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15 Facts About Lawful Status for International Students

Monday | December 2, 2019 | by Nadine C. Atkinson-Flowers

international students learn about lawful status

Nadine C. Atkinson-Flowers is an attorney in Jamaica and an immigration attorney in the United States. She is also an Expert Ambassador for WES.

Below, she explains how to preserve your lawful status as an international student in the U.S.

If you are an international student in the United States, it is important to pay attention to any changes in immigration law. Even after you arrive, immigration law will continue to impact your lawful status. If the laws change, the conditions of your student visa might also change.

It is your responsibility to maintain your lawful status in order to stay in the country. You worked hard to follow your dream of studying in the United States, so you do not want to be taken by surprise and end up returning home without your degree.

These 15 tips will help you protect your lawful status as an international student:

1. Make Sure You Know Current Policies About Lawful Status

In August 2018, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) changed its policy on unlawful presence. Previously, individuals who changed their status or course of study without authorization were put on formal “notice of a breach.” However, the new policy puts students and exchange visitors “in violation” the day after they make the unauthorized change.

Suddenly, people were learning about their mistakes after it was too late; they were already in violation of the terms of their visit. Because of the complex education and immigration landscape in the United States, it is surprisingly easy to make innocent mistakes that can promptly change your lawful status.

Many immigration advocates find the new policy unfair, and it is currently being challenged in court. However, for now, international students must remain vigilant about their status.

2. Inform Your School About Changes to Your Information

If you change any of the primary information you used to apply for your student visa—for example, your address, telephone number, or course of study—you need to inform your school’s international student office immediately.

Are you unsure whether you need to report a change? Here’s a good rule: If you make any change, even if you think it is minor, alert the international student office or administration just to be safe.

It is best to communicate changes in writing. Email is a convenient option.

3. Keep a Copy of Your Own Files and Documents

As a student, you are responsible for ensuring that the information in your file at the international student office is accurate. To keep track, you can periodically ask for computer printouts of your data and check them for any inaccuracies.

Remember: Anything you send is on record with university administration and available to USCIS. There could be ramifications later if there are errors in your data.

4. Update Your Travel Documents

Keep your passport and other travel documents valid. The obvious reason is you might need to travel internationally because of an emergency. You will be denied entry and exit through the country’s borders, ports, and airports if your passport has expired—even by one day.

Additionally, you might rely on your passport as a primary form of identification (if you do not have a green card or valid driver’s license). But banks, government offices, and many other institutions will not accept an expired passport as a form of ID. To update your passport, simply visit your country’s nearest consulate or embassy. (But first, go online to confirm the steps for renewal.)

5. Determine If You Will Be Traveling Overseas for School

Some academic programs provide cultural exchanges, study abroad, research appointments, and other opportunities for students to travel overseas. Find out in advance if your program offers such opportunities and if you would need a specific visa (depending on your status and the country you are planning to visit). If you do, apply for your visa as early as possible so that you do not miss out on an opportunity because of bureaucratic red tape.

The Designated School Official might also need to sign your SEVIS I-20 (a student immigration form that allows travel outside the country). If so, make sure that you always have this document when you leave the U.S.

6. Report Lost Documents to Your School and the Police

In the event that your passport or another travel document is lost or stolen, report it to your international student office and the nearest police station immediately. You will need to make a full report on the circumstances of the loss or theft. A police officer will generate a report for you; this report will help you obtain a new copy of your document. (For example, to obtain a new passport, you might need to submit proof that your old passport was lost or stolen. A police report is that proof.)

You can report the loss or theft to your consulate or embassy as an extra measure, because sometimes such documents are turned in to them.

7. Communicate With Your College Advisers 

Speak with your academic adviser regularly. Confirm that you are on target to complete your program before your student visa expires. If you are not, you may need to get an extension. The international student office can assist you. You may need to provide significant proof of the need for the extension in order for USCIS to grant it. Simply continuing your program without a lawful extension is a very bad idea and could jeopardize your future in the U.S.

