Form I-20 – Definition

Cite this article as:"Form I-20 – Definition," in The Business Professor, updated March 28, 2019, last accessed October 22, 2020,


Form I-20 Definition

The Form I-20 is a Department of Homeland security form designating a an individual’s eligibility for the following visas:  M-1, M-2, F-1, and F-2.

It is primarily used to designate a foreign student’s eligibility an F-1 Visa to study in the United States. More specifically, it serves as the  Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status-For Academic and Language Students. It is issued byStudent Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) authorized schools. SEVP-certified schools include colleges, vocational schools, and universities.  It also contains the school code and student tracking number. The SEVP program is run by the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIS).

The equivalent of Form I-20, which is the Form DS-2019 is the one relevant for J-1 and J-2 status holders. The U.S. Department of State-designated J exchange visitor program issues the Form DS-2019.

A Little More on What is Form I-20

The Designated School Official (DSO) issues Form I-20 at colleges, universities, or vocational schools. This form can only be issued by institutions that are certified by SEVP. In order for an institution to get this certification, the Form I-17 has to be filed with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This process is done only once. It is important to be aware of the fact that an institution may be SEVP-certified without holding regional or national accreditation. On the other hand, an institution can hold regional or national accreditation but may decide not to get SEVP certification if it has no intention of admitting international students in the J, F, or M status.

A big university, by default, has an international office which controls its participation in the SEVP and every DSO works for this office. The function of the international office is to manage updates to the SEVIS record and oversee the issuing of a new paper form. Communication is important when any change occurs. For students who have changed their plan, it is obligatory

that they inform their international office of such changes. These changes could include course

load, return from a leave of absence, leave of absence, program end date, and much more.

Student SEVIS record and Form I-20

Once the student is issued the first Form I-20, a record is created for such student in the SEVIS system. This form can only be issued to the student upon the student’s acceptance of the admission offer from the university. At any point in time, the continuous update of the student’s SEVIS record falls with the institution the student is presently enrolled in. Note that this institution must be SEVP-certified. In a situation where the student moves to a new SEVP-certified institution, the new institution would be responsible for the continuous SEVIS record update.

This form can be seen as the paper representation of the most recent SEVIS documented information for the student’s present enrollment. In a case where there are significant changes to the details, the SEVIS record would be updated. In addition to this update, an entirely new Form I-20 with updated information would be given to the student by the institution. It is mandatory that the student uses the most recent Form I-20 when showing student status.


First Form I-20 Issuing

A Form I-20 is issued to the student upon acceptance of the admission offer by the prospective student.

Asides biographical details about the student which include student’s name, citizenship, and date of birth, there are two major pieces of information that are required as well. These details must be inputted into the initial Form I-20 and the student’s SEVIS record.

Whichever way the student intends meeting living and tuition expenses for the student’s first-year program is indicated in the program. That of the end date is specified on the Form I-20, depending on that which is shorter.

In a bid to issue the I-20, each international office is permitted to abide by its rules regarding the documentation type it requires from the student or other departments. The use of jargon for this documentation varies from university to university. For example, both the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago use the terminology “Financial Resources Statement” for that statement submitted by students on how they will cater for their expenses. Contrary to the term used by the aforementioned universities, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign makes use of the terminology “Declaration and Certification of Finances for I-20 or DS-2019 Application”.

Once the information has been received from the student, as well as, the institution concerning the end date and the program length, the international office would then begin. First, it would create a SEVIS record of the student, then get a SEVIS number for the student, after which it would issue a Form I-20. A hard copy of the form may be mailed to an overseas student. In a situation where a SEVIS record from past student status is owned by the student, there should be a transfer of the existing SEVIS record.

In a case where a student is unable to show how he or she intends covering expenses for the first year, the international office may not issue a Form I-20.

While making payment of the SEVIS fee, the SEVIS number on the Form I-20 would be required.

It is required when applying for the M visa or F visa, both in the case of filling the application form and also during the interview.

It is required when seeking admission to the U.S. During the time of admission, both a valid I-20 and a valid visa are required. At the time of first entry, the officer at the entry port scrutinizes that the resumption date of the program is at most thirty days ahead. In addition to this, the officer checks that there is a valid travel signature on the I-20. It is also important that, at the time of first entry, there is a match between the school the student plans on attending and the actual school on the student’s I-20 and the student’s visa. These requirements are not needed in the future. A Form I-94 is issued by the officer at the entry port. This I-94 has an expiry date written as “D/S” which stands for “Duration of Status“. This implies that the student is in certified status in the U.S. up until the end date of the program which is stated on the I-20. In addition to the expiration date, the student can remain in the United States for about sixty days after expiration.

