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What US-bound students should know about F-1 visas, online learning

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International students face challenges including access to WHO-approved vaccinations and border restrictions, and may have to take online classes as a result. Source: Daniel Leal Olivas/AFP

Rules surrounding your F-1 status are changing as the COVID-19 situation gets more or less severe in the US and your home country. If you’re set to start at your US university this fall, there are a couple of scenarios that could be lying ahead. Whether you’ve gotten your visa, facing travel restrictions or have to resort to online learning, here’s what you need to know:

International students cannot engage in 100% online learning

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Some international students have little choice but to commit to online learning for now. Source: Torsten Balckwood/AFP

Last year, the Student and Exchange Visitor Programme (SEVP) announced modifications to temporary exemptions for non-immigrant students taking online classes due to the pandemic for the fall 2020 semester. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said SEVP will continue to abide by the March 2020 guidance for the 2021-22 academic year. The guidelines note that nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the US.

“Eligible F students may take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online. Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model — that is, a mixture of online and in-person classes — will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online,” it said online.

Jonathan Moor, a public affairs specialist with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security, told the US News and World Report: “In accordance with the March 2020 guidance, new or Initial F and M students who were not previously enrolled in a programme of study on March 9, 2020, will not be able to enter the US as a nonimmigrant student for the 2021-22 academic year if their course of study is 100% online.”

While new international students cannot take a fully online course of study in the US, they can take a hybrid programme, or a course that combines online learning and face-to-face interactions. Students “will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online,” said ICE on its website.

What about students who can’t obtain their F-1 visa?

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One option for international students is to start their programme remotely from their home country without a student visa Source: Adem Altan/AFP

Many US-bound international students have found themselves in a pickle as not all US embassies and consulates have resumed regular visa processing since the pandemic broke out. Reports say the US government does not expect to “quickly resume” full operating capacity for its visa processing services. 

While consular services are offering as many appointments as they can, there are “large visa backlogs” and they do not expect to resume full operating capacity any time soon. Difficulty securing a visa aside, some international students also face challenges including access to WHO-approved vaccinations and border restrictions due to COVID-19, and may have to take online classes as a result.

One option for international students in this situation is to start their programme remotely from their home country without a student visa. Alternatively, if a student’s local institution offers a twinning programme with a US university, they can complete a portion of their course in their home country before transferring to the US to complete their degree.

Jin Zhang, director of the University of Houston’s (UH) International Student and Scholar Services Office, told the portal that at UH, new international students can choose to start their programme remotely in their home country or outside the US without being in the F-1 visa status.

A spokesperson for San Jose State University in California said international students can stay in their home country and take online classes before coming to SJSU in early 2022 for the spring semester.

Goucher College director of global education Luchen Li said many US colleges and universities are resorting to “through partnerships with institutions overseas to deliver the initial American experience for their new international students.” Through this, students can complete their first semester — and in some cases, their first year —at an institution in their home country where they can take classes in person, stay in dormitories and interact with peers.