8. Adhere to All Employment Rules and Regulations

As a full-time student, you can work a maximum of 20 hours weekly. Sometimes, you can work on campus during your first year (and such work must be related to your studies, rather than unrelated work that funds your studies).

Abiding by the rules of employment is especially important during the academic year. During holiday breaks, there might be a bit more flexibility—but always check with the international student office.

9. Find a Job as Soon as Possible

If you would like to work while you are in school, start looking for employment as soon as possible. It is not guaranteed that you will find a job on campus. Many schools have a student services office where you can either sign up for work directly or meet with a college career adviser. Some institutions host job websites or online bulletin boards where you can look for jobs or put up your own post that says you are looking for work. Be proactive in using all channels available to secure employment.

10. Keep Copies of All Student Visa Paperwork

As you progress through your program, you might need to obtain a new student visa. You might be asked to provide copies of documents that you provided in the past, such as proof of funds, proof of continuation of study (transcripts), affidavits of support, and so on.

It helps to keep copies of all your documents with you, no matter how long you continue to pursue your education in the U.S. That’s because you never know when you will need to provide them again.

You will always need to present a valid visa to border agents if you leave the country and return during the course of your studies, so it is smart to find out if you might possibly need to extend your visa while you are in school (and what steps that would require).

11. Get All Communication in Writing and Keep Copies

Tip No. 2 says to communicate status changes to your school in writing. Tip No. 10 advises keeping a copy of all your student visa application documents.

This tip reiterates an important rule: Make sure all your communications regarding your status are in writing, and keep duplicates if possible.

That goes for inquiries about your status, anything you turn in to the government, confirmations of received files, and even informal questions to your advisers. Create a “paper trail” of evidence; do not be shy about requesting that a phone conversation be followed up and summarized in an email, or that an in-person meeting be switched to an online chat.

Later, you may need to prove that you were a responsible student who always did your due diligence regarding your status.

12. Consider Lawful Status for Your Family in the U.S.

If you have a spouse or children, you will also want to think about their lawful status. Keep in mind that they are dependent on your fulfilling your obligations as a student. Your children can be enrolled in local schools, but your spouse is not eligible to work under the terms of your student visa.

Additionally, you should know that you will not be granted special work privileges in order to support a family.

13. Apply for a Social Security Number

If you find employment, whether on or off campus, you will need to apply for a Social Security number. Social Security numbers help track an individual’s wages and determine their eligibility for benefits.

To apply, you will need to provide proof of ID. This can be done by showing your passport (with your student visa in it), your SEVIS I-20, and a letter from the requisite administrative unit of your campus stating that you have obtained employment.

You will avoid delays if you bring all the documents you need when you visit a local Social Security office to apply. (Note: You need to visit the office and apply in person.) Once you obtain a Social Security number, you must supply it to the administrative office on your campus that processes workers.

Shortly after you apply, your Social Security card will arrive in the mail. Keep your card somewhere safe. And, apart from official uses, keep it confidential.

14. Find Out If You Will Need to File a Tax Return

If you have found a job and obtained a Social Security number, you may need to file a tax return.

Taxes are complicated in the United States (even for lifelong residents). Do not be afraid to ask questions. The IRS website can provide you with further information. It also offers free information sessions before and during tax season to help taxpayers navigate the process.

Additionally, your campus might also offer classes, workshops, or counselors to help you prepare and file your return—or determine that you don’t need to file. Of course, if you do need to, you must file honestly and pay your taxes on time.

15. Discover If Financial Aid Changes Your Tax Liability

If you win a scholarship, fellowship, or grant, there might be special rules you need to follow—in addition to the general taxation rules for non-immigrants lawfully engaged in a program in the U.S.

Make sure that you receive all pertinent information about any tax liability. You do not want to end up owing the government money, losing your financial aid, or worst of all, losing your lawful status over a simple misunderstanding.

The information provided in this blog post does not constitute legal advice. Please consult directly with an immigration attorney regarding your lawful presence case.

Related Reading

50 Tips for International Students


Nadine C. Atkinson-Flowers practices law in Jamaica and is an immigration attorney in the U.S. She is also an Expert Ambassador for WES.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).