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Changing Visa Status

 When you enter the United States in nonimmigrant status, you do so for a specific purpose, such as study, work, or travel. You may enter the U.S. with one purpose and later wish to change your purpose. When this happens, you may need to obtain a new visa status. Different visa categories allow different activities. 

This webpage contains general information about changing via status. It is not legal advice and OISS advisors are not attorneys. We recommend you consult an immigration attorney about gaining a new status. 

There are two ways to gain a new nonimmigrant status: Travel and reentry to the U.S. in the new visa status OR aapplying for change of status from within the U.S. 

Option 1: Travel and Reentry

In this case, you would depart the U.S. and then apply for an F-1 or J-1 visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad, preferably the local consulate in your home country. If the F-1 or J-1 visa application is approved and the corresponding visa is issued, you can re-enter the U.S. using your F-1 Form I-20 and F-1 visa (or DS-2019 and J-1 Visa) . At the Port of Entry, your electronic I-94 will be updated to show your status as F-1 and the Admit Until Date as D/S, which confirms F-1 status. 

Please note that Canadian citizens are exempt from the requirement of a having an F-1 visa to re-enter the U.S. in F-1 status. But travel and re-entry are still required for Canadian citizens to obtain F-1 status. 

Read on for more information on the process as well as advantages and disadvantages. 


  1. Gather documents related to new status. 
  2. Leave the U.S. 
  3. Apply for a new visa at a U.S. consulate outside the U.S. (Canadians are not required to apply for a new entry visa.) 
  4. Re-enter the U.S. with the new visa and other relevant documents. You will gain your new status when you are admitted into the U.S. 


  • This process is usually faster than changing status in the U.S. 
  • You will obtain the entry visa and the status.


  • Possibility of visa processing delay 
  • Expense and logistics of travel 

For those seeking F-1 or J-1 student visa status:

Plan your travel timeline carefully. You cannot enter the U.S. in F-1 or J-1 status earlier than 30 days before your I-20 or DS-2019 start date.

Option 2: Change of Status in the U.S.

This option takes a longer time. USCIS will generally not approve a change of status more than 30 days before the beginning of the program of study. In addition, your current status must be valid at the time of adjudication. Therefore, if you have a status that ends before USCIS can approve a change of status, you must apply for a bridge application. The bridge application may be an extension of your current status if this is possible or an application for visitor status (B-2) while the other application is pending. Therefore, the timing of a change of status application can be tricky. 

Because USCIS will not notify OISS of your Change of Status approval or denial, you must inform OISS of the approval or denial. If the I-20 or DS-2019 date expires before adjudication by USCIS, your I-20 or DS-2019 start date must be deferred because the I-20 or DS-2019 will auto-cancel in 60 days, making the I-20 or DS-2019 invalid. Also, if you leave the U.S. while this application is pending, USCIS will consider it an abandoned application and deny it. 

Given the difficulty a change of status may pose in some situations, we strongly recommend you consult an attorney who specializes in immigration.  

Read on to learn more about the Change of Status application process, advantages and disadvantages, eligibility requirements, restrictions, and more.  


  1. Gather documents related to new status. 
  2. Submit an I-539 application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a change of status.  
  3. Wait for USCIS processing. If approved, USCIS will give you official documentation of your new status. Provide a copy of your USCIS Receipt Notice to OISS 
If you have been admitted to a program of study at Northwestern University and are applying to change your visa status to F-1 or J-1 from within the U.S., you will need to submit the following to the appropriate USCIS office: 
  • A completed and signed Form I-539. The I-539 is available in the Forms section on the USCIS web site. 
  • Processing fee 
    A check or money order must be made out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Check the USCIS I-539 instructions for the current fee. 
  • An original I-20 or DS-2019 issued by Northwestern University. See the Steps for Newly Admitted Students section of the OISS website for detailed instructions. 
    Make sure that you provide all pages of the immigration document (Form I-20 or DS-2019). The form must be  signed by both you and the appropriate school official in the appropriate places. 
  • Proof of SEVIS fee payment 
    You can pay the SEVIS fee online at  
    (Note that you must have the I-20/DS-2019 to pay the SEVIS fee.) 
  • Proof of adequate financial support 
    This documentation includes original bank documents, student loan information, scholarships, fellowships, teaching or research assistantships indicating that you or your sponsor has the financial ability to cover your educational and living expenses for one full academic year. The amount you must prove will be indicated on your I-20 or DS-2019. 
  • Photocopies of passport 
    Include both biographical and current visa pages. 
  • Form I-94, accessible online at 
  • Dependent(s) documentation: photocopies of passport biographical page(s), current visa stamp(s), I-94 cards, their original I-20 or DS-2019 issued by Northwestern University. Include these if you have dependent(s) that are applying for a change of status to F-2 or J-2 with you. Additionally, you must provide financial support for your dependent(s). The amount is indicated on your I-20 or DS-2019. 
  • Additional documents may be needed 

Important Notes:

  • We strongly recommend you consult with an immigration attorney when applying for Change of Status via the I-539.  
  • If your plans change and you must travel outside the U.S. before F-1 status is approved, notify OISS. You should withdraw your Change of Status application with USCIS and follow the steps for Option 1: Travel and Reentry. 


  • Ability to stay in the U.S. during processing. 
  • Avoid the time and expense of travel abroad and new visa application (for now — A new entry visa will be required to re-enter the U.S. if you travel in the future).
  • You will have to pay the I-539 application fee.  


  • USCIS processing can be very slow, which may jeopardize your ability to begin your new activity, such as studying or accepting a research or teaching assistantship. Current approximate processing times can be found on the USCIS website. 
  • You must stay in the U.S. during processing; exiting the U.S. cancels the application. 
  • You must still obtain a visa stamp to match your status the next time you travel outside the U.S. (except for Canadian citizens). 
  • Possibility of denial, which could require you to depart the U.S. 


You may be able to change status if: 

  • You are maintaining your current status. 
  • You are eligible for the new status. 
  • Your current visa status does not prohibit change of status in the U.S. Review the restrictions below. 

You generally cannot change status if: 

  • Your period of authorized stay has already expired. 
  • Your current nonimmigrant status does not allow a change of status in the U.S.  
  • You have otherwise violated the conditions of your current status. 


  • Individuals in J status who are subject to the two-year home-country residence requirement can change only to A or G status. 
  • Persons admitted under the Visa Waiver Program (marked “W/T” or “W/B” on the I-94) cannot change nonimmigrant status. 
  • Persons who hold C, D, or K status cannot change nonimmigrant status. 
  • A vocational student in M status cannot change to F status.