Maintaining Legal F-1 Student Status

The F-1 immigration status is available for international students wishing to pursue full-time academic studies and/or language training programs in the United States.

  • F-1 students should comply with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regulations, which can be found under Instructions to Students on page 2 of the I-20.  By following those instructions and the specific information below, Penn F-1 students will maintain legal F-1 status in the U.S. and be able to take full advantage of available F-1 benefits.  
  • The ISSS website provides general information, forms and instructions for specific benefits and procedures, and advising information. Any questions should be directed to ISSS.

Maintain Full-Time Enrollment and Progress

  • Undergraduate Students
  • Undergraduate students, including students enrolled in post-baccalaureate programs, must be enrolled for and complete a minimum of four course units (CUs) each semester. This does not include audits, withdrawals, or incompletes.

  • Graduate Students
  • Graduate students must be enrolled for and complete a full-time course load as defined by their academic program. For most programs this means a minimum of three course units (CUs); other programs may require more CUs. Graduate students must check with their school or department for any necessary clarification for the definition of a full-time student and consult an ISSS advisor if there is any discrepancy. Full-time enrollment does not include audits, withdrawals, or incompletes. Once a student has completed his/her coursework and is working on the thesis or dissertation, he/she must maintain full-time status by enrolling for master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation registration and continuing to work on completing his/her thesis/dissertation.

  • Important Reminders
    • No more than one (1) course unit (CU) or equivalent of online or distance education per semester may count toward full-time enrollment for F-1 students.  
    • Students are also required to make normal progress towards completing the course of study. The measure of normal progress is the rate at which a full-time student in your school or department normally advances toward his or her degree or program objective.
    • Working to complete courses designated from previous semesters is not maintaining normal progress. If any student finds him/herself in this situation, he/she should consult with an ISSS advisor immediately.
    • Annual vacation term:  During an annual vacation term (normally in summer), an F-1 student are not required to enroll in classes as long as s/he is going to register full time in the immediately following fall semester.  If the student does not intend to enroll in the following fall semester, or no longer eligible to enroll in the fall semester, s/he must enroll full time even during summer.

    Any student considering, for any reason, to drop a course that will cause his/her enrollment to drop below full-time must consult with an ISSS advisor before doing so. Dropping below full-time enrollment prior to obtaining written authorization from an ISSS advisor will jeopardize the student’s legal ability to remain in the US.

    Even students who need less than a full course load in their last semester of coursework must complete the Reduced Course Load Request procedures by the first week of classes to verify that he/she will complete the degree/program requirements in that semester.

Points to Maintaining F-1 Status

  • Maintain a valid Passport and I-94 card
  • Students should contact his/her embassy or consulate in the US for instructions on obtaining a passport extension about 6-12 months prior to the passport expiration date.   To replace a lost or stolen passport, immediately contact the home country’s embassy or consulate for a replacement passport.   Federal regulations require students to maintain a valid passport at all times.

    Form I-94 for F-1 students should contain a stamp indicating a date of entry, a place of entry, “F-1” as one’s immigration status, and “D/S” as an immigration status end date.  Should your I-94 card do not contain “F-1” and “D/S,” please meet with an ISSS advisor as soon as possible.

  • Obtain Proper Employment Authorization before Beginning Any Work or Internship (paid or unpaid)
  • DHS considers working without proper authorization as one of the most serious violations of a nonimmigrant’s status. The I-94 card states: Warning—a nonimmigrant who accepts unauthorized employment is subject to deportation.  It is illegal to begin any work before obtaining written permission first, except for continuing Penn students in the case of work defined as on campus, even if the student has applied for work authorization and is anticipating approval. Refer to F-1 Student Employment Options on the ISSS website for detailed information on on-campus employment, the types of off-campus work authorization available, and procedures necessary to obtain approval. Pay special attention to deadlines and processing times! When in doubt, consult an ISSS advisor before accepting an offer of employment or beginning any work.
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  • Check for Valid ISSS Signature and Proper Documentation before Traveling outside the US
  • ISSS strongly recommends you to meet with an ISSS advisor prior to traveling outside the US.  If you will travel outside the US, you must have a valid F-1 visa (stamp) and a valid travel signature on page 3 of the I-20 Form. Each signature is valid for one year (365 days) while you are a full-time student (six months for F-1 students on post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT)). F-1 students on post-completion OPT should seek advice from ISSS before traveling. Signatures can only be obtained by an ISSS official. See the Travel Information on the ISSS website for instructions.

