Student FAQs and Travel Considerations During the COVID19 Pandemic
Updated Friday, September 18th
We know you have many questions since BU announced the transition to online classes. On March 17th, President Brown announced that all classes and exams for the remainder of the Spring semester will be held remotely. On April 7th, President Brown and Provost Morrison confirmed that both Summer terms will occur remotely, and announced a variety of other changes for Summer programs. For Fall 2020, the University will resume on-campus learning and research activities in a way that will be guided by public health considerations and best practices around the coronavirus pandemic. Details can be found in the Back2BU Portal.
Given the shifting nature of things, there is risk to international travel at this time. Before departing the United States, we recommend that you check with your airline and the government of the country you are traveling to in order to learn of any restrictions or quarantine requirements once you arrive. As you are making travel plans, here are some things to consider:
- Continuing students who are applying for a visa or traveling into the United States are encouraged to print a copy of our Fall 2020 Operational Plan letter that can be used at the US Consulate/Embassy or the US Port of Entry to document BU’s mode of operation for the Fall semester.
- We do not expect any negative impact to your current F-1 or J-1 immigration status provided you remain enrolled full-time for the Spring semester and enroll full-time for the Fall semester
- We will continue to keep your SEVIS active during this time regardless of whether you remain in the U.S. or you decide to travel to your home country to continue coursework online
- If you have specific immigration or travel-related questions, please email email@example.com
- With the shift to remote classes and exams, campus services may be limited. As detailed in President Brown’s March 17 message, many campus offices will be closing or will be offering services in remote format.
- We will notify you if, or when, any new travel restrictions, travel bans or quarantines are implemented. In many parts of the world, movement is being restricted severely with little to no warning.
- Students scheduled to graduate in September 2020 or January 2021 who are considering travel should contact your ISSO advisor via e-mail so that they can help you understand the implications of any action to travel during your final semester
- Each class may have specific requirements for synchronous participation, so communication with your instructors is vital to ensure that you continue to make normal academic progress in your program
What does the Learn from Anywhere (LfA) instruction plan for fall mean for international students?
All undergraduate programs will be offered in the LfA format for the Fall 2020 semester, as will many of our graduate programs. The University is committed to providing in-person instruction in the Fall semester while following all guidance from medical health professionals to provide a healthy and safe experience on campus. We encourage international students to plan be in Boston, if possible, to commence classes in the fall. The Universtiy’s LfA format is a blended teaching modality that is designed to allow maximum flexibility for learning on campus during the pandemic. It allows:
- for efforts to de-densify classrooms on campus for appropriate physically safe distancing
- international students to begin studies remotely from their home country and arrive a bit later in the fall if they are unable to obtain a visa or travel to Boston before class begins
- provides an overall effective way to be flexible to ensure the health and safety of our community.
Students will be expected to participate in-person in on-campus instruction in the new LfA modality as soon as they arrive in Boston.
F-1 regulations restrict registration in online classes as they emphasize that students need to be physically present in the US to attend class. The regulations permit students to enroll in one traditional online class per semester towards their 12 credit minimum registration requirement to maintain full-time registration. The LfA format will allow the flexibility to learn and minimize exposure to COVID-19.
The Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has already provided regulatory and SEVIS recordkeeping flexibility during the COVID outbreak. This flexibility has allowed international students to study remotely from both inside and outside of the US and for schools to maintain active SEVIS records. In late July, SEVP provided additional guidance for the Fall semester, which affects different populations of students in different ways.
We will continue to keep our international community updated as we receive new SEVP regulatory guidance during this time.
I have decided not to study in the Fall semester, how do I take a “Leave of Absence” and return in the Spring semester?
Undergraduate students should notify their academic department of their desire to take a Leave of Absence and have the leave approved by the University Service Center. Graduate students should work with directly with their academic department to request approval for a Leave of Absence. A Leave of Absence requires that ISSO terminate your SEVIS record for Authorized Early Withdrawal when the leave is approved and processed through the student registration system. Students who are in the US, must depart the US within 15 days. In order to return for the Spring 2021 semester, your return from Leave of Absence must be approved by your department (graduate students) or the University Service Center (undergrads).
