When you come to study in the U.S. as a nonimmigrant student (F-1 or M-1), your DSO (Designated School Official) becomes an important person in your life. The DSO is responsible for creating your Form I-20, keeping you informed of the federal rules and regulations governing your student visa status, and, in some cases, facilitating your interactions with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Your DSO might also serve as a guide to living and surviving in the United States. For example, many DSOs provide help with understanding American social expectations such as dating and communicating with friends or professors, as well as assistance with culture shock issues. The DSO might even provide a friendly shoulder on which to cry.
However, you should never forget that your DSO has official responsibilities to your university's international student program. If you tell your DSO about something you've done that amounts to a violation of your student visa status, the DSO is responsible for reporting your violation to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).
A DSO who fails to report a student's violation could place the whole university in danger of losing the privilege of hosting international students. This would be a big price to pay for keeping your violation a secret. Although your DSO might feel sad about having to do so, the DSO will report your violation to avoid risking the university's reputation, not to mention the DSO's job!
Here are seven examples of serious immigration violations that your DSO would truly hate to hear that you have done:
The obvious solution is not to engage in these activities in the first place. But if it's too late for that and the deed is done, realize that your DSO is not going to be able to cover for you and hide what you've done from the U.S. government. You might need to speak to an immigration attorney for the reasons further described below.
It is also important to properly report your arrival on campus to your DSO and/or OIS so that an accurate and complete record of your presence in the United States can be maintained. Your DSO has 30 days after the initial session start date (the day your academic program begins) to report your arrival to the U.S. government via the SEVIS system. Missing this deadline could cause your SEVIS record to be automatically deleted, which would threaten your very visa status.
Make sure that you provide all required documentation requested by your DSO concerning your arrival, so as to avoid any careless errors than could potentially result in a violation of your student visa status.
Your right to work in the U.S. as an F-1 student is strictly limited, mostly to working on-campus, "incident to status." (See, for example, When F-1 Students Can Work in the U.S.) And M-1 students can't work while in school at all, other than six months of practical training after they complete their study program.
In many situations, obtaining work authorization involves submitting an application to USCIS and waiting to receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).
If you work in the United States without authorization, you could be found unlawfully present in the U.S., which would seriously harm your ability to live in, work in, or (after a departure), reenter the United States. If you bring an incident of unauthorized employment to the attention of your DSO, the DSO has an obligation to report your actions to SEVP. This will result in the immediate termination of your student visa status.
For an in-depth discussion of unauthorized employment as it relates to the F-1 student, please read F-1 Students and Work Violations.
One way that F-1 visa holders may legally work after completing their degree program is through Optional Practical Employment, or OPT. Read more about the OPT program in Hiring International Students Recently Graduated From U.S. Schools.
While engaged in OPT, you are still in F-1 status, so you must report your OPT employment details to your DSO and USCIS through the SEVP portal. If your employment status changes, or if there will be an interruption in your employment, you must report these changes as well. Accruing more than 90 days of unemployment will result in a violation of your F-1 status (this period is 150 days for STEM OPT). Making sure that you comply with all OPT requirements is important to avoiding an immigration violation.
Another common problem happens when student visa applicants submit financial documents reflecting money that is not actually theirs or will not be accessible during their academic stay in the United States. This can occur either when obtaining the student visa in the first place or asking the DSO to grant an extension of Form I-20.
Such actions can constitute visa fraud, which occurs when someone gives incorrect information, conceals relevant facts, or misrepresents anything on an F-1, M-1, or other visa application. Visa fraud is a federal offense, punishable by up to ten years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Even if you avoid criminal prosecution for visa fraud, you will likely be deported from the U.S. and subject to a lifetime bar on reentering this country. (See Noncitizens in Deportation or Removal Proceedings.)
