Gotten Sick, and on a Student Visa: How Do I Keep F-1 Status?

If you still can't keep up with the required study hours, talk to your DSO. Exceptions can be granted, including based on illness.

As a U.S. foreign student (on an F-1 or M-1 visa), your right to remain in the U.S. depends on maintaining your student immigration status throughout your studies. That means, for example, going to school as expected, pursuing a full course of study, and getting approval from your designated school official (DSO) before pursuing any changes in your overall plan.

But what happens if you become too sick to go to class full-time or otherwise comply with the terms of your F-1 student visa in the United States?

What a “Full Course of Study” Requires for F-1 Students

A “full course of study” means that you cannot be going to school on a part-time basis. Your study must “lead to the attainment of a specific educational or professional objective.” This can be a degree such as a Bachelor’s, Master’s, Ph.D., or other certification.

But perhaps you don't need to put in as many school hours as you think. The following types of study are acceptable:

  • Postgraduate or postdoctoral study at a college, university, conservatory or religious seminary. Post-graduate study usually requires at least nine credit hours per term, but your school may have different requirements. You can likely receive an exception to the requirement for a full course of study during the last term if fewer hours are needed to finish.
  • Undergraduate study at a college or university. Full time usually means at least 12 credit hours per term (for schools on the semester or quarter system), but your school may have different requirements. Also, you can usually receive an exception to the requirement for a full course of study during your last term if you need fewer hours to finish.
  • Study at a post-high school institution (such as a community college). It must award “associate” or comparable degrees.
  • Study in a language, liberal arts, fine arts or other non-vocational training program. You must put attend at least 18 actual hours per week, or 22 hours if most of the study time is spent in a laboratory.
  • Study at a high school (9th through 12th grade) or elementary school (first through 8th grade). You will need at least the number of classroom hours per week that the school requires for normal progress toward graduation.

You will be allowed some breaks in your study regimen. These are typically winter and summer breaks. You are not allowed a break for personally scheduled vacations that disrupt your studies during the academic term and prevent you from completing your coursework.

What to Do If You Really Can't Keep Up a Full Course of Study

If you still can't keep up with the required study hours, talk to your DSO, who can grant exceptions, including based on illness. Even if you didn't talk to your DSO in advance, and basically dropped out of school for a while, it's still worth getting in touch. Reinstating your student status may still be possible.

As soon as you are fully recovered, you are expected to resume a full-time course load.

If your illness prevents you from completing your studies by the date on your I-20, you will need to apply for an extension of time. The procedure for this involves filling out USCIS Form I-539 and, if and when you travel overseas, renewing your entry visa.

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