Once you are approved to return from a Leave of Absence, you will contact your ISSO advisor to request a new I-20. You will need to provide updated financial documents demonstrating sufficient financial support for a minimum of one academic year. Your ISSO Advisor will create a new SEVIS record for you to return for Spring 2021. Please note that taking a Leave of Absence will “reset” the clock on your eligibility for off-campus employment authorization. Regulation requires that students be enrolled full-time in two consecutive academic semesters before becoming eligible for off-campus work authorization (Curricular Practical Training or Optional Practical Training), so students who take a Leave of Absence in Fall 2020 and return in Spring 2021 will not be eligible for off-campus work authorization during the summer of 2021.
I have a job/internship and I need to apply for a Social Security Number
Please find some general information on the ISSO website about the social security application process. The process usually requires you to submit an application in person but the Social Security Offices are all closed to walk-in traffic due to COVID. Social Security applications are processed by a specific office based on the zip code of your address on the Social Security application. Prior to applying, you should verify how your application will be processed by contacting the Social Security Office that will process your application. The information below is based on a conversation with the Boston Social Security office in early August, and procedures may vary from office to office.
In order to apply for a Social Security number at the Boston Social Security Office, you will mail your Social Security application along with a photocopy of your immigration documents required for your application based on your immigration status. You should include documentation in your application that verifies the start date of your employment. If, upon review of your documents, it is determined that you need to apply for a Social Security Number, a representative from the office will contact you at the phone number listed on your Social Security application to schedule an in-person appointment. You should not apply for an SSN more than 30 days prior to the start date of your employment.
The Social Security Website list the following instructions during the COVID emergency:
If you need to contact your local office for a dire need situation, please use their online services or contact them by phone at Social Security Office Locator under “Show Additional Office Information” for the office you select. Please visit our Office Closings and Emergencies page for the latest information about office closings.”
If you are a current BU student applying for a Social Security number for the first time, you would need to have ISSO sign a Certification of On-Campus Employment as a part of the required Social Security application documentation. Please submit this Certification, signed by your department and on department letterhead, to your ISSO Advisor via e-mail for ISSO review and signature. ISSO will review and return to you within 5 business days.
Can I travel to Canada and return to the US?
The United States and Canada extended a mutual agreement to extend restrictions on non-essential travel across its shared land border until at least, October 21, 2020. However, study is considered “essential” so you should be eligible to cross from Canada to return to study in the US but you should avoid traveling to Canada simply for tourism during this time. If you are traveling between the United States and Canada to continue your studies, you should be prepared to explain to the officer at the Port of Entry why you need to travel across the land border to conduct your intended activity, and you may be asked for a detailed explanation as to why you cannot conduct that activity in Canada. Tourism is not considered essential, so parents will not be able to accompany students into the United States while the land border remains closed. These restrictions do not affect air travel.
How does the Credit/No Credit policy that BU has announced affect international students?
On March 27, Provost Morrison announced updated grading policies for the Spring 2020 semester in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. International students on a F-1 or J-1 visa will be able to elect CR or NC for Spring 2020 without any negative effect on their immigration status. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) recently confirmed that, as long as a student continues to make normal academic progress in their degree program, a change in grading policy directly related to COVID-19 will not impact immigration status.
I hear that USCIS has temporarily closed some offices due to COVID-19. How will that affect the processing time for my OPT application?
From mid-March until June 4, USCIS temporarily suspended in-person services, and recently began a phased-in resumption of face-to-face services. This suspension of services did not include USCIS Service Centers that process immigration applications such as OPT are considered essential so they are still processing applications. Current processing times for OPT applications are listed as 3 – 5 months, which is standard for OPT applications at any time of the year. Processing times do vary throughout the year and can change at any time. Once you have a receipt number for your application, you can check the status of your case online.
I am on OPT/STEM OPT and I have recently been laid-off/furloughed from my job. How does this impact the time that I am allowed to be unemployed?
