over your application; your immigration situation is in the hands of the courts.
Question 19: If you have been employed in the U.S., your work needs to have been permissible under the visa or status 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.
Part 5 is where you sign your name and affirm that you understand the form and have provided true information. If an interpreter or attorney helped you, that person will need to fill in Part 6 or Part 7.
The form also contains space for you to fill in more information about various of your answers.
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. Include these documents with your application:
Send your Change of Status application by mail to the USCIS Dallas Lockbox Facility. Check the USCIS website for details; filing locations 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.
You are not permitted to apply for a Change of Status until 30 days have passed since you entered the United States. And as noted above, you should not apply until 60 days have passed since you entered the United States (unless you have the “prospective student” notation or can show a clear reason why your plans changed.)
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.
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 I-539 application. USCIS may or may not ask you to attend an interview.
What if classes start and you still haven’t gotten an answer from USCIS? If you are otherwise 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. (F-2 visa holders may study part-time, and B-1 and B-2 visa holders may engage in “recreational” or “avocational” study only.) If you are not eligible to begin studies before the change of status is approved, your DSO will advise you to defer your attendance.
If your school has to defer your attendance, be careful that the new start date on your I-20 isn’t too far in the future. You may have to submit a request to extend your current status (or a second request if you have already done so). Be careful to follow these rules, if you study when you were not supposed to or if you don’t study when you should have, 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.