The F-1 or M-1 student visa that is stamped in your passport does not represent the date you must leave the U.S. – only the dates through which you can use your visa to ENTER the United States. So if the visa stamped in your passport has run out but your I-20 is still valid and you are otherwise maintaining your status, you don’t have to stop studying or leave the United States.
However, if you do take a trip outside the United States, you will need to renew the visa in order to return. This application cannot be made within the United States. All you can do within the U.S. is change or extend your “status” as a student – which will allow you to stay in the U.S. legally, but won’t allow you to leave and return.
Don’t worry about the need to renew your visa until your next trip home. At that time, you will need to go to your local U.S. consulate with your passport, your I-94 card (original or copy), your I-20, two photos, a visa fee and a receipt for having filled out State Department Form DS-160 online.
Some consulates may also ask you to submit a certified copy of your grades and proof of enrollment from the school you are attending, as well as documents like the ones you submitted with your initial application. These include financial documents showing that you are still able to cover your tuition, fees and living expenses and evidence of your ongoing ties to your home country.
In theory, you could also renew your visa in a third country such as Canada or Mexico. However, you will likely need a separate visa with which to enter that country. In addition, you will need to schedule an appointment with the appropriate U.S. consulate at least three weeks before you leave the United States. If you do decide to renew your visa in a third country, be aware that there is always a risk that your visa application can be delayed and that you may have to remain in that country longer than you intended. This can happen if the consulate requires further security checks on your application, which is otherwise known as administrative processing. Administrative processing can take up to 60 days or more.
The following checklist summarizes the forms and documents you’ll need to present to an overseas U.S. consulate in order to renew your student visa. By checking off the boxes as you’ve prepared or collected things, you’ll ensure that you exit the country without leaving anything behind.
For more information on issues relevant to your current situation, see “Life in the U.S. on a Student or Exchange Visitor Visa.”