Unfortunately, USCIS has not issued any specific guidance relaxing the requirement that students on OPT must be engaged in practical training so students should assume that any interruption in their employment while on OPT will count towards their maximum allowed unemployment time. During OPT and STEM OPT, a student’s status is based on active employment. Students are allowed a maximum of 90 days of unemployment during post-completion OPT, and an additional 60 days if they are granted STEM OPT (for 150 days total). While on OPT, students are required to report to ISSO their employer name, employer address, and/or loss of employment/interruption of such employment for the duration of the optional practical training so ISSO staff can update SEVIS records. ISSO, along with other university international offices, has requested that USCIS consider relaxing these requirements in light of the COVID-19 pandemic so we will updates students on OPT if we receive any guidance that modifies the unemployment maximums. SEVP, in updated guidance posted on May 12, stated that students working in their OPT opportunities fewer than 20 hours a week were considered to be engaged in OPT, but no other flexibility has been provided.
I am employed on OPT or STEM OPT and am working remotely, do I need to update my employer’s address or (for STEM OPT only) my Form I-983?
No. If the only change to your employment is that you are now working remotely, you do not need to report that to ISSO.
What should I do if I am nearing the end of my 60-day grace period but I am having difficulty leaving the US due to COVID-19 travel restrictions?
Unfortunately, USCIS has not issued any guidance relaxing your requirement to depart the US. You might consider submitting an application to USCIS to request a temporary change of status to a Visitor’s visa to give you more time to travel home. This process requires you to submit an application to USCIS along with supporting documentation, a filing fee (currently $370) and a biometric fee (current $85). You can find relevant forms and instructions for this process on the USCIS website. If you leave the US before the change of status is approved, your application will be considered to be abandoned and the change of status will be denied. We would encourage you to consult with an immigration attorney when evaluation options during this time. Please e-mail ISSO@bu.edu to request a list of Boston-area immigration attorneys.
If you decide not to apply for a change of status, you may be considered to have overstayed or be in violation of your immigration status, which could have negative implications if you want to return to the US in the future. In this case, we recommend keeping detailed documentation of your efforts to depart the United States in a timely manner. This may include e-mails, texts and copies of any correspondence you have had with your airline. If you stay beyond the end of your grace period or accumulate too much unemployment time while on OPT, this documentation may be useful to show that you made every effort to depart the United States, but circumstances beyond your control prevented you from doing so in a timely manner.
What should I do if I am nearing the end of my 90-day unemployment maximum on OPT but I am having difficulty leaving the US due to COVID-19 travel restrictions?
Unfortunately, USCIS has not issued any guidance relaxing the 90-day unemployment maximum on OPT so you should continue to make arrangements to depart the US. You might consider submitting an application to USCIS to request a temporary change of status to a Visitor’s visa to give you more time to travel home. This process requires you to submit an application to USCIS along with supporting documentation, a filing fee (currently $370) and a biometric fee (current $85). You can find relevant forms and instructions for this process on the USCIS website. If you leave the US before the change of status is approved, your application will be considered to be abandoned and the change of status will be denied. We would encourage you to consult with an immigration attorney when evaluation options during this time. Please e-mail ISSO@bu.edu to request a list of Boston-area immigration attorneys.
If you decide not to apply for a change of status, you may be considered to have violated your immigration status, which could have negative implications if you want to return to the US in the future. In this case, we recommend keeping detailed documentation of your efforts to depart the United States in a timely manner. This may include e-mails, texts and copies of any correspondence you have had with your airline. If you stay beyond the end of your grace period or accumulate too much unemployment time while on OPT, this documentation may be useful to show that you made every effort to depart the United States, but circumstances beyond your control prevented you from doing so in a timely manner.
Can I apply for OPT from outside of the United States?
Current F-1 regulations require that you be in the US in valid F-1 status to be eligible to apply for OPT. You are required to present a copy of your current I-94 in order for your ISSO advisor to issue the I-20 recommending you for OPT and you must submit a copy of the I-94 to USCIS in support of your application. ISSO continues to seek further guidance and regulatory flexibility from USCIS, but we do not anticipate that this will be granted to allow students to apply for OPT from outside of the United States.
What if I leave the United States after I have applied for OPT?
