Ask a College Advisor: What Is an I-20 and How Long Does It Take to Receive One?

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Question: What is an I-20 and how long does it take to receive one?

Answer: While preparing for college in the United States can be overwhelming for any student, international students have the additional burden of preparing immigration documents, completing visa interviews, and following the many regulations set by the Department of Homeland Security to study in the U.S. legally.

After deciding to attend a college or university in the U.S., one of the most important documents that an international student must obtain is a Form I-20. To fully understand the purpose of an I-20 and learn how to receive one, let's zoom out a bit first to understand the context and importance of this document.

What Is SEVIS?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security manages the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). This program ensures that international students are studying at accredited institutions while also tracking and monitoring students through the Student and Exchange Visitor System (SEVIS) database.

Each school that hosts international students must have specialized staff members called designated school officials (DSOs). DSOs maintain student records in the SEVIS database and usually work in an international student office.

The SEVIS database contains information on all international students, such as their personal information, overseas and local addresses, and source of financial support to fund their education.

A DSO will issue a new international student their I-20. This document can be used to apply for an F-1 or M-1 visa with a local embassy or consulate office.

What Is an I-20?

So, what is an I-20, and how do you obtain one?

While the SEVIS database contains important information about each international student, an I-20 document is an official representation of the information listed in a student's individual SEVIS record.

Information appearing on a student's I-20 includes their legal name, SEVIS ID number, academic major, academic program start and end dates, and proof of financial support. An I-20 is also signed by a DSO to legally confirm that all data is accurate.

How to Receive an I-20

A new international student will receive an "initial" I-20. This type of I-20 is provided to a student by their school's DSO after they have confirmed their acceptance, submitted required financial documents, and indicated that they intend to apply for an F-1 or M-1 student visa in their home country.

An initial I-20 takes about two weeks to receive, on average. However, the process can be quicker or longer depending on the time of year, how many international students have been admitted, and whether you have provided all documentation in advance.

If you're worried about the timeline of your I-20 issuance, be sure to reach out to your school to ensure you have submitted all required documents and let them know of any time constraints you have.

While I-20s used to be physically mailed to students, policies were updated during the COVID-19 pandemic. SEVP now allows I-20s to be sent electronically to students. Students should note that they are still expected to print and sign their I-20 by hand for validity.

Getting Your Visa

After receiving their I-20, students mustpay the I-901 fee associated with their new SEVIS record and schedule their visa interview. After receiving their student visa, students can enter the U.S. within 30 days of the program start date listed on the I-20.

Be sure to carry your signed I-20 when you travel. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers will ask to see your I-20 and your passport (with a valid visa stamp) when you enter the U.S.

Different embassies and consulates have various wait times for scheduling visa interviews, so plan ahead to ensure you'll receive your visa in time for your travel to the U.S.

Continued Attendance I-20

After a student has entered the U.S. with their I-20, they will receive a new "continued attendance" I-20 with a valid travel signature.

A continued attendance I-20 is typically issued by a DSO 2-3 weeks after a student has completed all new international student requirements. Continued attendance I-20s are valid for the duration of a student's program but should be updated regularly with any changes to their major or special authorizations.

Students should also request an updated travel signature every year from their DSO to confirm all information on their I-20 is still valid. This I-20 — along with a passport and valid visa — will allow students to travel outside the U.S. and then re-enter the country.

When in Doubt, Ask Your DSO!

While online research can be helpful, when it comes to immigration policies, misinformation or misunderstandings can lead to serious consequences. International students should always confirm specific policies and visa timelines with their school's DSO.

Your international student orientation is also a valuable time to learn and understand how to maintain your student status.

Summary

Whenpreparing to study in the U.S., international students should carefully review any requirements set by their admissions or international student office to obtain their I-20. Be mindful that it can take 2-3 weeks to receive your I-20, which is usually sent electronically via email.

A student uses their I-20 to apply for an F-1 or M-1 student visa. Students should follow all school and immigration policies to maintain their visa status throughout their studies.


DISCLAIMER: The responses provided as part of the Ask a College Advisor series are for general informational purposes only. Readers should contact a professional academic, career, or financial advisor before making decisions regarding individual situations.


Feature Image: Chay Chay Sae Hêng / EyeEm / Getty Images