Coronavirus (COVID-19) FAQ for Incoming International Students

Last updated September 4, 2020.


As of July 14, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) guidance from July 6, 2020 has been rescinded and will no longer take effect.

Due to the reversal of this guidance, you no longer need a special comment on your I-20 indicating your program’s course format for Fall 2020. Students who have already received I-20s may use the same document to schedule visa appointments and to travel. You may request a support letter from your School to provide additional evidence of your enrollment at Penn and your need to enter the United States. Find the letter template here.

Please consult the below questions for the latest COVID-19-related guidance for incoming international students. We will update this page as new information becomes available. For general new international student information, please see this page.

For students coming to the United States: If you are concerned about not being permitted to board your flight to the United States or being denied at the US Port of Entry, you may request a travel support letter from your academic department confirming that you are seeking entry into the country under the sponsorship of the University of Pennsylvania. Please note that this support letter does not guarantee that you will be permitted entry into the United States and is only meant to provide additional documentation of your status as a Penn student.

To request a support letter from your department, please contact your academic advisor or your admissions office. Here is an example of a support letter from an academic department.

The University has announced that campus housing will be reserved, with only very limited exceptions, "for international students and those students dealing with significant housing or personal hardships." How do I know if I qualify for an exception?

Most incoming and continuing international students with a need to reside in on-campus housing will be eligible for an exception. Students who need to live in University housing during the Fall 2020 semester were required to fill out the Housing Exception Form by August 17. Please direct questions about the form and about on-campus housing to Please also review the University's Fall 2020 FAQs. Per Penn Residential Services Fall 2020 FAQs, "[f]irst year students who submit a housing exception form and are approved will be required to live on campus for both Fall and Spring semesters."

I am an initial international student who plans to come to Penn's campus for Fall 2020. In light of the University's announcement from August 11, can I still come? 

The University has stated that in-person experiences will still be offered where these experiences are "essential for students to meet their curricular or pedagogical requirements." While most coursework will take place online, the University will work with initial international students to ensure that they have an in-person course that satisfies the conditions of their entry into the US. 

The decision to come to campus or enroll from home is a personal one and should be made in consultation with your admitting school, academic advisor, and with your family. Please consider that many aspects of life on campus will be different in Fall 2020 due to social distancing and other measures to control the spread of COVID-19. Access to certain resources on campus, including libraries, gyms, and dining halls may be unavailable or restricted. Students arriving from abroad will also be expected to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Philadelphia. If you decide to defer your in-person studies, please notify your admitting school. 

How can I prove upon entry into the United States that part of my course of study will take place in person? What documents should I carry with me and how should I respond to questions by border protection officers? 

Your admitting school can provide you with a signed travel support letter to attest to the fact that you will have an in-person educational experience as a required component of your course of study. If asked by immigration officers or other US government official for more details, inform them know that Penn is offering some in-person instruction for undergraduates and that you will have an in-person educational experience. You should also consider carrying a printed copy of your schedule.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected ISSS I-20/DS-2019 processing times?

ISSS continues to operate remotely and process immigration documents (I-20s/DS-2019s) for incoming students. Current processing times are approximately 3 weeks but may be extended due to the limitations of remote work. You can check the status of your application in iPenn. Once your application is processed, you will receive a confirmation email with your SEVIS ID, which you can use to make an interview appointment at your local consulate. The document will be shipped to you after you have submitted the shipping e-form online.

When should I apply for my I-20 or DS-2019?

As ISSS has temporarily transition to remote work in accordance with University policy, we encourage you to begin the process at your earliest opportunity. Due to the large volume of applications and inquiries at this time, we are unable to offer expedited processing.

If I decide to start my program remotely from home, should I apply for my visa now? Should I use my I-20 with the fall start date or wait to receive an I-20 with a spring start date?