If you have already mailed your OPT application to USCIS and elect to leave the US, you assume some risk as you need to make special arrangements to:
- receive your OPT receipt and OPT EAD card at your current US mailing address
- make sure you have the appropriate documentation before you return to the US.
If you leave the US, you must make certain that someone at the mailing address you listed on the I-765 application will be able to receive mail on your behalf for the next several months and forward it to you. We strongly recommend that you wait until you have a receipt confirmation notice from USCIS for your application before departing the US. If your application were to be rejected after you leave the US (for an improper signature or bounced check, for example), you may not be able to return to the US in time to reapply.
Also, USCIS might require additional documentation in support of your application so they might mail you a “Request for Evidence (RFE)”. The person receiving this mail on your behalf would need to send this documentation to you immediately. In most cases, you would be able to respond to an RFE from abroad, but depending on what the USCIS is asking for, it could be difficult. If your application is approved without an RFE, the EAD card would arrive in the mail and the person receiving it on your behalf would need to mail it to you abroad. Please be certain to contact your ISSO advisor if you have questions about travel during a pending OPT application as well as for advice regarding how to respond to a RFE.
Finally, keep in mind you would not be allowed to return to the US again in F-1 status until after your OPT has been approved, and you have your EAD card. USCBP may also request proof of an offer of employment. If your EAD card gets lost in the mail or returned to the sender, it is difficult to resolve from abroad.
What is BU doing to advocate for international students who risk losing out on benefits like OPT through travel restrictions or other COVID-19 related restrictions that are beyond their control?
Boston University is keenly aware of how travel during this time impacts benefit eligibility based on current regulations, and ISSO staff appreciate all of the additional concerns and complications that COVID-19 may be placing on your current status. As a result, BU is actively involved in conversations with other universities and various professional organizations advocating for additional relief for international students in this unprecedented time. Please rest assured that we will continue to update all of our web information and inform our international community of any changes.
Has COVID-19 impacted my on-campus employment eligibility?
No. International students are still eligible to continue working up to 20 hours per week maximum in on-campus positions. On campus employment is generally limited to “campus premises” but SEVP has recently clarified that they will allow students to work remotely during this time. International students registered to continue studies in the Fall are eligible to exceed the 20 hour on campus employment limit during the summer beginning May 4, 2020. Continuing students who are outside of the US may not be able to be hired into a new on-campus position while abroad. Please contact your ISSO advisor with any questions regarding on-campus employment.
What should I do if my F-1 visa expires over the summer?
Keep in mind that you only need a valid US visa when you are physically traveling into the US and that many F-1 student visas expire while students are in the US. Since you can only extend your visa at a US Embassy or Consulate outside of the US, you only need to take action if you have plans to leave the US and return after your visa expires. Please review the scenarios below and contact your ISSO advisor with specific questions:
- If you are continuing your studies in the Fall, you have remained in the US during this time and you have no plans to travel over the summer then you do not need to worry about extending your F-1 visa until the next time your travel outside of the US.
- If you are continuing your studies in the Fall and you have left the US, you will need to schedule an appointment at the nearest US Embassy or Consulate to apply to renew your visa. Please visit the ISSO web page regarding travel during your program of studies for more details
- If you are a prospective May graduate applying for OPT, you will need to make sure you have received your EAD before you schedule an appointment at the nearest US Embassy or Consulate to apply to renew your visa. Please visit the ISSO web page regarding travel during your program of studies for more details.
Now that BU has announced that remote enrollment will continue through the summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, how does that effect my F-1 status?
The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has provided schools with flexibility to offer online/remote instruction during the COVID-19 emergency. ISSO has and will continue to follow all guidance on reporting changes in the method of instruction as required by SEVP. ISSO sent an e-mail to all students on Wednesday, April 8 with details about how students may be affected by these changes. Additionally, please review the scenarios below and contact your ISSO advisor with specific questions:
- Continuing F-1 students registered for the Fall semester are allowed to take summer as a vacation period so you can opt to take classes (or not) during this time if you wish.
- Students planning on graduating September 25, 2020 will need to be registered during the summer for final academic requirements. If you are registered for less than 12 credits or part-time, you will need to work with your ISSO advisor in the beginning of the summer to obtain permission for a reduced course load in final semester.
