Can F-1 Students take Remote Classes in the Fall?

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Admission to a top American university is surely a cause for celebration. However, international students have a lot to consider before packing their bags for the U.S. In addition to various visa and travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. and other governments, they also have to worry about the policy changes regarding remote learning during COVID-19.

In general, students on F-1 status are only allowed to take one online course (up to 3 credits) each semester. M-1 students are not allowed to enroll in any online classes. On March 9, 2020, out of health considerations, ICE relaxed the requirement by permitting foreign students to count more online classes towards a full course of study in a broadcast message. However, ICE abruptly canceled such exemption on 7/6/2020 , without prior warning. After lawsuits were filed by Harvard, MIT and other colleges, DHS agreed to restore the March guidance on 7/14/2020 . On 7/24/2020, Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) issued another guidance clarifying its distance learning policy for F-1 and M-1 students. The following Q&As summarize the current status of this issue:
Q: I have been studying in the U.S. since March 2020, have never left the country, and am starting my third year of study. My university offers only online classes in the fall. Can I take them?
Yes, assuming you have been in valid F-1 or M-1 status since March 9, 2020, you may continue to take online classes based on the March 9, 2020 policy.

Q: I was studying in America in March but went back to my home country for spring break and got stuck there due to travel restrictions. I have been distance-learning since then. Now I can go back to the States for the fall semester, but my school is providing only remote learning classes. Am I able to re-enter the U.S. as an F-1 student?
Yes, under the March 9, 2020 guidance, as long as you were enrolled in valid F-1 status on March 9, even though you went outside of the U.S. and have taken online classes, you may still return to the U.S. in the fall to enroll with online classes only.
Q: I was accepted for admission by an American university this summer and am currently staying in my home country. For safety reasons, my university has adopted a 100% remote learning method. Am I able to enter the U.S. as an F-1 student to start school in the fall?
A: Unfortunately, if you were not enrolled in valid F-1 student status on March 9, 2020, you are not able to benefit from the exemption. If your university offers only remote learning, you will not be issued an I-20 or visa to study in the U.S.

Q. To follow up with the above question, do I have other options?
A. Other than continuing your study remotely in your home country, you may consider requesting for a deferral of study to the spring semester. If the university has affiliated schools in your home country, you may also consider attending.

Q: I entered the U.S. as a B-2 visitor and my request to change status to F-1 was recently approved by USCIS. Am I able to take only remote classes in the fall?
A. No, SEVP made it clear that students who enroll with schools after March 9 are not exempt from the usual requirement. You may only take at most 3 credits of online class.

Q. My university told me that they offer "hybrid" programs in the fall. Do they count as in-person or remote learning?
A. One of the exemptions provided in the July 7th ICE guidance is the hybrid study model. Specifically, a hybrid program is not treated as remote learning so long as the school certifies in the Form I-20 that 1) the program is not entirely online; 2) the student is not taking an entirely online course load in the term; and 3) the student is taking the minimum number of online courses necessary to make normal progress toward his/her degree. It is unclear if ICE will issue further guidance regarding hybrid programs.


There are still some unanswered questions regarding in-person vs. remote learning for foreign students. Universities are adopting different strategies when dealing with the pandemic, balancing the safety of students and faculty with academic and other interests. Their approaches are hardly uniform. Until the pandemic is under control, we urge the U.S. government to continue exercising flexibility when handling foreign student applications.

About The Author

Paul Szeto served as Assistant District Counsel for the New York District of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) from 1994 to 1999. Paul was granted the American Immigration Law Foundation's Edward L. Dubroff Memorial Award for outstanding writing in the field of Immigration and Nationality Law in 1994. Paul is in private practice now, focusing on employment-based and family-based immigration cases. He can be reached at info@szetolaw.com


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.