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Understanding your I-20

The I-20 is a multi-purpose document issued by a U.S. government-approved educational institution certifying that a student has been admitted to a full-time study program and that the student has demonstrated sufficient financial resources to stay in the U.S. The I-20 is officially titled the “Certificate of Eligibility” because it allows an individual to apply for an F-1 student visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad.

How is an I-20 created?

Once Swarthmore College completes the admissions process, the ISC collects necessary financial support and identification documentation for admitted international students requesting F-1 status via the ISC Portal. That information is entered into a U.S. government database called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) and the information is processed to produce an I-20. The school official (called the Primary Designated School Official/Designated School Official or PDSO/DSO) signs the I-20 and then uploads it to the ISC Portal for the student to download. If a student needs to update or change information on the I-20, the P/DSO makes these requests through SEVIS to produce a new document.

How is the I-20 used?

Outside the U.S.:  After receiving an I-20 from a school, an international student must make an appointment to apply for an F-1 visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate (the visa is needed to be allowed entry into the U.S. in F-1 status).  Students must present both the F-1 visa and the I-20 to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer upon arrival at the U.S. port-of-entry.

Inside the U.S.:  Once a student has arrived in the U.S. and passes through the border inspections process (either at an airport, seaport or land border), the I-20 is used as identification and proof of legal and academic status. Typically, students must show their I-20 at the Social Security Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The I-20 is also shown to employers in the hiring process for employment. Off-campus employment information and/or authorization will be printed on page 2 of the I-20.

Do I need the I-20 for travel?

If traveling abroad, students must take their I-20 with them. The I-20 is required to reapply for a visa (if needed) and for re-entering the U.S. Before departure from the U.S., students should verify that they have a valid travel endorsement on page 2 of the I-20 from a member of the ISC team. This signature is valid for one year for multiple visits outside the U.S. For more information on travel, click here.

Why do I have multiple I-20s?

New I-20s are issued to continuing students whenever there is a significant update to a student's record. This includes changes in biographical data, program dates, change of major, the addition of a work authorization, etc. These types of changes are typically prompted by student request.  

What is the I-20 completion date?

The "completion date" is entered on item #5 of the I-20 based on a student's particular major and degree level. This is an estimate of time the College feels it may take to fulfill all degree requirements. However, if a student is not able to finish the program on that date, an extension must be requested from International Student Center at least one month before the completion date expires.

According to U.S. immigration regulations, the "completion date" is defined as the day final degree requirements are completed.  The actual completion date may not necessarily be the day of the graduation ceremony or the date on the I-20 (In fact, many students actually finish degree requirements before the completion date on the I-20).

The 60-day Grace Period

When students complete a study program, they are allowed a 60-day grace period to either 1) depart the U.S., 2) request a school transfer, or 3) change visa status.

Note: Students who are interested in working in the U.S. following their program completion must apply for Optional Practical Training work authorization before the expiration of the 60 day grace period.

What happens if I lose my I-20?

Please complete a Reprint I-20 Request in the ISC Portal. Please note that if you are outside the U.S., you must obtain the replacement I-20 before entering the U.S. to resume your studies. Allow sufficient time for processing.

Should I keep all copies of my I-20s?

Yes. You may obtain several different versions of your I-20s while you are in the U.S. if there are changes to your program or other information. Keep all copies for future reference. Always use the most recently issued I-20 for travel, work or other purposes.

What is SEVIS?

Any discussion of the F, M and J statuses would be incomplete without mentioning the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), the system that makes holders of these statuses the most monitored nonimmigrants in the United States. SEVIS is an internet-based system used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to maintain information on SEVP-certified schools, F1 and M1 students who come to the United States to attend those schools, U.S. Department of State designated exchange visitor program sponsors, and J1 exchange visitor program participants.

Originally authorized by Congress in 1996, an electronic system to collect information on F, M and J nonimmigrants received more pressing attention after September 11, 2001, resulting in updated legislation to mandate the use of this system. SEVIS was first deployed in January 2003.

SEVIS tracks and monitors F, M and J nonimmigrants and dependents throughout the duration of their course of study or exchange visitor program. It maintains records on these individuals and allows schools and program sponsors to transmit information and updates to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of State. SEVIS is informed of various status events, including the start and end of a program or course of study, changes to a domestic address, program extensions, transfers, employment notifications and so on. The SEVIS system also maintains information about the schools and exchange visitor program sponsors, as well as their representatives (i.e. principal designated school officials (PDSOs), designated school officials (DSOs), responsible officers (ROs), and alternate responsible officers (AROs).