When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, most colleges and universities were on spring break. Students had to cut their plans short, pack up their belongings, and move back home. As the weeks passed, colleges and universities responded with online classes.

For international students, i.e., those who are not U.S. citizens, are not legal permanent residents, or not minor dependents of those here on work visas, this posed a problem. These students were allowed to be in the U.S. as F-1 (international students of academic programs) and M-1 (international students of vocational programs) and only for that purpose. Buried in the regulations were rules governing how many (or how few) online courses they could actually take. The government made accommodations. But now, as we face Fall 2020, the government is issuing new rules that are not as accommodating.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued unofficial guidance today indicating that, for Fall 2020, if a school’s program is completely online and students are only attending online courses, the students will not be allowed to remain in the US in the F-1 or M-1 status. The official rules will be published shortly.

Highlights include the following:

  • Students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.
    1. For those who are hoping to enter the US, the State Department will not issue visas for such students and the US Customs and Border Protection officers will not allow such students to enter the US.
    2. For those already in the US, they will not be allowed to remain, unless they transfer to schools with in-person classes.
  • Students attending schools operating under normal in-person classes are bound by existing rules; these students are only allowed to take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.
  • Students attending schools adopting a hybrid model, that is, a mixture of online and in-person classes, will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. The assumption is that these students will not be able to take all classes on-line. ICE specifically indicates that “These schools must certify through the Form I-20, ‘Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,’ that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.” F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students are not permitted to enroll in any online classes.

What is not addressed is whether the above impacts those students who have already graduated and who are remaining in the US pursuant to either Optional Practical Training (OPT, the one-year period of post-graduate training) or STEM OPT (the additional two-years post-OPT for students who have received a STEM degree in the US and whose employer has signed up for the E-Verify program). Our reading of the guidance is that this does not impact such individuals. Such individuals should be able to continue to remain in the US and should be able to continue to work in the US pursuant to their OPT or STEM OPT.

*** Please note that we have seen USCIS continue to challenge whether OPT/ STEM OPT students have maintained their status by asking for documentation to show that they have not exceeded their allotted dates of unemployment. We have also seen USCIS ask for the training plan associated with the STEM OPT program. ***

ACTION ITEM: All F-1 and M-1 students should contact their Designated Student Officer (DSO) as soon as possible to see whether the new restrictions on remaining in the US apply to them. Even if they are allowed to stay, the DSO will need to issue an updated Form I-20 to prove that the student meets the new requirements.

For complete details see:


Please note that the above has been provided for informational purposes only. Please contact your Clark Lau LLC attorney to see whether the above applies to you. Stay tuned!