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Advising International Students

This page is intended for Northwestern faculty and staff who work with international students.

International students are required to maintain their immigration status by following U.S. Department of Homeland Security and/or U.S. Department of State regulations. The Office of International Student and Scholar Services (OISS) is here to help students, advisors, faculty, and departments understand these regulations. On this page you will find helpful terms and immigration regulations. Please know you can always contact OISS for additional guidance.

OISS plays a vital role in providing immigration advisory services to Northwestern University's F-1 and J-1 international students. Furthermore, we are responsible for ensuring compliance with the Department of Homeland Security's reporting requirements for all F-1 and J-1 students sponsored by the university. F-1 students with approved work authorization for OPT or STEM OPT and J-1 students with approved work authorization for post-completion AT continue to be under Northwestern University's sponsorship. OISS provides immigration guidance to this group of F-1 and J-1 international alumni and maintains the SEVIS record of each student throughout their work authorization period under Northwestern’s sponsorship.

Given the complexity of immigration law and the potential serious consequences of violations, we highly recommend that all university departments refer F-1 and J-1 international students to OISS for any immigration-related concerns or inquiries. Your partnership with us is invaluable in ensuring that our international students have a successful compliant experience at Northwestern University.

Key regulations to know if you work with international students

Full-Time Enrollment

Federal immigration regulations require nonimmigrant students in F-1 or J-1 status to be enrolled in a full-time course load each term to maintain nonimmigrant visa status. Students who are not enrolled full time by the end of each add/drop period or who drop below full-time without approval by the OISS violate their student immigration status.

  • Undergraduate and graduate students are considered to be full time when they enroll in 3.00 units of credit or more per quarter
  • Pritzker School of Law:
    LLM and MSL programs define full-time enrollment as 8 or more credits per semester.
    JD programs (including JDMBA) define full-time enrollment as 9 or more credits per semester
  • Full-time enrollment is required in the summer term only if it is a student's first or last term of enrollment.

Students must be physically present on Northwestern's campus during every quarter of enrollment unless otherwise approved for study or research abroad.

Online Coursework

  • For both graduate and undergraduate F-1 and J-1 students, only one unit or 1 credit of online/remote course may count toward the full-time enrollment requirement. The one unit/credit limit is for every academic term when students are expected to be enrolled full-time. 
  • If F-1 or J-1 students enroll in more than their minimum unit requirement, they MAY enroll in more than one unit of online/remote courses.
  • Hybrid courses with required on-campus components do not count towards this limitation.

Reduced Course Load (RCL)

Students can only be allowed to drop below full-time for specific academic or medical reasons. They must be authorized by OISS for a reduced course load (RCL) BEFORE dropping below full-time.

Academic Reduced Course Load

A RCL for specific academic reasons requires recommendation of student’s academic or major advisor. There are two types of academic reduced course loads available to international students:  

  • A final-term student completing their course of study who does not require a full course load to complete. 
  • Academic difficulties due to initial difficulty with the English language or reading requirements, unfamiliarity with U.S. teaching methods,  or improper course level placement. This is only applicable during the first quarter; students must resume a full course load at the next
    academic term.  
  • Students cannot be enrolled in only online coursework , even if approved for a RCL by OISS. 
  • Students on approved academic RCLs are not eligible for CPT employment authorization.

Medical Reduced Course Load

Students may apply for a RCL due to a medical condition diagnosed and documented by a licensed medical doctor, doctor of osteopathy, licensed psychologist, or licensed psychiatrist. Please note:  

  • A RCL for medical reasons may be recommended for more than one term but cannot exceed 12-months. Students must reapply for a medical RCL each term.  
  • For students not working with Student Assistance and Support Services (SASS), additional documentation is required. A letter will be needed which must specify and include recommendations from the physician or psychologist on whether the student should have
    part-time or no enrollment, as well as indicating the term for which the reduced course load is applicable.  
  • Students can be approved for part-time enrollment or no enrollment at all if recommend by the medical professional. Even students not enrolled will remain active in the SEVIS government system if they are approved for a medical RCL.

Program Extensions

  • If a student doesn’t complete their program of study by the date listed on their immigration document (I-20 or DS-2019), they must have an academic or medical reason for failing to complete. Examples include: change of major, addition of major, or addition of minor; change in research topic; unexpected research problems; documented medical illness.
  • Delays to a program of study caused by academic probation or an internship, is not a compelling reason.

On-Campus Employment

  • F-1 and J-1 students can work on-campus up to 20 hours a week at an on-campus job while school is in session.
  • F-1 and J-1 students can work on-campus full time during break and vacation periods.
  • J-1 students must have authorized prior to any on-campus work.