If you plan to enroll remotely from home for the fall semester, you should postpone your visa appointment and wait for an updated I-20 with a spring start date. You are permitted to apply for a visa up to 120 days in advance of your program start date. The start date of the spring semester is January 13, 2021, so you should plan to apply for your visa after September 15, 2020. Your updated I-20 will have the same SEVIS ID, so you don’t need to wait for the I-20 before making a new visa appointment.

If I decide to come to Penn’s campus for Fall 2020 term, how late can I arrive on campus?

If you are planning to enter the US for the fall semester and experience delays due to visa appointment availability, please work with your school to determine the latest date you may arrive on campus. Your school will work with ISSS to determine if an updated I-20 is necessary.

Will I encounter delays or difficulties getting a visa appointment?

At this time, the U.S. Department of State has temporarily suspended visa services globally, there is very limited visa appointment availability. This will hopefully change as services resume but the overall impact is still uncertain. Please continue to check with your local embassy/consulate ( for updates about its operating procedures.

Will I encounter difficulties getting to the US?

It is important to stay up-to-date on the list of countries whose citizens may face difficulties entering the United States; these restrictions are constantly changing as the situation develops. Please see the CDC's webpage on travelers prohibited from entry into the United States for the most current guidance.  Please also see this page for a comprehensive list of travel restrictions around the world.

Before making any travel plans, you should confirm that neither their destination nor any transit countries have put in place restrictions that could affect your itinerary. In addition, check with your airline to ensure you have the right status to make a layover in other countries.

As of July 16, 2020, students traveling from the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, and Ireland with valid F-1 and M-1 visas have been granted an exemption from the Presidential Proclamations that suspended entry from these areas. J-1 students from these areas may contact the nearest US embassy or consulate to request an exemption. Please note this does not guarantee your admission into the United States at the port of entry, which will still be subject to an inspection by Customs and Border Protection. You can use this template to request a support letter from your School. Additionally, you may be required to self-isolate for 14 days before arriving to Penn's campus. 

What is the latest date I can arrive to start my program if I am delayed by visa issues and/or continuing travel restrictions?

Please consult with your academic school to determine the latest date you may arrive on campus to begin your program.

What if I cannot arrive in time to start my program?

ISSS will defer your form I-20 or DS-2019 start date to the following Spring or Fall semester as determined by your academic program and will reissue a new form I-20 or DS-2019. Your SEVIS ID will remain the same.

What if I decide to defer my program start and I have already applied for an I-20 or DS-2019?

If you decide to defer your program start, you must confirm the deferral with your admitting school. Starting in July 2020, admitting schools will communicate with ISSS of any students deferring. Please do not contact ISSS to defer your record.

Please note that if you are deferring until a later semester, your admitting school will re-upload your admissions record to our iPenn system. You will not need to apply for a new I-20/DS-2019. Your SEVIS ID will remain the same.

Will I have the option to take courses online from outside the US if I cannot arrive in time?

This might be possible but will be dependent on the policies of your academic school.  Your I-20 or DS-2019 start date will still be deferred to the semester start date you will be able to arrive and start classes in person. ISSS will arrange to issue a new I-20 or DS-2019 accordingly. Your SEVIS ID will remain the same.

What if my program or Penn delays the start date of in-person classes?

ISSS will need to defer your start date to the next semester your program will resume in person courses and reissue a new form I-20 or DS-2019. Your SEVIS ID will remain the same.

If I am transferring my SEVIS record, do I need to enroll full-time this Fall regardless if I am in the US or taking classes online from abroad?

If you are in the US and begin your program at Penn, we will register your F-1 record for Penn and you will be required to maintain full-time enrollment. If you will remain outside the US, you must maintain full-time online enrollment in order to preserve the continuation of your F-1 status.

If you will not begin classes abroad or will take less than a full-time course load, you will need to apply for a new initial I-20 for the semester you plan to come to Penn. For more information about this process, please visit the section titled “How to return from an Absence” our Absence/Departure from Penn webpage.

What if I am currently in another immigration status and wish to apply for a change of status to F-1 or J-1 and not travel to get a new visa to return?

We highly advise consulting an immigration attorney to review this option.  Please see for more information.