International Students and Online Learning: What You Need to Know

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By Sakina Taher
Last updated on August 10, 2023

Online classes are a convenient and flexible option for international students interested in studying at US universities – and with the COVID-19 pandemic, they have become even more fully integrated with degree programs. Here’s what you need to know about online classes for international students.

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For years, many US universities have offered online classes, with increasing popularity and growing enrollments (approximately 7,313,623 students enrolled in distance learning courses in 2019). But when the global COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020, online learning platforms became even more important, as they offered a way for students around the world to continue to take classes and stay on track with their degree programs. Today, many US universities have kept offering online courses, as both students and faculty appreciate the flexibility and convenience offered through digital learning programs. 

International students taking online courses have special considerations when pursuing a US university degree. At publication time, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has extended the exemptions for international students and online learning for the 2021-2022 academic year. You may be wondering: how can international students enroll in online degree programs? How many online classes can an international student take? Is there anything to be aware of regarding F-1 visa online classes? Read on: our guide aims to answer all your questions about international students and online learning!

Can International Students Take Online Classes in the US?

Many college and university departments offer online education in the USA for international students through their respective course curriculum. If international students are unable to study on campus due to travel restrictions, inability to secure a visa, or health reasons, universities may offer courses that are 100% online or hybrid programs, which combine online learning and on-campus classes. 

The Answer: Yes and No

Depending on the type of online course you have chosen, international students holding an F-1 visa can take online courses in specific academic programs or online summer courses when studying in the US. 

It is important to keep in mind that the program you enroll in must not be fully online. This means any online course offerings must be part of a hybrid program, with some classes online and others in person, in order for you to maintain your F-1 visa status to study in the US. 

Before you apply, confirm that your preferred university or college offers a hybrid model so you can maintain your status and not experience any delays or enrollment issues later. Some hybrid programs to consider include:

  • American Collegiate Live – You can begin your studies online from any location for your first year, then travel to the US to complete your degree program on campus.

  • Partnerships with local institutions – Begin online classes at an institution in your home country, then transfer to its partner US campus to complete the rest.

With COVID-19 travel restrictions in 2020 and 2021, many US universities and colleges increased their online class offerings, giving international students multiple program options to pursue their goals.

Before COVID-19

In 2018, international students and online learning numbers were small: only 34.7% of students took online classes in 2018. Availability was limited, as international students studying at US colleges and universities were only permitted to take one online class per term.

As the pandemic took hold in March 2020, SEVP updated its guidance and recommended changes for international students and online courses, and classes became more accessible and flexible. One of the bigger changes – that had to be implemented fast – was incorporating online learning into the US education system.

COVID-19 and the Changes to US University Learning Systems

The arrival of COVID-19 changed distance learning from an attractive “nice to have” option to a necessity — at least for the short term. The pandemic pushed colleges and universities to build creative learning pathways to accommodate the needs of international students and online courses. 

With the wider adoption of online courses at US universities and colleges, international students saw major changes in: 

  • Cost – With no need to travel or adjust to daily life on campus, students can save on housing and dining, transportation, and even tuition at some US colleges and universities.

  • Flexibility – Online courses can typically be taken anywhere with an internet connection and may include pre-recorded options that adapt to any schedule.  

  • Technology – With the need to quickly have online classes up and running in response to the pandemic, US universities and colleges had to fast-track tech adoptions, train faculty and students, and bring on supplementary software programs to ensure everything ran smoothly. Many tech changes became fully integrated into college course curriculum and are here to stay.  

Shorelight’s Academic Services support international students with dedicated counselor assistance, online study options, foundational courses, and more. Improve your academic performance with flexible study options based on your needs.
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The American Government’s Current Stance on Online Learning for International Students (Updated November 1st, 2021)

You may be wondering: can international students take online classes? Do I need a student visa to study online? Questions like these are very common for those interested in online education in the USA for international students. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the guidance issued in March 2020 related to international students taking online classes will remain in effect through the 2021-2022 academic year. 

Here are several key policy points: 

International Students Are Not Allowed to Have a Fully Online Schedule

New international students who were not enrolled in a program of study before March 9, 2020, will be permitted to participate in an online learning program only if their chosen course offers a hybrid learning program. This means you may not be issued a visa to study in the US if your study program is 100% online.

However, if an international student enrolled in a program before March 9, 2020, but had to leave the country, this student is eligible for a visa to study in the US (as the March 2020 guidance permitted international students to take 100% online courses from inside or outside the US). In other words, the restriction on fully online courses would still apply, but only for new students.


To be eligible for a valid F-1 student visa to study in the US, international students require acceptance at a SEVP-approved school providing a hybrid online learning program that complies with the full-time enrollment requirement of 12 units for undergraduate studies and nine units for graduate studies.

