International Students Must Depart if College Goes Fully Online

As universities around the country announce their plans for the fall in light of COVID-19, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has announced its rules governing student visas for the upcoming semester. ICE is eliminating the exemption that it made for students taking online classes in the spring and summer semesters. The new rule, applicable this fall, divides universities into three operating categories: online, in-person, and hybrid.

Students attending schools that operate entirely online may not enter or remain in the United States. To avoid immigration consequences, including deportation, these students must depart the country or transfer to a school that will provide some in-person component. This rule applies even if a student’s school begins in-person or hybrid and becomes fully online mid-semester. Students who leave the country but take a full course load online may remain in Active status in SEVIS.

F students attending schools operating on a normal, in-person basis will be subject to existing regulations for online learning. That is, they cannot take more than one class or three credit hours online.

Finally, if an F student’s university opts for a hybrid model in the fall, then the student may take more than one class online so long as their program is not entirely online. They must take at least one class in-person to avoid immigration consequences. If their program switches from hybrid to fully online mid-semester, then the student must depart. Furthermore, F-1 students in English language training programs and M-1 students may not take any online classes.

The student’s school is responsible for issuing an updated Form I-20 certifying which category it fits into. For the student to remain in the U.S., the I-20 must certify that the school is not operating entirely online and that the student is not taking an entirely online course load. It must also certify that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes that is required to make normal degree progress.

If you have any questions about how your university’s plan for the fall semester will impact your immigration status, please contact Gee & Zhang.