Immigration

Studying abroad at Columbia University provides exciting opportunities for international students. This page is a resource for international students looking for information about immigration and other important topics.

Guidelines for Maintaining your Visa Status

Important Terms

When you arrive in the United States

Tips for Current Students

Tips for students who need to travel outside the U.S. and maintain I-20 status

After your ALP studies

Forms for Current ALP Students

Other resources

Guidelines for Maintaining your Visa Status

The following guidelines are designed to help you understand the rules and regulations regarding maintaining your student status.

The ALP can only issue an I-20 for full-time ESL study. An ALP student can take other classes, but the basis for their I-20 and F-1 visa status is full-time ESL study.

Important Terms

SEVIS

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is an Internet-based government system that keeps track of international students, scholars, and their dependents. SEVIS communicates with schools and universities, U.S. Embassies and Consulates, airports and other ports of entry into the U.S., the Immigration Service (USCIS), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

I-20

The I-20 (also called the certificate of visa eligibility or visa certificate), is created by schools and universities through SEVIS. Your I-20 and electronic updates in SEVIS are a permanent record of your activities as a student in the U.S.

F-1 Visa

The U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad gives you your visa and stamps it into your passport. Visas are never issued or extended by schools or universities. After you are in the U.S., it does not matter if your visa expires; permission for you to be in the U.S. will remain current for the whole time written on your I-20, if you are attending classes on a full-time basis, and if you are registered in SEVIS each term. If your visa has not expired and you leave the country, you may use it to return. If your visa expires while you are here and you leave the country, you will need a new visa in order to return. You will need to apply again at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate for a new visa. If you remain in your home country for more than five months and would like to return to the U.S., you must apply for a new visa.

I-94

The I-94 is your most important immigration document because, together with your valid I-20, it proves that you are in this country legally. To access and print your I-94 card, please go here: https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94. The notation "D/S," which you will see on your I-94, means "duration of status" and refers to the period during which you may remain in the U.S. on your current I-20. The I-94 is also a record of your arrivals and departures. 

Note: You should print out and keep each arrival for your records from the above site. You may need a paper copy as evidence of your status for other purposes such as Driver License or employment eligibility on campus.

When you arrive in the United States

Read the instructions on your I-20. Carefully read and follow the "Instructions to Students" section found on the second page. You may not enter the U.S. more than 30 days before the start date on your I-20. Use your ALP I-20 to enter the country. In order to study at the ALP, you must use your ALP-issued I-20 and not an I-20 issued by any other school.

Register for classes

IMPORTANT: Report to the ALP as soon as you arrive in New York!!! To report your arrival, please use our online Check-in system found on our website. To check in, you will need your UNI and a password. The UNI will be provided to you by our Admissions Office after you are admitted to the program.  Also, to complete your Check-in, please have your visa and immigration admission stamp ready. You will need to upload those two documents to the system. If you do not check in within 7 business days of arrival, our program will terminate your SEVIS record and you will be required to leave the program and the US.

Tips for Current Students

  • Update your SEVIS information at the beginning of each term. Also, you must give us your new address every time you move. The government requires that you update your address within 10 business days of the change. To update your address, please go to our website and use the "Change of U.S. address" link. If you don’t give us the information to keep your SEVIS record up to date, you may be deported or may have problems getting another visa in the future.
  • Keep all of your I-20s the entire time you are in the U.S.
  • Study full-time with us. Part time studies are not permitted on an F-1 visa. If you asked for an I-20 of three months or longer, we expect you to stay at the ALP for a minimum of three months before you transfer to another school.
  • Keep your passport valid. Always make sure that your passport is valid for at least six months into the future. If your passport will expire in six months or less, contact your country's consulate in New York or its embassy in Washington, D.C. for help.
  • Do not accept any off-campus jobs. The U.S. government considers working without proper authorization to be an extremely serious violation that may result in deportation. F-1 students are eligible to work on campus (but not off campus) for up to 20 hours per week (35 hours per week during vacation periods). However, it is difficult for international students to find on-campus work at Columbia University.
  • Extend your I-20 before it expires. If you want to continue at the ALP beyond the end date on your I-20, you must log-in to our system using the "Extend your I-20" link. All extensions require you to upload new financial documentation (a new bank statement and a letter of sponsorship, if necessary). These financial documents must be no more than three months old.

Tips for students who need to travel outside the U.S. and maintain I-20 status

  1. Have your I-20 re-certified (signed by Tomasz or ISSO staff on the second page) before you leave the country
  2. Carry your I-20 with you when you travel
  3. Carry your financial documents with you when you travel
  4. Find out if the country you are traveling to requires you to have an entry visa.

Vacation:

ALP Intensive Program students must study two full semesters in a row before they can qualify for a vacation from their studies while remaining in the US legally. For example, Fall + Spring, or Winter + Spring + all Summer; or all Summer + Fall. There are regular breaks between sessions when the ALP does not offer courses. You are not required to be in school during these periods. For example, the period between the end of the summer session and the beginning of the fall session; the period between the end of the fall session and the beginning of the winter session; the period between the end of the spring session and the beginning of the summer session.

You must notify the ALP International Student Advisor that you will be on vacation so that your SEVIS records can be updated accordingly. Whenever you travel outside New York, you should be sure to have your passport and your original I-94 with you, as well as a re-certified I-20 if you plan to leave and re-enter the country.

After your ALP studies

You must leave the U.S. within 60 days after your studies are completed. When you finish studying at the ALP, you have 60 days to leave the United States, to transfer to another school, or to change to another immigration status. If you stay in the U.S. longer than 60 days after you have finished studying, you will be considered out of status and may have problems returning to this country in the future.

You must leave the U.S. within 15 days if you withdraw from the program before the end of the course.

You can withdraw during a course only if you are planning to return to your home country immediately. You must personally see an ALP academic advisor to fill out the necessary papers. You must then leave the United States within 15 days. Once you have returned home, you must send the ALP proof (an original airline boarding pass) that you have left the country; only then will the withdrawal be processed and reported to SEVIS. If the University owes you money, you must apply directly to the Office of Student Financial Services in 210 Kent Hall after the withdrawal is processed. In all cases, the University charges a $75 fee for withdrawals.

Forms for Current ALP Students

Here are links to common processes for F-1 students:

  • Just arrived? Welcome! Now you need to report your first arrival in the U.S.:

    Check-in

  • Are you continuing into the next session? If your I-20 is expiring, then you need an extension:

    Extend your I-20

  • Did you move into a dorm, apartment, or house? The U.S. Government needs to know:

    Change of U.S. address

  • Do you have a spouse or child? They need to be added to your record:

    Add a new dependent

  • Are you going to a different school? You need to complete a transfer-out form:

    Transfer-out request

Other resources

If you wish to learn more about U.S. immigration regulations, visit the following websites. The links are subject to change, so contact the ALP if you encounter any difficulty.