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The Form I-20 [known as the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status-For Academic and Language Students] is a form issued by the United States Department of Homeland Security, specifically the ICE and the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a federal law enforcement agency that comes under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. ICE’s goal and mission are to protect the United States from cross-border crime and illegal immigration.
The I-20 document issued by SEVP-certified schools (colleges, universities and vocational schools) provides supporting information on a student’s F or M status. Post the introduction of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) run by SEVP, the form also includes the student tracking number (SEVIS ID number) and school code. The I-20 is only for F-1, F-2, M-1 and M-2 statuses.
At the beginning of June 2015, the I-20s issued were updated from the previous version in terms of the standardisation of names in SEVIS. The new I-20 is three pages long and has prominence on the SEVIS number. The instructions to fill in the form are on the third page of Form I-20.
The Form I-20 is issued by a Designated School Official (DSO) at the institution (college, university or vocational school). Only institutions that are SEVP-certified can issue I-20s. An institution can acquire SEVP certification by filing Form I-17 (a one-time process) with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is important to understand that an institution can be SEVP-certified despite not holding national or regional accreditation. However, a large university typically has an international office that manages its participation in the SEVP, and all the DSOs work for this office. The international office also manages updates to the SEVIS record and issuing of new paper Form I-20s. Any change in the plan such as program end date, course load, leave of absence, or return from a leave of absence must be communicated by the student to the respective international office.
After a student accepts the offer of admission from the institution, a record is created for the student in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Along with the biographical information about the student like name, date of birth, and citizenship, two main pieces of information must be entered in the student’s SEVIS record and the initial Form I-20. These details are the program information like the program name, start date and end date and how the student intends to meet tuition and living expenses for the first year, or until the end date indicated on the I-20, whichever is shorter.
Once a student accepts the admission offer, he/she will need to contact the school’s International Programs Officer regarding the F-1 student visa, and will then have to submit an Affidavit of Support form to the college. After receiving information from the student about the finances and the institution regarding the program length and end date, the international office creates the student’s SEVIS record. The student’s details are added to the SEVIS database, a SEVIS number for the student is generated and Form I-20 is issued. The collected form from the US government database is signed and stamped by the DSO. After signing, they send that to the student. A physical copy of the form may be mailed to the student’s address overseas. In the case where the student has a SEVIS record from previous student status, the existing SEVIS record should be transferred. Please note that the international office may refuse to issue a Form I-20 if the student is unable to demonstrate the plan to cover the expenses for the first year.
Once a student receives the Form I-20, it is important to check that all the information on the I-20 document is correct such as the start date of the course, the program name and sponsorship information. If not, contact the university adviser immediately and ask for a change if there is any mismatch with the information provided on the I-20 form. At any given time, the responsibility for keeping the student’s SEVIS record up to date falls with the SEVP-certified institution the student is currently enrolled in. If the student transfers to a different SEVP-certified institution, the responsibility of updating the SEVIS record then falls on the new institution.
To put it across in simple words, the form I-20 can be thought of as a paper representation of the most up-to-date SEVIS information on record for the student’s current enrolment. Whenever there are substantive changes to the information, the SEVIS record is updated, and a new Form I-20 is issued to the student by the institution with the updated information. The student must use the most up-to-date Form I-20 when demonstrating student status as the information on the I-20 form gets entered into the system so that the US government can keep track of the student’s status.
It is important to understand that once you receive the I-20 form, you must treat it like a very important document. It is required for paying the SEVIS fee, for the visa interview, and for entering the United States. When travelling out of the United States, the I-20 is required to re-enter the USA. Therefore, a student on an F-1 visa should never misplace or forget his/her I-20 form.
By going to https://www.fmjfee.com/i901fee/, the SEVIS fees can be paid with a credit card. If you decide to go to another school, you can transfer your SEVIS payment to a new record. It is important to understand that the fee transfer must be requested at least two weeks before the visa interview date.
It is important to print a receipt of the SEVIS fee payment as this should be presented during the visa interview. It is very easy to print the receipt from the website once the payment is made.
After receiving the I-20 and paying the SEVIS fee, the student is ready for the F-1 student visa interview. The interview takes place at the American embassy in the student’s home country. As it can take a while to book a visa interview date, it is important to book a date at least four weeks in advance before the program commences.
The important documents to be carried for the student visa interview are Form I-20, Receipt of SEVIS fee payment, Printed Form DS-160, ‘Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application,’ confirmation page, Passport (valid for at least 6 months after you plan to enter the USA), Two visa photos of yourself according to passport photo requirements, Receipt for the visa application fee, Letter of acceptance to the college, any additional documents required by the Visa office in your country.
Once the F-1 student visa is approved, you need to have Form I-20 on hand as you travel from your home country to enter the USA. Please do not pack the I-20 away in your suitcase/check-in luggage. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer will instruct you to present your Form I-20 at the port of entry. An F-1 student may arrive up to 30 days before the start date listed on their Form I-20.
Form I-20 proves that the student is legally enrolled in a program of study in the United States. Therefore, it may be needed to apply for the benefits available to F-1 students such as a driver’s license or a social security number.
Further, any questions about Form I-20 can be answered by the DSO at your school.
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