Newly admitted students who are outside of the US looking to begin a program in the summer will need to defer their admission and postpone plans to enter the US and begin studies after BU can resume full-time in-person instruction on campus. Students returning from a Leave of Absence may be able to enroll in remote courses over the summer, but will receive an updated I-20 with a Fall semester start date so they can resume on-campus studies once BU returns to in-person instruction.
I need a travel signature on my I-20 before I go home! Please help me get that now!
You do not need a travel signature to depart the United States. You will need a travel signature that has been signed within the past 12 months when you wish to return to the United States. If you are on post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT), your signature should be new within 6 months.
Before contacting ISSO to request a new travel signature, look at P. 2 of your most recently issued I-20 to see the date of the most recent travel signature. If it was signed after September 2019 (or 6 months from when you will travel to the US for those on OPT), you don’t need a new travel signature! If you do need a new travel signature, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to request a new travel signature. In your e-mail include your full name, your BU ID number and the following information:
Date you are departing the US
Date you anticipate returning to the US
Next semester you will enroll at BU
Date your most recent F-1 visa stamp expires
Attach a copy of your most recent I-94 information (found here: https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/#/home). Do not sent the travel history.
Once ISSO has this information, we will review and contact you should we need additional information. During the COVID emergency, ISSO will be sending your new I-20 to you at your BU e-mail address. Travel signature processing may take up to 10 business days.
If I leave the US now and will not return until Fall, how will the 5 month rule affect my SEVIS record?
Generally, any absence from the US of 5 months or more that is unconnected to a student’s full-time studies would require ISSO to end your current SEVIS record. Fortunately, SEVP recently announced that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the 5 month temporary absence rule will not apply to students with active SEVIS records.
This means that BU can keep your current SEVIS record active and you do not need to worry if you will be outside of the US for more than 5 months during this time. This temporary provision applies to students who were unable to return to BU for the start of the Spring semester, students who left US during the spring semester but will be outside of the US for more than 5 months before you return for fall as well as students on OPT who are working remotely for their employer from outside of the US during this time.
Please make sure you have the proper documentation to return to the US when classes resume (valid passport, valid F-1 visa and I-20 with travel signature on P. 2 that was signed within 12 months of the day you plan to reenter the United States). If you have a travel signature on P. 2 of your most recent I-20 that will be more than 12 months old when you plan to return for Fall 2020, please contact your ISSO advisor by e-mail to request that they mail an updated I-20 to your address in your home country. If your F-1 visa will expire before you intend to return to the United States, you should plan to apply for a new visa prior to your return.
Can nonimmigrant students participate in online classes from outside the U.S. and still maintain their nonimmigrant status?
Yes, nonimmigrant students can temporarily engage in distance-learning, either from within the U.S. or outside the country, in light of COVID-19. SEVP will provide updated guidance as additional information concerning the scope and length of this situation becomes clearer. More information can be found here, PDF
How does COVID19 impact me if I am a student on post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) or STEM OPT?
Recent graduates on OPT and STEM OPT should continue to report address and employment locations. We are hoping to receive further clarification from USDHS and SEVP in the event that they will make any temporary accommodations and record keeping requirements during this time. Please email your advisor with specific questions regarding maintaining status or reporting requirements during this time.
How ISSO Can Help
- We are here to help.
- As of March 17th, ISSO has moved to remote services but we will remain available to assist students (unless the university officially closes the campus). You can find our Menu of Remote Services here.
- We will continue to help you navigate the risk associated with travel during this time
- We will continue to update our web resources regarding travel and immigration
- We will notify you when we receive additional guidance from SEVP/USDHS regarding other possible exceptions to regulations that might modify immigration options
- If you decide to depart the US, we can verify your valid SEVIS record, advise you on the immigration documentation you will need to return and make sure you have a valid travel signature
- Check out the ISSO Current Travel Advisory
- Keep up with the latest immigration news in ISSO’s News section
- Learn more about BU’s return to on-campus activities at the Back2BU portal
- Refer to the list of campus resources at BU COVID19 page to follow up with the appropriate BU office with health, academic, housing, financial or other non-immigration-related questions