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I-20 Form Guide for International Students

student visa
advice for students
By Shorelight Team
Published on April 15, 2021

What is a I-20 form? This important form enables international students to pay their I-901 SEVIS fee, apply for a nonimmigrant visa at the nearest US embassy or consulate, and travel to the US.

The top of a F-1 student visa is centered in the frame with white letters saying VISA on a blue background

For international students who want to study in the US on US student visas, the I-20 student visa form is a required document. Issued by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to certified colleges and universities in the US, the I-20 form proves that you are a legitimate student who is enrolled in an accredited college or university.

With your I-20 form, you can pay your I-901 SEVIS fee, apply for your nonimmigrant visa in your US embassy or consulate, and travel to the US.

What Is an I-20 Form? 

The I-20 form for a student visa in the USA is a Certificate of Eligibility issued by accredited colleges or universities in the US for international students on an F-1 student visa or M-1 student visa. The I-20 form proves that you are a legitimate student studying in the US and is an important step in getting your student visa. Once you have your visa, you can then apply for a driver’s license and a Social Security number (pending visa and employment status), and be qualified to work on campus or off campus, depending on the type of your US student visa.

Once you are accepted to a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified US college or a university, you will receive an I-20 form from the designated school official (DSO) at the school or university where you plan to enroll. The DSO is responsible for signing and delivering the I-20 form student visa USA to you. If you want to update your information on the I-20 form student visa, the DSO will make the changes through SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System). 

There are two types of I-20 forms issued to international students, depending on the type of visa:

  • Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status – For Academic and Language Students

  • Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (M-1) Student Status – For Vocational Students

While the two I-20 forms are for different types of academic programs, they contain the same information. The following information will be recorded in the SEVIS when you receive your I-20:

  • SEVIS ID number

  • Academic program start and end dates

  • Intended program of study

  • Funding sources

  • Cost of attendance at your school of choice

  • Other personal information

It is important to keep your I-20 form with you during your stay in the US as an international student. You can find out more information about the I-20 form on DHS.gov and from Shorelight’s student visa services.

I-20 Form Requirements

To obtain the I-20 visa application form, you must meet the following I-20 visa requirements:

  • Get accepted to an accredited college or university—First, the college or university you applied to must accept your application. The institution must be SEVP-certified.

  • Pay the I-901 SEVIS fee—Before you apply for an F-1 or M-1 student visa, you are expected to pay the I-901 SEVIS fee. Once you pay your I-901 SEVIS fee, an official representative (or DSO) from the institution that accepted you will send you the I-20 form.

  • Make sure your information is correct and up to date—The college or university you are attending must confirm that your personal information is correct and that you have enough funds to cover your costs during your stay in the US.

Read more about the I-20 student visa form on State.gov.

What Is the I-901 SEVIS Fee?

After you are accepted to an accredited college or a university in the US, you are asked to pay the I-901 SEVIS fee to obtain your F-1 student visa or M-1 student visa. To complete the payment, you need to have your I-20 form with you.

You are expected to pay the SEVIS fee if you are a:

  • F-1 or M-1 visa student from a country where a visa is required to travel to the US

  • F-1 or M-1 visa student from a visa-waiver country (before you seek admission at a US port of entry)

  • A non-immigrant in the US who wishes to change your nonimmigrant status to F-1 or M-1 status (before applying for a change of nonimmigrant status)

  • F-1 or M-1 student who has been out of status for more than five months

  • F-1 or M-1 student who has been away from the US for more than five months and wishes to re-enter the US for higher studies in the same course of study

Visit DHS.gov for more information about the SEVIS fee.

To pay the I-901 SEVIS fee, you need to provide your:

  • Name, address, date of birth, and email address

  • Country of birth and country of citizenship

  • School Code as stated on your I-20 form

  • SEVIS Identification Number as listed on the I-20 form

After paying the I-901 SEVIS fee, make sure to keep the I-901 SEVIS fee receipt and bring it to your visa interview as proof of payment. It is mandatory to pay the I-901 SEVIS fee before you enter the US.

How Do I Get My I-20 Form?

If you are applying for an F-1 student visa or a M-1 student visa, you first need to obtain the I-20 form, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, to travel to the US. 

Once you are accepted into a SEVP-certified college or a university, you will receive your I-20 form from your designated school official (DSO). After your application has been approved by the SEVP-approved school, you will be registered in SEVIS and must pay the SEVIS I-901 fee. Once you are registered, the college or the university will issue you an I-20 form. The I-20 form lists the start date of your program, and you may enter the US 30 days before your academic program begins. Your F-1 or M-1 student visas can be issued up to 120 days in advance of the start date of your program.

For more information, check out Shorelight’s college application assistance services.

Who Needs an I-20 Form?

As a required document that proves your eligibility for an F-1 student visa or M-1 student visa status in the United States, the I-20 student visa form must be kept with you during your US study program. 

You need a I-20 form if you are an international student who is a:

  • Non-immigrant who has never attended a school or a university in the United States

  • Non-immigrant wishing to transfer from a secondary school, college, or university in the US

  • Non-immigrant changing your current visa status to a F-1 visa

  • Non-immigrant returning from a leave of absence of more than five months, from the US

You have to carry your original I-20 form with your signature as you enter the US. A US Customs and Border Protection officer will ask you to present your I-20 form at the port of entry. (Make sure to have it in your carry-on bag – do not pack it inside your suitcase!)

Will I Get a New Form I-20?

Yes, you can request a new I-20 form from your DSO under the following circumstances:

  • The physical copy of the I-20 form is destroyed, lost, or stolen

  • You need it to travel

  • Your SEVIS status changes (e.g., your status changes from initial to active)

  • Your personal information like changes (e.g., new program of study, optional practical training, etc.)

To request a new I-20 form, contact your DSO. It is important to remember that your DSO can only reprint an official I-20 form when your SEVIS status is initial or active.

Do I Need the I-20 Form for Travel?

You do not need to have your I-20 form with you when you travel. However, you are required to carry your I-20 form for re-entering the US. You will be asked to keep a hard copy of your I-20 form with original signatures — this applies to international students with a F-1 student visa and M-1 student visa. For example, if you plan to travel outside of the US and return to your US university or college to resume your studies, remember to take your I-20 form with you. 

We Are Here to Help

Shorelight has partnered with internationally friendly universities to offer world-class educational opportunities to students around the world. As an international student applying through Shorelight, you will benefit from exclusive support services like college application assistance, student visa services, and more. 

Learn more about how to apply to a US university and the services available to you on Shorelight’s visa requirements.

If you need any support, please reach out to a Shorelight advisor >>