F-1 visas are one of the most common and straightforward ways a foreign national is permitted to stay in the United States for what can be many years at a time, in connection with an academic program they are attending. If the foreign national is already in the United States in a different non-immigrant visa status, such as E, B1/B2, H1B, etc., there is an option to apply to USCIS for “change of status” (COS) to F1 classification instead of leaving the U.S. and applying for the F visa at a consulate abroad.
However, there are three particular risks that applicants should be aware of when they are making the decision to apply to change status to F1. Applications to change status to F1 face scrutiny by USCIS and are prone to denials, so it is very important to fully understand all relevant facts and considerations to decide whether applying at a consulate may be a better option for you.
Long delays; inability to start classes before F1 is approved
The first disadvantage of applying for a change of status application to F1 is the practical problem that USCIS is currently taking many months to adjudicate COS applications and there is no guaranteed way to expedite this timeline, and no option for premium processing available. Current estimated processing times range from 11.5 months to 19.5 months.
Although timely filing a COS application effectively “extends” one’s allowed period of stay within the United States such that the application can continue waiting in the US until the application is decided, a significant disadvantage is they are not allowed to start F1 activities before the petition is finally approved. This means a prospective student may be waiting for close to two years before they are allowed to start going to classes for an academic program they signed up for two years ago. In such a case, the prospective student will need to continue deferring their start date with the school until the COS is approved.
By contrast, consular offices in many countries are extremely quick in turning around interview appointments for processing F1 visas, sometimes in a matter of days after you submit your DS-160 application. We have also seen consular offices generally being more amenable to expediting interview requests to accommodate program start dates. If the applicant’s priority is to timely begin the program, consular processing would pose many advantages.
Pre-conceived intent issue for applicants who recently entered on B-2
Care must be taken if the applicant has only recently entered the United States on a different visa. Especially risky categories are applicants who try to change status from B1/B2 visitor to F1 status. As a rule of thumb, it will be risky to try to change status within 90 days of entering the US on a different status, because USCIS may suspect that the applicant was not honestly representing their true intentions when they were entering the US on the original visa. This scenario becomes even riskier if the timing of the I-20 being issued makes it apparent that the applicant was already applying for programs before they entered the US as a visitor or shortly after they entered. In such a case, consular processing the F-1 may be a better option.
Ties to home country
The third area of scrutiny is with respect to non-immigrant intent. F1 is a category where officers pay quite a bit of attention on whether the applicant has sufficient ties abroad. It is important to demonstrate you have a permanent residence outside of the United States where you eventually intend to return. Having your immediate family living outside the United States can also be a helpful factor. If you have stayed in the United States for a prolonged period of time on a different non-immigrant status, you could show evidence of trips made back to your home country to show you had enduring ties to family there. Ownership of real property and other forms of economic ties to your home country, such as a life insurance policy or a retirement account, can also strengthen your case.
In conclusion, strategy is very important when you are looking to change status to F1. Depending on your priorities, changing status from within the United States could be a good option. To increase the chances of a positive outcome, identifying and mitigating risk factors as outlined above will be critical.
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