  • Making Good Academic Progress
  • In order to maintain valid F-1 status, an F-1 student must be in good academic standing, making normal progress.  Failure to maintain good academic standing may lead to immigration problems depending on the nature of the academic problem.

  • Do Not Stay in the US beyond the F-1 60-day Grace Period
  • F-1 students are allowed a 60-day grace period to stay in the United States after the completion date of his/her studies or post-completion OPT.  During this time F-1 students may not work. Do not remain in the US beyond the grace period without taking appropriate steps to maintain some kind of legal status in the US.

  • F-2 Dependents May Not Work or Study
  • If you have a spouse or children in F-2 dependent status, they may not work in the US under any circumstances and may not study except for classes that are avocational or recreational. The only exception is for minor children studying through 12th grade.

  • Read E-Mails from ISSS
  • ISSS usually sends at least one email message per semester to international students.  Some are simply announcements about upcoming events, but others contain important immigration information to help you avoid serious immigration problems.  Students who do not receive regular messages should notify ISSS.

SEVIS Reporting Requirements

  • Update Address, Legal Name, or Major within 10 Days of a Change
  • Federal regulations require F-1 students to report any change of US address, legal name, or major to their sponsoring institutions within 10 days of the change. At Penn, F-1 students are only required to enter the current address where physically residing in the US through Penn InTouch.
    Should your Penn InTouch not work, send your address change to ISSS at

    If the student changes majors, the information is updated through Penn’s Student Records System (SRS). ISSS receives the address and major changes from Penn InTouch on a daily basis and transmits them to DHS through the Student and Exchange Visitor System (SEVIS), as required.

    If a student or F-2 dependent changes his/her legal name, consult an ISSS advisor to make the changes.

  • Obtain Program Extension to Continue Study beyond End Date on I-20
  • In order to remain in the US to complete the program of study beyond the date authorized on the I-20 (see item 5 on page 1), an F-1 student must request a program extension through ISSS. Apply at least 30 days before the expected completion date noted on the I-20. There must be a valid academic reason for extending the time necessary to complete the program. A student who fails to have his/her I-20 extended prior to the expiration date of the document is considered out of status and may need to apply for reinstatement to regain student status.

  • Transfer F-1 SEVIS Record when Changing Schools
  • In order to transfer from Penn to another school in the US, an F-1 student must meet with an ISSS advisor to discuss his/her plans. At the student’s written request, ISSS must confirm that the student is maintaining valid F-1 status and release the student’s SEVIS record before he/she can attend another school. The student must then complete the F-1 transfer procedures with a Designated School Official (DSO) at the new school.

  • Obtain a New I-20 from ISSS to Begin a New Degree Program
  • To continue at Penn in a different academic level (e.g., bachelors to masters or masters to doctorate) or, in some cases, when an F-1 student changes to a new degree program at the same level after completing a degree, the student must apply for a change of program, which will extend his/her F-1 study at Penn. The student must verify admission to a new program and his/her ability to finance the program by completing an F-1/J-1 Student Program Extension Request form. ISSS will issue a new I-20 or DS-2019 indicating your new program.  Please consult an ISSS advisor for information and instructions.

  • Obtain Permission from ISSS before Departing or Withdrawing from Penn
  • Students planning to withdraw from Penn or take a leave of absence should consult an ISSS advisor prior to making official action; otherwise they may jeopardize their F-1 or J-1 status. Furthermore, students taking a leave of absence or withdrawing have a grace period of only 15 days to leave the US after obtaining written authorization from ISSS. A student who is asked to withdraw from classes or leave Penn for any reason must immediately consult an ISSS advisor.

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The Academic Resource Guide for International Students is currently under construction and will be available again soon.