FAQ: What you need to know as an International Student taking distance-learning courses in Fall 2020?

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) on July 6, 2020 announced that they will no longer provide exemptions for international students who are taking online courses due to the pandemic during the Fall 2020 semester. Please click here for the complete information. The following are some common questions that international students may have in regards to this new policy change. 


Q1. Can a F-1 International Student take full online course loads for the Fall 2020 semester?

No. Under this new policy, it states clearly that “ F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to the initiation of removal proceedings.”

International students who are identified by ICE as violating this new policy could be charged under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) Section 237(a)(1)(C), a provision in the INA that makes a person deportable if they failed to maintain nonimmigrant status in the United States. ICE could initiate removal proceedings by filing a charging document known as the Notice to Appear with the immigration court.

Q2. I am a new student coming to the U.S. to study. How will this policy affect me?

It will depend on whether your school/university offers online courses only, in-person courses only, or a hybrid model. If your school only offers online courses, the Consulate will not issue you a student visa. If your school offers in-person courses only, you may be able to acquire a F-1 visa but are not allowed to take more than one course (up to 3 credits) online.  However, besides the school curriculum, most U.S. Consulate Offices have suspended issuance of nonimmigrant visas (including F-1 student visas) due to the pandemic. For more information about nonimmigrant visa issuance, please click here

Q3. I am an International Student hoping to register my Fall 2020 courses under the hybrid model. How will the policy affect me?

The announcement from SEVP defines “hybrid model” as a mixture of online and in person classes. This means that a course is taught with a mixture of online and in person teaching. According to the new policy guidance, “Students attending schools adopting a hybrid model—that is, a mixture of online and in person classes—”

  1. Will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. 
  2. Must enroll in the required number of credits to be considered full-time;
  3. Must enroll at least one credit of in-person or hybrid course that includes required in person instruction during Fall 2020; 
  4. Will be issued a new I-20 to show that the program is hybrid, not entirely online; and
  5. May not only enroll in online courses.

Q4. I am a PhD student who completed most of my coursework and now do not take any in-person courses but do my research in the U.S. How will this policy affect me?

This policy change will not affect you so long as you make normal progress in a program of your study. If your program of study requires you to remain in the U.S. to complete your research beyond all other previously completed coursework, you may stay in the U.S. The SEVP announcement says, “continuing F and M students who are already in the United States may remain in Active status in SEVIS if they make normal progress in a program of study, or are engaged in approved practical training, either as part of a program of study or following completion of a program of study.” In other words, dissertation work or independent research study are considered in-person course credits. 

Q5. I am an International Student who is graduating this Fall in December and only have one or two courses left. How will this policy affect me?

If you take at least one of these courses in-person for Fall 2020 and your school adopts the “hybrid” model, you will not be affected by this policy. If your remaining courses are only offered in an online remote setting, you are not permitted to remain in the U.S. under this new policy. You should leave or take measures that will aid in the maintenance of status (like transferring to another school or change to another nonimmigrant visa). The policy suggests that students already who do not take these measures may face deportation.

Q6. What if my school starts in a hybrid or in-person model but as the semester goes, the classes then move online in the middle of the semester? Should I return home when all my classes become online courses? 

The policy announcement states that “If a school changes its operational stance mid-semester, and as a result a nonimmigrant student switches to only online classes, or a nonimmigrant student changes their course selections, and as a result, ends up taking an entirely online course load, schools are reminded that nonimmigrant students within the United States are not permitted to take a full course of study through online classes. If nonimmigrant students find themselves in this situation, they must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status such as transfer to a school with in-person instruction.” 

However, there is still some grey area in the interpretation of the policy. Some lawyers think this situation falls into the “hybrid model” definition and the students who end up in this situation do not have to leave. Under regulations at 8 CFR 214.2 (f)(6)(G) “For F-1 students enrolled in classes for credit or classroom hours, no more than the equivalent of one class or three credits per session, term, semester, trimester, or quarter may be counted toward the full course of study requirement if the class is taken on-line or through distance education and does not require the student’s physical attendance for classes, examination or other purposes integral to completion of the class.” 

Q7. The University offers hybrid classes but all my classes are online, will I have to leave the United States? 

Yes. The new policy indicates that students must have in-person classes or a combination of in-person classes and online classes and all of these classes must make normal progress in your degree program. 

Q8. What will happen to my SEVIS record if I return to my home country and take all my courses online? Will my F-1 visa be cancelled? 

When you take all your coursework online in Fall 2020 semester, your SEVIS record will be terminated as “authorized early withdrawal” which means termination made for procedural reasons, not due to violation. However, your F-1 visa, if still valid, will not be cancelled. SEVIS termination will not affect your F-1 visa.

Q9. Do I need to get a new I-20 to show that I will be taking the full-time coursework at school with a mixture of in-person and online courses?

Yes. The International Student Office at your university is supposed to issue you a new I-20 if you intend to pursue a full-time course load on campus including at least one credit of in-person or hybrid coursework in Fall 2020. 


For more detailed and actual inquiries for your situation, please consult with the International Student Office at your University. If you are currently on a F-1 or M-1 student visa and need to know your options in changing to another immigrant or nonimmigrant visa to maintain your status, please contact our office to schedule an appointment with our attorney. 



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