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What is the I-20? A Guide for International Student Applicants

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Coming to America to study? Before you arrive as an international student, you’ll need the I-20 Form. This form shows that you’re authorized to study in the United States. It lets government and school officials know why you’re in the country and what you can and cannot do while there. Plus, it verifies that you have a right to be there.

You’ll get the form from a designated school official at the college or university where you are accepted to study. Information on the form comes from the Student and Exchange Visitor Information Student database. This information is entered by school officials during your application process.

F students and M students

There are two kinds of I-20 forms. The I-20 (F) is for academic and language students, and the I-20 (M) is for vocational students. Both forms contain the same information—the only difference is the title on the top of the form. The F is for students who are studying at a university or college while the M is for students attending a vocational school or training program. Both are Certificates of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.

In some information published on the Department of Homeland Security’s website and other sites, you might see the term “F student” and “M student” used as a simple way to talk about vocational vs academic students.

When you’ll need your I-20

Your I-20 is an important document that will help you many times as you prepare to start your first semester in the United States. You will need it when you:

  • Pay your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee, which must be paid before you can enter the United States.
  • Apply for your F-1 or M-1 student visa, you’ll get the visa that matches your form, either F or M.
  • Enter the United States at a Customs and Border Protection checkpoint.
  • Apply for benefits available to F and M students. These might include a driver’s license or social security number.
  • Leave and re-enter the United States.

Every time you use your form, you’ll need the original. Photocopies or pictures will not be accepted. If the information on the form changes, you’ll need to get a new one from your designated school official.

Important information on your I-20

Your form I-20 is full of important information like your name, country of birth and area of study. Check to make sure that all of the information on your form is correct as soon as you receive it. Do not sign your form unless you are sure that all of the information is correct.

Pay special attention to the Program Start/End Date. These are set by the school based on the average length of your program of study. You can enter the United States up to 30 days before your start date.

If completing your studies takes longer than the school expected, you will need to file an extension. You must leave the country no more than 60 days after the end date on your form. To stay longer, you must file an extension no less than 15 days before your end date.

Keep your form I-20 safe. It is one of the most important documents need to study in the United States. If you still have questions about the I-20 form, contact your school’s international student admissions office.