Students who are on an F1 visa stay in the US to attend classes, but quite often they have to travel. They travel during university breaks or in case of emergencies. The travel can be to their own home countries or to other countries.

Before a student plans and books their travel they must follow some instructions. The instructions are to ensure that they can enter the US again. If you are an F1 visa student who wants to travel, this article will go through all the necessary steps you need to take.

What to Do Before You Travel Abroad as an F1 Visa Holder?

When you are making plans for your travel, there are some documents you must verify that you have.

Talk to your DSO

The first step to take is talk to your Designated School Official (DSO). Each university that has an International Office will also have a DSO. The DSO will inform you of the necessary policies and rules that apply to you.

The DSO will verify your Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. They must sign the Form I-20 so that you are eligible to travel. The signature is valid for 1 year, so once you have it, you can travel without needing another one.

Make sure that you have a valid form I-20

The DSO will update your SEVIS records for the time you will be travelling. You must make sure that your Form I-20 is valid for the time you are travelling. If it is not valid you will not be able to enter the US with an expired I-20 form. If your form is close to expiring, apply for a new one and wait for processing until you travel.

It is important to know that with an F1 visa, you can be out of the US for up to 5 months. During those 5 months, your SEVIS record will reflect your absence. Once you return, your DSO will activate it.

If you are out of the US for more than 5 months, your SEVIS will be on a Terminated status. This means that you will have to get a new Form I-20 once you return. The Form I-20 will reset and the time you spent in the US until will not count towards your Optional Practical Training (OPT).

Have a valid passport

The second step is to make sure you have a valid passport. You will need the passport to return and enter the US. If your passport is close to expiring, you can send it to a consulate in the US and renew it before you travel. Another option is to renew it while you are in your home country and then return to the US.

Check your F1 Visa validity

Afterwards, check your US F1 visa validity. It must be valid throughout the time that you are travelling. If the visa is close to expiring, apply for a new one before you travel. You will not be able to enter the US with an expired visa.

If you get a new passport, you must bring your old passport with the visa when entering the US. If your new passport does not have a valid US visa, you will not be able to go through the Customs and Border Protection (CPB).

Collect the required documents

So before you travel from the US to another country, make sure you have these documents:

  • A valid passport for at least 6 months after you return to the US;
  • A valid F1 visa;
  • A valid Form I-20;
  • Documents to prove your financial position such as:
    • bank statements;
    • scholarship award letters;
    • sponsor letters, etc.;
  • Documents to prove your enrollment in a US university such as:
    • admission letters;
    • unofficial transcripts;
    • university ID card, etc.;
  • Form I-901, SEVIS fee receipt;
  • An optional letter from the university stating that you are a student at the institution and explaining the nature of your enrollment such as your major, research activities, etc.

What if You are Travelling Somewhere Different From Your Home Country?

Travelling to your home country is easier. You already have a passport and they will allow you to enter the country. If you are travelling somewhere else, then you must meet the requirements to enter.

Many countries need valid visas or transit visas for entry. If you are travelling to a country within the European Union, you might also need a Schengen Visa. On the other hand, if you are travelling to the UK, you might need to apply for a UK visa while you are in the US.

What if You are a Canadian Student?

Canadian citizens do not need a visa to enter the US. But, they must have a student status if they are studying at a US university. If you are a Canadian citizen, you will need a valid Form I-20 and a valid Form I-94. The Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record must state that you are on a student status in the US. Only then, the CPB officials allow you to enter the US after travelling.

What if Your Passport Expires Less Than 6 Months After You Enter the US?

If your passport is not valid for at least 6 months after you return from your travel, the CPB officials might not let you in the US. But, there are a few countries which have an agreement with the US. This agreement allows citizens of foreign countries to enter the US until their passports have expired.

If you are from one of the countries below, then even if your passport will expire in 5 days for example, CPB cannot deny you entry for that reason. The countries with this agreement are in the list below.

AlgeriaAntigua and BarbudaArgentina
BoliviaBosnia and HerzegovinaBrazil
Costa RicaCote D’IvoireCuba
CyprusCzech RepublicDenmark
DominicaDominican RepublicEcuador
EgyptEl SalvadorEthiopia
GuineaGuyanaHong Kong
MonacoNetherlandsNew Zealand
St. Kitts and NevisSt. LuciaSt. Vincent and the Grenadines
South AfricaSpainSri Lanka
ThailandTogoTrinidad and Tobago
TunisiaTurkeyUnited Arab Emirates
United KingdomUruguayVenezuela

What if You Are Travelling to Canada, Mexico, or the US Adjacent Islands?

If you are travelling in one of these countries, you might be able to return to the US even with an expired visa. You must have a valid Form I-20 and Form I-94 though. When you enter the US again, your visa will become valid. This is also called an automatic visa revalidation.

If you are not sure which countries are US adjacent islands, the list below includes them.

Saint PierreMiquelonThe Dominican Republic
HaitiBermudaThe Bahamas
BarbadosJamaicaThe Windward and Leeward Islands
TrinidadMartiniqueOther French, British, or Dutch territories or possessions in or bordering the Caribbean Sea

Can You Travel if Your Program or OPT Have Finished?

After your program or OPT is over, the US gives you a grace period to leave the country. This grace period is usually 60 days. The grace period is for you to prepare and pack to leave the US. If you travel during this period, you will not be able to enter the US again.

How to Enter the US Again After Travelling?

When you are on your way back to the US, you must make sure all your documents are valid. At the US port of entry, whether you arrive through an airport or by land, an officer of the CPB will stop you. They will ask you about your entry in the country.

This is a routine questioning and it happens to everyone. The CPB officers also ask questions to people with other visas besides the F1 visa. They also question US citizens when they return. The CPB officer will ask about your status and reasons that you want to enter the US. You must answer correctly and truthfully.

If the CPB officer suspects something, then they can take you in for further questioning. It is their job to determine whether you are fit to enter the US, and they have the right to detain you longer.

If this happens, do not panic. This is a Secondary Inspection and it is quite normal. The CPB officer will take you to a room where a senior CPB officer will ask you more detailed questions.

You will not be able to make phone calls during that time without permission. Also, the CPB officers have the right to inspect your phone, laptop, and social media accounts. The questioning can last for one hour or more, depending on the CPB officers. You will be allowed to use the toilet and drink water.

At the end of the primary or secondary inspection, it is up to the CPB officers to decide whether you can enter the US or not. Even if you have a valid visa and documents, the CPB officer can decide that you are not fit to enter the US, so you must be polite and answer any questions that they have.

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