USCIS Policy on Filing Bridge Applications During COS to F-1 or M-1 Status

April 13, 2017

 

USCIS updated its website to clarify that an applicant changing from B-1 or B-2 visitor status to F-1 or M-1 student must file a separate "bridge" I-539 application if needed to make sure that the applicant's visitor status expires no later than 30 days before the F-1 or M-1 program start date, including circumstances where the program start date is deferred in order to prevent the SEVIS record from canceling while the COS application is pending.

"You must file a second Form I-539 in order to bridge the gap in time between when your current status expires and the 30 day period before your new F-1 program start date."

SEVP's online DSO training, in existence for several years, contains similar guidance. After instructing DSOs to "[d]efer the program start date when a student is within five working days of their program start date and USCIS has not adjudicated the change of status," SEVP's DSO training module states:

"If the student is nearing the end of their current status, advise them to file for an extension of status to the next program start date. Deferring the program start date keeps the record from canceling while the Form I-539 is pending with USCIS."

In practice however, most USCIS Service Centers had been approving change of status applications without requiring a bridge application, as long as the original program start date of the Form I-20 originally submitted with the change of status application had been within 30 days of the expiration date of the applicant’s status. At most, USCIS would ask applicants to submit a copy of any subsequently-issued Form I-20 that reflected a deferred start date.

In August, 2016, though, NAFSA began receiving reports from DSOs that the California Service Center (CSC) had been denying change of status applications where the program start date had been deferred, and no bridge extension request had been filed. The CSC denial notices involved applications to change status from B-2 to F-1. Those notices stated that "[a] search of USCIS databases does not reveal any other application filed by you or on your behalf that would extend your previously accorded status to within 30 days of the anticipated start date of your classes," implying that USCIS would have considered separate timely-filed Forms I-539 requesting an extension of B-2 status to "bridge" the gap between the expiration of the applicant's B-2 status and the new Program Start Date.

On December 15, 2016, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) sent USCIS a detailed memo urging the agency to rely on the initial program start date noted on the Form I-20 filed with an F-1 change of status application, where the program start date was deferred in SEVIS. [AILA Doc. No. 16121536: Memorandum to USCIS on Change of Status Applications. See AILA Doc. No. 16121536: Memorandum to USCIS on Change of Status Applications to F-1 .

Despite this, in April, 2017 USCIS updated their website guidance, to instruct B to F COS applicants on the need to file B-2 or B-1 extension bridge applications. The guidance reads:

USCIS Special Instructions for B-1/B-2 Visitors Who Want to Enroll in School

Is it permissible to enroll in school while in B-1/B-2 status?

No, it is not. The regulations, at 8 CFR 214.2(b)(7), specifically prohibit a course of study in the United States while in B-1 or B-2 status.

Before enrolling in a course of study, individuals who are in B-1 or B-2 status must first acquire F-1 (academic student) or M-1 (vocational student) status. Enrolling in a course of study while in B-1/B-2 status will result in a status violation. Individuals in B-1 or B-2 status, who have violated their nonimmigrant status by enrolling in a course of study, are not eligible to extend their B status or change to F-1 or M-1 status. These regulations provide no exceptions.

How can I obtain F-1 or M-1 status?

If you currently hold B-1 or B-2 nonimmigrant status and would like to enroll in a course of study, you may apply to change to either F-1 or M-1 student status if:

  • You have not yet enrolled in classes;
  • Your current status has not expired; and
  • You have not worked in the United States without employment authorization.

To change your nonimmigrant status from B-1 or B-2 to F-1 or M-1, you must file a Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status and include the required fee and documents listed in the instructions. You must maintain your B-1 or B-2 status while your Form I-539 is pending. You will need to file a second Form I-539, with a separate fee, to request an extension of your B-1 or B-2 status if:

  • Your current status will expire more than 30 days before the initial F-1 or M-1 program start date. We may approve your Form I-539 change of status request only if you are maintaining your B-1/B-2 status up to 30 days before your program's initial start date. If your status will expire more than 30 days before your F-1 or M-1 program's initial start date, you must file a second Form I-539 requesting to extend your B-1 or B-2 status. If you do not file this extension request on time, we will deny your Form I-539 request to change to F-1 or M-1 status. Please check our processing times to determine if you need to file a request to extend your B-1/B-2 status.
  • Your F-1 or M-1 program start date is deferred to the following academic term or semester because we did not make a decision on your Form I-539 change of status application before your originally intended F-1 program start date. You must file a second Form I-539 in order to bridge the gap in time between when your current status expires and the 30 day period before your new F-1 program start date.

Because extending your current stay in B-1 or B-2 status and changing from B-1 or B-2 to F-1 or M-1 status are two distinct benefits, you must pay a separate filing fee for each request. See the User Fee Statute, 31 U.S.C. 9701.

Please Note:

  • If you enroll in a course of study before we approve your Form I-539 change of status application, you will be ineligible to change your nonimmigrant status from B 1/B-2 to F-1 or M-1.
  • If you apply to extend your B-1/B-2 status and you have already enrolled in a course of study, we will deny your extension request because you will have violated your status.

If You Are Not Eligible to Change Your Status

If you are not eligible to change your nonimmigrant status to F-1 or M-1 while in the United States, you may apply for an F-1 or M 1 visa at a U.S. consulate. For information about consular processing, please visit the Department of State's website at www.state.gov/travel. For information about the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), please visit the SEVP website at www.ice.gov/sevis or the Study in the States website at https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/.

We encourage all students and prospective students to work closely with their designated school official (DSO) to coordinate the timing of applying for change of status and enrolling in a course of study.

NAFSA Comments

NAFSA recommends that assisting students on filing "bridge" applications be done by an experienced immigration lawyer, rather than a DSO.

Although not specifically stated in its guidance, it is conceivable that USCIS could apply the same logic in its B to F-1 guidance to dependents of the principal as well, in their application to change to F-2 status, i.e., USCIS could possibly refer to the program start date of the F-1 principal in determining the eligibility of a dependent applying to change status from B to F-2. Likewise, USCIS might apply the same reasoning when a prospective student is in a category other than B-2 or B-1, including in cases where the nonimmigrant may not eligible for an extension of stay in that category (e.g., an H-4 dependent who will be "aging out" of eligibility for H-4 status, etc.).

An experienced immigration lawyer is best positioned to advise on all aspects of any change of status application, including the timing and type of bridge applications that may have to be filed, exploring alternative immigration strategies such as consular processing and reentry instead of applying for change of status, and other matters that relate to the personal immigration status of the student and his or her dependents.

A change of status application is a personal application of the alien, and can have complex impact on the alien's immigration status and eligibility for future immigration benefits. Although college-based advisers need to be aware of the general issues surrounding change of status, applicants needing immigration advice and help planning an immigration strategy should be referred to an experienced immigration attorney.