Off-Campus Employment

  • F-1 and J-1 students must have authorization prior to any off-campus work, including internships.
  • Any off-campus work must be directly related to the student’s field of study.
  • Generally, F-1 students are not eligible for off-campus work until they have completed two full-time semesters.
  • See CPT, OPT, OPT STEM Extension, and Academic Training (Glossary of Terms tab) for more details.


Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. This is a web-based Department of Homeland Security (DHS) database system used to reconfirmation on all F-1 and J-1 visa holders. To gain access to the system, the University must go through SEVP certification. DSOs (DesignatedSchool Officials) and AROs (Alternate Responsible Officers) must go through training before being granted access to the SEVIS system and must meet specific reporting requirements in accordance with immigration regulations.


Form I-20 Certificate of Eligibility

  • The Form I-20 is an official immigration document issued by a U.S. government-approved educational institution certifying that a student has been admitted to a full-time study program and has demonstrated sufficient financial resources to stay in the United States. The I-20 is titled the “Certificate of Eligibility” because it allows an individual to apply for an F-1 student visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad.
  • The expiration date on this I-20 (NOT the student’s visa expiration date) determines how long the student is permitted to stay in the U.S.


DS-2019 Certificate of Eligibility

  • The Form DS-2019 or "Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status (J-Nonimmigrant)" is the basic document used in the
    administration of the exchange visitor program.
  • This form permits a prospective exchange visitor to seek an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate in order to obtain a J-1 visa
    to enter the United States.
  • The Form DS-2019 identifies the exchange visitor and their designated sponsor (Northwestern University) and provides a brief description
    of the exchange visitor’s program, including the start and end date, category of exchange, and an estimate of the full cost of the
    exchange program.
  • The J-1 status is often used for students who are in a specific educational exchange program such as Fulbright or Northwestern affiliated
    exchange partnerships.
  • Regular degree-seeking students are also eligible for the J-1 visa if a majority (51% or more) of their total financial funding comes from
    sources other than personal funds.
The expiration date on the DS-2019 (NOT the student’s visa expiration date) determines how long the student (or exchange visitor)
is permitted to stay in the U.S.


Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is a type of off-campus work authorization for F-1 students. As the name implies, this is training which provides
the student with the opportunity for practical application of the knowledge gained in their program of study and is considered part of the student’s
curriculum. Usually, CPT is used for internships or other job opportunities prior to graduation for which the student will earn course credit. In
most instances, an F-1 student is not eligible for CPT until they have completed one full academic year (3 quarters or two sem


Optional Practical Training is a type of off-campus work authorization for F-1 students who have been full-time students for at least one academic
year and plan to seek employment in the United States in their field of study.

  • Students who wish to apply for OPT must complete the OPT Request in the OISS Portal.
  • The OPT Request includes several components including a “Recommendation for OPT” that will need to be completed
    by the student’s academic advisor, PI, or director of graduate studies.
  • The OPT recommendation will be sent to the identified academic advisor, PI or director of graduate studies via an auto generated email.
  • The academic advisor will be asked to certify that the student requesting OPT:
    - has completed all course requirements.
    - is going to graduate in the term indicated on the OPT request (PhD students must be ABD before applying for OPT).
    - is in good academic standing.
  • Upon receiving the advisor recommendation, the OISS advisor (DSO) will review the request for OPT to determine eligibility.
  • Students eligible for OPT will be issued an updated Form I-20 with “OPT Recommendation.
  • The student must then apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with the OPT I-20 and other required documents.
  • A student authorized for OPT is allowed to work within their field of study in the U.S. for up to 12 months.
  • Our While on OPT resource provides specific rules  and reporting requirements while on OPT.

STEM OPT Extension

STEM OPT Extension is a type of off-campus work authorization for F-1 students who have earned a degree in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering or math) that appears on the DHS STEM Designated Degree List. The specific CIP code that appears on the student's I-20 document must appear on this list and the student must meet specific STEM Extension eligibility requirements to apply for this two-year extension of their OPT work authorization.

Academic Training (AT)

Academic Training (AT) is a type of off-campus work authorization for J-1 students to gain practical experience that is directly related to their
academic program of study.

  • AT may include, but is not limited to, internships, practicum, cooperative education, and other types of practical experience
    gained through off-campus employment.
  • AT may be authorized before the completion of an academic program, but it is generally used after the
    completion of an academic program.
  • AT done prior to program completion is deducted from the total amount available upon completion.


Additional Resources:

Understanding Immigration Documents 

Visa Renewal

Visa Compliance and Requirements

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