How would your DSO discover that you've submitted fraudulent financial documentation? This can occur when the DSO conducts a thorough review of your case file. Your DSO is required to keep detailed case files, including copies of all the documents you submitted to show the financial support required to obtain the initial F-1 or M-1 visa and subsequent I-20 extensions.
When requesting an extension of your Form I-20, your DSO must determine whether you have been maintaining proper student status before granting the extension. The DSO will look back through all documentation in your file to make that determination. If your DSO discovers that you have committed visa fraud, the DSO must, by law, report your status violation to SEVP by terminating your student status in the SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor's Information System).
Another immigration violation that a DSO absolutely cannot help you cover up is marriage fraud. You might have already had conversations with other students who, knowing that you must leave the U.S. when your student stay expires, wonder whether one of your mutual U.S. citizen friends wouldn't be willing to marry you.
Realize, however, that any arrangement in which you enter into a marriage to a U.S. citizen that is not bona fide and in good faith—that is, where the marriage is specifically for the purpose of obtaining a green card—is marriage fraud. A good faith marriage is one in which you have every intention of creating a life together as a married couple. Two common examples of marriage fraud are either paying a broker or middleman to locate a willing U.S. citizen or paying a U.S. citizen directly to marry you and file for your green card. But even a marriage where no money changes hands can constitute marriage fraud.
If you share with your DSO that you have already committed marriage fraud, your DSO, again, has the duty to report your actions to SEVP, thus resulting in the termination of your student visa status.
Your school schedule could cause problems with your F-1 visa status if you are not careful. F-1 visa holders are required to enroll in classes full-time, which is 12 credit hours per semester or term. To comply with this requirement, you should not withdraw from classes if it will put you below the 12-hour requirement without first seeking permission from your DSO.
There are some exceptions to the 12-hour requirement, including:
Talk to your DSO if any of these become an issue for you.
Sometimes, online classes could cause you to fall below the 12-hour requirement. Only one online class per semester or term is ordinarily permitted to count toward the minimum credit hours requirement. However, this requirement has been modified due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Fall 2022, students in F-1 status may take multiple online classes to count toward the minimum requirements as long as they remain in at least one on-campus or in-person course per term or semester. Take note that this is a temporary exception that is not expected to replace the general rule.
Sometimes, life happens, and you might need to leave the United States for a family emergency or some other personal matter. If you are facing such a situation, talk to your DSO about your options, including potentially obtaining an early withdrawal from your academic program. If you need to withdraw earlier than expected, you will have 15 days to depart the United States once your withdrawal request is granted. If you stay in the U.S. past these 15 days, you will be out of status, which is an immigration violation. Also, if you choose to withdraw from your academic program without first receiving approval for early withdrawal, you will be out of status the moment you withdraw, which is also an immigration violation. If you wish to resume studies after withdrawing, you must contact your DSO to receive an updated I-20. Depending on how long you were gone, you might need to restart the application process.
If you are sick and need to miss classes but don't necessarily need a leave of absence, it is important to tell your DSO about the reason you are missing classes. If you fail to inform your DSO of your illness and you miss some classes, the DSO might report your absence from school to USCIS, which could result in an accidental violation. A good rule of thumb to avoid potential immigration violations due to scheduling issues is this—always tell your DSO about any changes to your course load or ability to attend classes, in advance whenever possible.
If you are expelled or suspended from school, your F-1 status is in trouble. Expulsion or suspension from your academic institution requires termination of your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record, putting you in violation of F-1status immediately. At that point, your options are very limited. You can either immediately depart the U.S. or appeal the decision while applying and gaining admission to another school as soon as possible.
Being expelled or suspended while on an F-1 visa is an extremely stressful and tricky position to be in, so it's best to avoid it. Make sure you are familiar with your school's rules and policies so that you can avoid academic punishment and potential immigration violation.
If you have any more specific questions about student visa immigration violations, or if you find yourself in a situation where you feel you could be in serious violation of your student status or have fallen out of status and need to seek reinstatement, contact an immigration lawyer immediately for advice.