You can typically switch your US immigration status in two ways:

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Whether you choose to travel or apply to USCIS, the Immigration and Nationality Act requires you to demonstrate:

  • that you intend to leave the US after completing your program of study 

OR

  • that you do not plan to stay in the United States indefinitely

Individuals in certain immigration categories will need to supply additional documentation with the change of status application AND/OR meet certain eligibility criteria. Please visit the Criteria Specific section for more information.


IMPORTANT TO NOTE

Although permitted to begin classes in most cases, students who have not yet obtained F-1 or J-1 status, via travel or an approval notice from USCIS, are not eligible for F-1 or J-1 student benefits, such as on-campus or off-campus employment. 


Visiting scholars who have not yet obtained J-1 status, via travel or an approval notice from USCIS, may not assume their roles unless they have an alternate form of work authorization.


For information on change of status to H-1B, E-3, or another immigration category for work at Penn, please visit our Scholars & Departments section.

  • TRAVEL ABROAD and Re-entry
  • You need to leave the US before commencing your academic program, obtain an F-1 or J-1 US Entry Visa while abroad, and reenter the US in F-1 or J-1 status.

    Steps in detail:

    1. Obtain an I-20/DS-2019 issued by Penn.
    2. Pay the SEVIS fee when you receive the I-20/DS-2019 and use it to apply for the US Entry Visa at a US embassy or consulate abroad.
      • ISSS recommends that you apply for the Entry Visa in your country of citizenship or permanent residence.
    3. Upon entry to the US, present the I-20/DS-2019, passport, Entry Visa, and SEVIS fee payment confirmation (that can be printed from the fee website) to the immigration inspector.

      • You will receive a Form I-94 Arrival-Departure Record (if issued paper I-94), or an entry/admission stamp in your passport (if issued electronic I-94) indicating F-1 or J-1 status

      • Refer to the automated I-94 process for more information

    For more details on entering the US or getting the US Entry visa visit the New Student Immigration section.

    PLEASE NOTE: Upon arrival in the United States, all F-1/J-1 Students and J-1 Scholars new to Penn or beginning programs in F or J status for the first time

    • Must report to ISSS in person to register their immigration status within 15 days from the program start date listed on the I-20/DS-2019.
    • ISSS will in turn report their arrival to the government through the SEVIS system.
    • Please visit International Student Orientation or J-1 Scholar Orientation for ISSS check-in and orientation schedules.
  • APPLY TO USCIS for a Change Status to F-1 or J-1
  • Before applying, note that: Although ISSS can give general guidance on the I-539 process, we are not able to give legal advice. If your application is complex, ISSS recommends consulting an immigration attorney.

    • The I-539 and attachments are sent to the US Citizenship & Immigration (USCIS)
    • If you are currently in the US you may be eligible to apply
    • You should not depart the US after submitting your I-539 without prior consultation with ISSS.
    • USCIS reviews applications based on your ability to document and justify a change of intent after arrival to the US.
    • Applications are approved at the discretion of the USCIS adjudicator.
    • NOTE: consult ISSS prior to e-filing I-539 via the USCIS website as the processes differ.
    • Your current non-immigrant status must be valid
      • At the time the application is received at USCIS 
      • AND will continue to be valid until the date the new status is requested to begin
    • If USCIS determines that the change would be approved more than 30 days before program start date, the application could be denied.

    To apply for a change of status to F-1 or J-1 within the US

    1. Read and print the Application Guidelines
      • Keep these instructions with you as you complete your application. 
      • Also review Page 2 of these guidelines for Important Considerations as you begin this process.
    2. Complete the Form I-539

Extra Details for Certain Immigration Categories

Individuals in certain immigration categories will need to supply additional documentation with the change of status application and/or meet certain eligibility criteria. Please consult ISSS with any questions about documentary or eligibility requirements.

  • Changing from H-1B or H-4
  • In addition to the items in the section above, applicants should include:

    • Copies of all previously issued I-797 Approval or Receipt Notices showing H-1B status
    • Evidence that the individual has maintained valid H-1B status e.g. a letter from the H-1b employer confirming current employment and 2-3 most recent pay stubs
    • For H-4: copies of spouse's or parent's H-1B immigration documents: Passport, I-94 card (front and back if issued paper I-94) or copy of electronic I-94 record, Foms I-797 Approval/Receipt Notices, and 2-3 recent pay stubs.

    The I-539 and attachments should be received at USCIS prior to the end of the employment relationship and H-1B validity period. Once the change of status to F-1 or J-1 student is effective, one must cease work for the H-1B employer if s/he has not already.

    When changing from H status, It is permissible to begin study while the I-539 is pending.

  • Changing from J-1 or J-2
  • In addition to the items in the section above, applicants should include:

    • Copies of all previously issued Forms DS-2019
    • For J-2: Copies of spouse's or parent's J-1 immigration documents: Forms DS-2019, passport information page, visa stamp page and I-94 card (front and back if issued paper I-94) or US entry/admission stamp in passport  (if issued electronic I-94)

    It is permissible to begin study while the change of status application is pending.

    Both J-1 and J-2 visa holders who are subject to INA Section 212(e), also known as the two-year home residency requirement, may not apply to change status within the United States unless they have received a waiver from USCIS, a waiver recommendation from the US Department of State (DOS), or have fulfilled the requirement.

    Changing J category, e.g. from J-1 research scholar to J-1 student, requires an application to DOS, not to USCIS. Change-of-category requests are rarely granted. Please consult with an ISSS advisor for details.

  • Changing from A or G status
  • In addition to the items in the section above, the applicant must

    • Complete Form I-566 and submit it to the US Department of State in Washington DC through the diplomatic mission or international organization.
    • After Form I-566 is signed and returned by the Department of State, the applicant must submit the form with all of the items listed on page one.

    It is permissible to begin study while the change of status application is pending.

  • Changing from F-2
  • In addition to the items in the section above, applicants should include:

    • Copies of all previously issued F-2 Forms I-20
    • Copies of spouse's or parent's (F-1) immigration documents: I-20, passport information page, US Entry Visa and I-94 card (front and back if issued paper I-94) or US entry/admission stamp in passport  (if issued electronic I-94).
    • If the spouse or parent is on post-completion Optional Practical Training, the application should also include a copy of the spouse or parent's Employment Authorization Document.

    The F-1 status must be approved before commencement of study is permitted.

  • Changing from B-1 or B-2
  • Applications for change from B-1 or B-2 to F-1 made by persons who have either already applied to US schools from abroad or who apply for a change of status shortly after entry to the US are routinely denied.

    However, if the B-2 visa is marked prospective student, the change of status may be approved.

    The F-1 status must be approved before commencement of study is permitted.