*Updated February 4, 2020
Visitors who enter the United States on B-1 (business) or B-2 (pleasure) visas are not allowed to enroll in a course of study that leads to an academic degree or vocational certificate. So, if you are in the United States on a B-1 or B-2 visitor visa and would like to study full-time, you must change your status to an F-1 or M-1 student visa before you enroll in, or begin, a course of study.
If you enroll in, or begin, a course of study before you change your status, you will violate the terms of your B-1 or B-2 visa and fall out of status. Once you fall out of status, you won’t be eligible for a change in status or an extension of your B-1 or B-visa.
Note: B1 or B-2 visitors may take recreational or casual courses, such as a two-day cooking or language course, without changing their status. These courses must not lead to a degree or certification, and must be less than 18 hours per week.
Do you need an F-1 or M-1 student visa?
That will depend on the course of study you are interested in. F-1 student visa is for academic students, while M-1 student visa is for vocational students. Examples of vocational study include mechanical studies, technical studies, cooking classes, language programs, flight school, or cosmetology program.
So, how do you know which one you need? Take a look at the chart below to help you determine the visa you need.
In this article, we will only discuss how to change your visitor visa to an F-1 student visa. If you are considering a change to an M-1 student visa, click here.
Are you eligible to apply for a change to F-1 student status?
You are eligible to apply for a change to F-1 student status if you meet the following conditions:
- You have not enrolled in a course of study;
- Your current B-1 or B-2 status is still valid;
- You have not worked in the United States without employment authorization; and
- You have not committed any crimes that would make you ineligible for a change of status.
Note: If you are currently in the United States with an M-1 visa, you are not allowed to apply for a change to F-1 student status from within the country. You would have to leave the United States and apply for an F-1 visa.
How to apply for a change to F-1 student status?
You must take the following steps to apply for a change in status to F-1 student status.
1. You must first apply, and be accepted by, a school approved by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Once you are accepted by the U.S. school you plan to attend, you will be enrolled in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
2. Once you are enrolled in SEVIS, you will receive a Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status — For Academic and Language Students,” from your school. The designated school official (DSO) should indicate a “change of status” as the “Issue Reason.” The Form I-20 must be signed both by the (DSO) and yourself (or by your parents, if you are under 18 years of age).
Note: Keep the Form I-20 somewhere safe, as you will need it for various purposes, including: applying for a change to F-1 student status; maintaining your F-1 status; and application for a driver’s license or Social Security Number.
3. Once you have the Form I-20, you must pay the SEVIS I-901 Fee. Keep the receipt, as you will need to show proof of your payment during your visa interview.
Note: If your spouse and/or dependent children (unmarried under 21) need the same change in status, they must get their own Form I-20s but they don’t have to pay the SEVIS fee.
4. When you have the Form I-20, you should file a File a Form I-539, “Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status,” with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). You must pay the filing fee and include any required documentation to support your application, including a valid passport, Form I-20, and Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record, which you received at the time you entered the United States. If you don’t have a decision from USCIS at least 15 days before the program start date on your Form I-20, you should contact the DSO at your new school. You may not start school until your application has been approved, so you would have to defer your attendance until then.
Note: If your spouse and dependent children need the same change in status, you can include them on your Form I-539. You will need to submit proof of your legal relationship with them, such as a certificate of marriage and certificates of birth.
What must you do while application is pending?
You must make sure that you maintain your B-1 or B-2 status while you are waiting for your application to be approved. You may be required to file a second Form I-539 (along with the requisite fee) to extend the validity of your B-1 or B-2 status in two situations.
- Your B-1 or B-2 status will expire more than 30 days before the start date of the course of study indicated on your Form I-20. For example, if the start date of your course of study is August 25th this year, but your B-1 or B-2 visa is valid only until July 22nd of this year (more than 30 days), you will need to file a second Form I-539 to extend your visa. Check USCIS processing times to ensure that you file for the extension on time, but you should apply at least 45 days in advance.
- You had to defer the start date of the course of study indicated on your Form I-20 to the following academic term or semester because you did not receive a decision from USCIS on your application for change of status and your B-1- or B-2 visa expires more than 30 days before the new F-1 program start date.
Is there an alternative way to get an F-1 student visa?
If you prefer, or if USCIS declines your application for change of status, you can go back to your home country and apply for an F-1 student visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Here’s everything you need to know for your F-1 student visa application.
Susan Chu is a writer and editor who likes to write about trends in higher education.