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Understanding your Immigration Document

Please select the appropriate section below based on your visa type and student/scholar status.

Understanding your Form I-20 for F-1 Students

The 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.

How is an I-20 created?

After a school completes the admissions process, it collects necessary financial support and identification documentation for admitted international students requesting F-1 status. See Immigration Document Request for additional information for newly admitted international students.

The student names and biographic information are entered into a U.S. government database called SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System). SEVIS processes the information and produces an I-20. The school official (called the Designated School Official or DSO) processes and signs the I-20 and then sends it to the student. If a student needs to update or change information on their I-20, the DSO makes these requests through SEVIS to produce a new document.

How is the I-20 used?

Outside the U.S.
After receiving an I-20 from a school, an international student must make an appointment to apply for an F-1 visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate (the visa is needed for entry into the United States in F-1 status). Students must present both the F-1 visa and the I-20 to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer upon arrival at the U.S. port-of-entry. *Note: Canadian students are not required to apply for a physical U.S. visa but will need their I-20 for travel purposes.

Inside the U.S.
Once a student has arrived in the United States and passes through the border inspections process (either at an airport, seaport, or land border), the I-20 is used as identification and proof of legal and academic status. Typically, students must show their I-20 at the Social Security Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The I-20 is also shown to employers in the hiring process for employment. CPT or OPT information and/or authorization will be printed on page 2 of the I-20.

I-20s: Electronic vs. Paper

As of October 12, 2021, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began to allow I-20s to be signed and distributed electronically by Designated School Officials (DSOs). Northwestern University OISS Advisors are DSOs. When you receive an I-20 from OISS, whether for initial attendance or any subsequent I-20, it will be issued electronically and available for you to access and print from the “Documents” section of your student profile in the OISS Portal.

You must print out the I-20, sign it in ink in the student attestation section, and carry a physical copy when using it for travel or other official purposes. Always be sure to keep all old I-20s in your personal records, but you must carry the newest version for travel or other purposes.

Understanding your I-20 Program of Study and the “Major 1” description and number

The "Program of Study" section on the Form I-20 includes important information regarding a student’s level of education (bachelors, master’s, doctorate or other) and the CIP code corresponding to the Northwestern major program of study. A six-digit code is assigned to each major at Northwestern University based on the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code as defined by the U.S. Department of Education. Sometimes, the CIP code description is different from the NU major name because the CIP code is used to categorize majors at universities across the entire United States.  

 For example, below you will see the Major 1 description and CIP code of “Digital Communication and Media/Multimedia” with CIP Code 09.0702. This code (09.0702) is assigned to multiple academic programs/majors at Northwestern, including Journalism, Integrated Marketing Communication, and Media, Technology & Society. 

I-20 program of study section example

 A full list of Northwestern program majors and corresponding CIP Code and CIP code descriptions as determined and formally approved by the appropriate academic department at Northwestern can be found at Northwestern Academic Programs and CIP Codes. Please note this list is organized first by education level (Bachelor's, Master's, Doctorate) and then by CIP Code, in numerical order within each education level. 

 

Why do I have multiple I-20s?

Your initial I-20 reflects your initial program information. As your academic situation changes, you may need to get an updated I-20. For example, new I-20s are issued to continuing students whenever there is a significant update to a student's record. This includes changes in biographical data, program dates, major or program of study, the addition of work authorization, etc. You may end up receiving multiple I-20s during your time as an F-1 student. You should keep copies of all I-20s in your personal records.

Changes requiring issuance of a new I-20 are typically prompted by student request via the OISS Portal.  

Should I keep all copies of my I-20s?

Yes. You may obtain several different versions of your I-20 while you are in the United States if there are changes to your program or other information. Keep all copies for future reference. Always use the most recently issued I-20 for travel, work, or other purposes. Check the Date Issued under the School Attestation section to verify you are using the most recently issued I-20. Please note: Northwestern University does not maintain copies of previously issued I-20s beyond the documents saved to the OISS Portal. We recommend you keep copies of all I-20s with your important personal

Do I need my I-20 for travel abroad?

When traveling abroad, students must take their I-20 with them. The I-20 is required to reapply for a visa (if needed) and for re-entering the United States. Before departure from the United States, students should verify that they have a valid travel endorsement on page 2 of their I-20 from an advisor at Northwestern OISS. For continuing students this signature is valid for 12 months for multiple visits outside the United States. In most cases, a travel endorsement can be done quickly and easily at OISS in person during regular office hours or via a request in the OISS Portal. However, students should plan ahead and get their travel endorsement several weeks before departing the United States to avoid the holiday rush and university office closures over holidays.

See the F-1 & J-1 Travel section of the OISS website for additional information.

How can I find out if my academic program qualifies for the STEM OPT Extension?

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) maintains a complete list of fields that fall within the regulatory definition of “STEM field” that qualifies certain degrees to fulfill the STEM OPT extension requirement. This list is known as the STEM Designated Degree Program list.  

The  Northwestern Academic Programs and CIP Codesalso identifies programs with a STEM eligible CIP code. Please note this list is organized first by education level (Bachelor's, Master's, Doctorate) and then by CIP Code, in numerical order within each education level. 

Understanding your DS-2019 for J-1 Students

Understanding your Form DS-2019 Subject/Field Code & Remarks

Section 4 on the Form DS-2019 includes important information regarding a student’s exchange visitor category (bachelors, master’s, doctorate or non-degree) and the CIP code corresponding to the Northwestern major program of study.  A six-digit code is assigned to each major at Northwestern University based on the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code as defined by the U.S. Department of Education. Sometimes, the CIP code description is different from the NU major name because the CIP code is used to categorize majors at universities across the entire United States; however, the NU program/major name is indicated in the Subject/Field Code Remarks.  

 For example, below you will see the Subject/Field Code 45.0603, which is associated with the CIP description “Econometrics and Quantitative Economics”. This code (45.0603) is assigned to multiple academic programs/majors at Northwestern, including Accounting, Economics, and Finance.  

 ds2019-section4-example

A full list of Northwestern program majors and corresponding CIP Code and CIP code descriptions as determined and formally approved by the appropriate academic department at Northwestern can be found at Northwestern Academic Programs and CIP Codes. Please note this list is organized first by education level (Bachelor's, Master's, Doctorate) and then by CIP Code, in numerical order within each education level. 

How can I find out if my academic program qualifies for the Academic Training STEM Extension?

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) maintains a complete list of fields that fall within the regulatory definition of “STEM field” that qualifies certain degrees to fulfill the STEM extension requirement. This list is known as the STEM Designated Degree Program list.  

The  Northwestern Academic Programs and CIP Codesalso identifies programs with a STEM eligible CIP code. Please note this list is organized first by education level (Bachelor's, Master's, Doctorate) and then by CIP Code, in numerical order within each education level. 

Disclaimer 

The NU academic program list with corresponding CIP codes is provided as a courtesy to Northwestern  international students. This list of programs is NOT inclusive of all academic programs at NU, only those for which we have historically issued immigration documents. Please note that the OISS does not determine or set CIP codes. If you have a question about the CIP code assigned to your program, please contact your academic department directly. OISS is not responsible for, and expressly disclaims liability for, any errors or omissions relating on this list.