For those who are not seeking U.S. admission but just changing status, one Form I-20 copy has to be attached to the Form I-539 application in order to change status.

For individuals entering the U.S. in student status, the entry date to the U.S. is termed as the start date for students in the M or F status. This is still valid even if this is before the start date of the program. For individuals changing from a different status to student status, the transition date stated on the I-539 is taken as the start date.

References for Form I-20

Academic Research on Form I-20

An evaluation of the foreign student program, Borjas, G. J. (2002). This article explores the visa program while evaluating foreign students. Even though this program has improved tremendously over time, there has been a minimal study on the gains of the United States from this program. The conclusion of this evaluation is that despite the advantages of the program, huge taxpayer subsidy to international students exist.

Beyond the headlines: changing patterns in international student enrollment in the United States, Alberts, H. C. (2007). GeoJournal, 68(2-3), 141-153. This article goes beyond the headlines. It focuses on foreign student enrollment in the U.S. and changing patterns. Magazines and newspapers reported a massive decline in students enrolling at US universities after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Beyond the headlines, it can be seen that this drastic decline can’t be solely attributed to increased security measures. The reason is that the number of students from some countries had already started reducing before 2001 or continue increasing despite the change in regulations. The U.S. is highly interested in attracting foreign students as potential skilled immigrants since such students remain in their host countries after completing their degrees. To actualize this, changes need to be made at individual universities and also at the government level.

Re‐Engineering the Immigration System: A Case for Data Mining and Information Assurance to Enhance Homeland Security: Part I: Identifying the Current Problems, Strickland, L. S., & Willard, J. (2002). Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 29(1), 16-21. This article examines the immigration system with a focus on the problems of data mining and information assurance.

Analysis of the US student visa system: Misperceptions, barriers, and consequences, Urias, D., & Camp Yeakey, C. (2009). Journal of Studies in International Education, 13(1), 72-109. This work analyzes the visa system in the US. It explicates the misconceptions, barriers, and also its consequences. Based on the economic, social, and political happenings surrounding 9/11, the main challenge addressed deals with how international students or scholars are affected by federal legislation. This article attempts to analyze the larger public policy at different implementation levels. Furthermore, it comprehensively compiles and identifies laws affecting foreign student study in the U.S. From the analysis carried out, specific themes emerge such as entry and exit registration, the effect on Muslim and Arab students, philosophical changes, impact on U.S. citizens, and other emergent problems.

Campus politics and the challenges of international education in an urban community college district, Ng, J. (2007). Campus politics and the challenges of international education in an urban community college district. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2007(138), 83-88. This chapter sheds light on the problems of international education in urban community college districts. It shows how the problems of institutionalization of international student program in the Peralta Community College District arose and the strategies used to overcome them.

US Immigration Restrictions on Foreign Students after 9/11: Impact on Students from Mexico, Wade, Y. R. (2003). Law & Bus. Rev. Am., 9, 181.This article shows how Mexican students were affected by U.S. immigration restrictions on international students after 9/11.

Saudi students in USA, Alalhareth, M. A. (1911). Saudi students in USA (Doctoral dissertation, Sciences). This dissertation focuses on Saudi students in the United States of America. This document is specifically crafted for Saudi Arabian prospective students who intend applying for the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program so as to study in the U.S. The application process, as well as, requirements for the program can be found in the document.

The geography of foreign students in US higher education: Origins and destinations, Ruiz, N. G. (2014).Global cities initiative: A joint project of Brookings and JPMorgan Chase, Washington, DC. This article explores the origin, as well as, destinations of international students U.S. institutions.

Intelligibility is equity: Can international students read undergraduate admissions materials?, Taylor, Z. W. (2018). Higher Education Quarterly, 72(2), 160-169. This article centers on intelligibility and equity on the part of international students. It was discovered that fewer foreign students have schooled in U.S. institutions. Forty percent of U.S. institutions announced a decline in foreign applications since 2016. U.S. institutions must ensure that transparency and equity must be present in their foreign admission materials. It is discovered that the materials are written close to a reading comprehension level of the 14th-grade. Just one percent of institutions make available translation tools that are web-embedded on their websites. 91 percent of them provide only English content. The aspects addressed are implications for policy-makers, practitioners, and future research.


Center for Immigration Studies, Borjas, G. J. (2004). Center for Immigration Studies. This article analyzes the center for immigration studies.

Law, policy, and behavior: Educational exchange policy and student migration, Ritterband, P. (1970). American journal of sociology, 76(1), 71-82. This article talks about student migration and educational exchange policy. The aim of legislation for educational exchange is to avoid creating avenue leading to extralegal immigration. Instead, it is after facilitating education. The varying interests of the various organizational role partners have frustrated the official policy of the U.S.

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