International Students Are Allowed to Partake in Hybrid Learning

International students are allowed to enroll in a hybrid program, where some classes take place online and others are held in person. The protocol was introduced to bring flexibility to the evolving COVID-19 situation affecting international students and their ability to study on campus. A Shorelight counselor can advise you on which hybrid programs are compatible with your visa requirements. 

How Many Online Classes Can I Take?

How many online classes can an international student take? The guidance issued in March 2020 states that eligible students may take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online, and you must physically attend the rest of your program’s classes on campus.  

Your university or college will inform you about which classes you can take online and which should be attended on campus. They may also offer guidance on:

  • Hardware and software requirements for online classes

  • Required materials 

  • COVID-19 protocols to follow on campus

  • Policies on general conduct during online or in-person lessons

What Is Hybrid Learning?

Hybrid learning is an educational model that offers classes both online and in person. 

Hybrid learning brings many advantages such as:

  • Flexibility – students can learn across multiple formats

  • Adaptability – technology and in-person learning combine to serve all types of learners

  • Convenience – online options enable students to learn from any location with an internet connection

If you are planning to take a hybrid course, consider developing a learning plan: map out the goals you wish to achieve from the course, create a distraction-free environment when attending your online classes, and make meaningful connections so you get to know your professor and fellow classmates. 

Do All Universities Offer Hybrid Learning?

For international students to take a hybrid course at a US university, they must receive certification from SEVP, through the Form I-20 Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. To issue the form, the university will ensure that students are eligible and have not enrolled in courses that are 100% online.

Here are some universities that offer hybrid learning courses:

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst – UMass Amherst offers hybrid courses in electrical and computer engineering. Students can begin their first semester online and complete their remaining classes on campus. 

  • Cleveland State University – Cleveland State works with American College Live to offer digital first-year undergraduate programs covering English, economics, mathematics, and more.

  • Johns Hopkins University – Ranked #9 among national universities by U.S. News and World Report, Johns Hopkins University offers hybrid graduate courses in systems engineering, mechanical engineering, and technical management. 

  • University of the Pacific – Student-centric hybrid courses specialize in health care and developing leadership skills.

If you have never taken hybrid courses or online courses before, advisors are always available to help! Speak with a Shorelight counselor to choose a university with hybrid programs that may suit you best, get visa assistance, or discuss and clarify any concerns you may have.

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What Kind of Visa Is Needed for New International Students Wanting to Study Partly Online in the US?

If you are considering online classes as an international student, you may have many visa-related questions such as “do I need a student visa to study online?” or “can I study online on a student visa?” 

As an international student, you will need an F-1 visa to take online courses at a certified SEVP university in the US. You can apply for this visa after an accredited institution accepts your enrollment application and issues you a Form I-20, declaring your eligibility to study in the US.

You may successfully obtain your F-1 visa online classes student visa if you have applied to a hybrid program. You can study online for a certain time frame and the rest must be on campus. Once you receive your Form I-20, you can complete your visa application, pay your fees, organize your documents, prepare for your visa interview, and get ready to begin your academic journey.

How to Maintain Visa Status if Your University Adopts Fully Online Learning

Can international students take online classes? The first step to obtain an active student visa status involves applying for an online course that is SEVP-approved, after which your visa process can begin.

Can international students pursue online degree programs in a scenario where the college or university you have enrolled in shifts to a fully online learning model? According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidelines, your student visa status will not be affected. Speak with your Shorelight advisor for the most up-to-date policies.

When choosing the college or university where you want to study, look for programs in compliance with the most current ICE guidelines, as enrolling in such programs can ensure your visa status remains valid. To help you understand more about these regulations, Shorelight advisors can direct you to specific research and resources

Resources for Staying on Top of Rules Regarding International Students Studying in the US and Online Learning

It’s important to keep track of rules regarding online classes and international students, as well follow the latest COVID-19 updates. Staying aware of the latest guidelines will help you have a smooth educational experience in the US. 

Here are some online resources to bookmark:

If you’re still wondering how can international students take online classes in the US or have other questions about online education in the USA for international students, speak with a trusted advisor. You can always clarify any questions you may have from your Designated School Official (DSO) or you can contact a Shorelight advisor for guidance.

Have More Questions Regarding Taking Online Classes While Studying in the US?

Online learning gives you the chance to conveniently pursue your degree at US universities while building connections with faculty and classmates around the world, and adapting to a changing educational environment. 

As a new international student taking online courses, asking your advisor or university representatives questions like “can international students take online classes?”, “can international students enroll in online degree programs?”, or “can international students take online classes in summer?” can clear up any concerns you may have. 

Expert advisors can help you every step of the way to earning your US university degree. Stay in touch with both your DSO and Shorelight advisors. Our helpful team is always ready to support you, from the point of application all the way to your graduation, with services such as academic support, campus transition, career counseling, and more. 

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