Studying abroad is one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking things you can do. There is nothing like the moment where, after a long flight, full of sore muscles and clock-watching, you feel the plane start its descent. All those long hours disappear as you press your face against the window. You start to get lower, and the vague details of your destinations, seen both from these dizzying heights and for months in your imagination, come into focus. Your stomach was a swirl of emotions, a tangle of butterflies. There was the thrill of travel and the giddy anticipation of seeing things you have never seen.

But mixed with that can be the more prosaic concerns about passports and visas and school acceptance papers. Even if you know  that everything was in order, you still might afraid afraid that you missed something. And that’s a common fear. Especially now, leaving America is a paper-laden activity. Coming to America is much more so. When students are coming here, it is crucial to make sure all the paperwork is in order. You don’t want the start of this amazing experience to be hobbled by a bureaucratic snafu, and you don’t want the end of it to be a nightmare of forms. If visa documents are in order, it eases a mental burden for the students, freeing them to make the most out of their experience and education.

Immigration visa

If your visa doesn’t look like this, it isn’t valid. Image from

Passport/Entry Visa

These are the big two, the most obvious. A passport offers proof that you are a resident of a country, and the entry visa is your permission to enter the country. You do not need to renew the visa if it expires, as it is just for entry, but if it expires the student will not be allowed to re-enter the United States. This is important to keep track of if they plan to travel home or to other nearby countries during a break in studies.


These are similar forms, but the difference between them is crucial. They are both given to the prospective student by the schools they will be attending, and must be presented to the US Embassy or local consulate when applying for a visa. The difference is that the I-20 is for F-1 status, and the DS-2019 is for J-1 status. So what is the difference between the two?

  1.  J-1 Status: If a student is J-1, most of the funding for their education comes from outside themselves or their families: from an official institution. This could be from the school they are attending, their own government, or the institution they are attending now.
  2.  F-1 Status: If most of your funding comes from a personal fund, such as your family. The major difference in these statuses involve student employment and the length of time they can stay and work after the educational period is over. For younger students, however, this won’t matter as much as getting the appropriate paperwork done on the front end.

I-94 Arrival/Departure Record

Traditionally, this is a piece of paper that the student would get upon their arrival and would dictate the length of stay. While it is still similar in spirit, the process is now automated. Because this isn’t just for travel, but rather for study, there shouldn’t be an actual expiration date. Instead, it will include an expected “duration of stay”. This will be valid as long as the student maintains their academic eligibility and are meeting the requirements of their institution. It is important to make sure that there is no expiration date on the form or the electronic record. If there is, it is crucial to contact Immigration immediately.

Toward the end of the stay, it is possible to apply for an extension to the I-20 or the DS-2019. Make sure this is done at least a month in advance of their expiration. Sometimes paperwork can take an excruciatingly long time, and you don’t want your student to have to leave before they are ready due to procrastination.

Department of Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security is in charge of all facets of immigration. Image from

Times have changed. Customs and immigration offices have been subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security. For better or worse (probably both), the United States is much stricter about visa regulations, extensions, and going after people whose approved time in the country has expired. There isn’t any leeway or wiggle room. It can be scary, but if everything is in order, you and the student can avoid any paperwork headaches, and their stay can be as rich and fulfilling as everyone wants to make it.

Let ISPA Be Your Bridge Over Bureaucratic Waters

This process can be confusing, but the experienced and professional staff at ISPA can help you through it. With years of practice at navigating the intricacies of international paperwork, they can help you cut through red tape and and get every file in the right hands. With everything on the mind of the student and the host family, ISPA can help take paperwork off that list. Contact us today!


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.