FAQ: International Students

We know this time presents you with an extra set of stressors. You likely have concerns about your visa, your ability to travel, academics and more. Our top priority is your health, safety and well-being. We are here to support you, and we will continue to update the information below as new developments take place.

In this unprecedented time, we realize that some of you may need assistance with hardships caused by COVID-19. The USC Student Basic Needs Department is a resource for currently enrolled undergraduate and graduate students that addresses food, housing and financial insecurity. 

Below are the answers to frequently asked questions for international students. You should also view the Academic FAQs for Students. Student researchers should see the Research FAQs. For health-related information, view the Health and Safety FAQs.

If you have questions that are not answered in our FAQs, please email covid19@usc.edu. Our response team will help find an answer.

Visas and Immigration Status

On July 24, 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) clarified that for the fall 2020 semester, F-1 students should abide by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) guidance originally issued in March 2020. This guidance allows distance learning in excess of regulatory limits due to the public health emergency generated by COVID-19.

Continuing students in the United States or abroad can take classes from either location. As long as you enroll in a full course load and maintain your immigration status, USC will continue to keep your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record in active status.  

Continuing students who are currently outside the United States but would like to return to the United States remain eligible to do so as long as they have a valid visa, an I-20 endorsed for travel and all other documents listed on the travel section of USC's Office of International Services website. However, given the continuing public health crisis in Los Angeles and the uncertain guidance from state and local authorities, the university is not recommending that students travel back to campus at this time.

If you are detained by U.S. immigration officials at an airport or land border port of entry, you may call the USC Immigration Clinic Emergency Hotline at (213) 740-7435 and leave a detailed message with your name, date of birth, nationality, current location, airline and flight number, phone number and email address. A representative from the USC Immigration Clinic will provide initial guidance.

Students do not need a replacement I-20 with special language about the mode of instruction offered by USC.

As long as continuing students enroll in a full course load and maintain their immigration status, USC will continue to keep their Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) records active even if they are outside the United States for more than five months.  

The five-month temporary absence provision will begin on May 15 for students who were enrolled for the spring 2020 semester but returned to their home country and did not enroll for the summer 2020 semester, and do not intend to enroll for the fall 2020 semester. These students should complete the Leave of Absence (LOA) form.

Newly admitted students who are already in the United States (undergraduate transfer students or new graduate students coming directly from another degree program at USC) can remain in the country and maintain F-1 status while completing a full course load online this fall. The USC Office of Admission I-20 processing team will assist these students. Please email usci20@usc.edu if you have not already received your USC transfer I-20.

Students must complete Passport Verification (PPV) and enroll in a full course load for fall 2020. You are permitted to take online classes while in the United States and can study in F-1 status since your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record will be activated after PPV. To avoid complications at the port of entry, do not depart the United States until your SEVIS record has been activated. View the PPV instructions.

New students, transfer students, students returning from a Leave of Absence (LOA), students traveling to reinstate status, and all other students with an initial attendance or transfer pending I-20 who are currently outside the United States are not eligible to enter the United States and enroll in 100% online classes.

These students have two options for the fall 2020 semester:

  • Begin your studies from abroad as a non-F-1 student. New and transfer students should email the USC Office of Admission I-20 processing team at usci20@usc.edu to obtain a new I-20 for the spring 2021 semester. All other students with an initial attendance I-20 should email USC's Office of International Services at ois@usc.edu to obtain a new I-20 for the spring 2021 semester.
  • Contact your admissions or academic advisor to inquire about the possibility of postponing your studies to a future semester.

Students can take their classes online for the fall semester. We cannot predict how things will progress in the coming months, although we hope that normal operations will resume in January and that all USC students will be able to return to campus at that time. New students will need an updated I-20, and continuing students should refer to the travel section of USC’s Office of International Services website. 

To maintain active F-1 status, continuing students and new students currently in the United States are required to maintain a full course load during this temporary transition to alternative instructional methods. Continuing students outside the United States must maintain a full course load if they wish to retain an active Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record.

There is no immigration enrollment requirement for new students outside the United States. However, students should confirm with their academic advisor regarding the minimum course enrollment requirement for their program.

To maintain your SEVIS record, you should not fall below the full course requirement unless you have been permitted to do so either through a  Reduced Course Load (RCL)  or  Leave of Absence (LOA)  approval from your academic advisor and USC’s Office of International Services.

Note: No extra academic difficulty RCLs are available due to COVID-19, but a final semester RCL is still possible.

Below are the full-time unit requirements:

  • Undergraduate students: 12 units
  • Master’s students: 8 units
  • Doctoral students: 6 units

Just like we did last spring, professors will record classes and make them available to students to watch whenever it is convenient for them. 

Graduate students should check with the department or school to which they were admitted.

Undergraduate students could be granted deferrals in specific cases relating to medical issues, religious obligations, required military/national service and, in the case of international students who will attend classes online from another country, the inability to construct a reasonable online course schedule that is compatible with their home time zone. However, deferral requests for other reasons will generally not be granted.

New students who have committed to enroll at USC but fail to do so will forfeit their spot in the entering class and will need to reapply (with no guarantee of admission) should they wish to attend the university in a future term.

New students living outside the United States who plan to complete their USC coursework online should work with their academic advisor to construct a course schedule that is compatible with their home time zone. If a reasonable schedule is not feasible, students may request a deferral to a future term.

In such cases, USC’s academic advisors will notify the Office of Admission, and staff will then send a deferral form to the student. Once the student completes and submits this form, the Office of Admission will follow up with further information.

Students may remain in the United States on an expired F-1/J-1 visa as long as they maintain their immigration status by being in possession of a valid I-20/DS-2019 and an I-94 Arrival/Departure record, and by meeting normal enrollment requirements.

An I-20/DS-2019 is not required to depart the United States. Travel signatures are valid for one year, so please check your current I-20/DS-2019 before requesting a new one.  For students on Optional Practical Training (OPT), your travel signature is valid for six months. Please refer to the travel section of USC’s Office of International Services (OIS) website for more information.  

In response to COVID-19, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has allowed Designated School Officials (DSOs) to electronically sign and email I-20s to students. U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the U.S. Department of State confirmed they will accept electronically signed I-20/DS-2019s. OIS staff will email I-20s to students for travel.  

Travel Restrictions and Guidance

The university will begin the fall semester with fully remote instruction with limited exceptions for clinical education.

We understand that the decision to travel to the United States during the pandemic is a personal one and should be considered carefully. Although continuing students remain eligible to return to the United States to resume their studies, below are some additional considerations that may impact the decision to travel:

The U.S. government is currently enforcing an entry ban on foreign passport holders who have been in certain countries, including China, Iran, the United Kingdom, Brazil and many European countries, within 14 days of their arrival to the United States. See the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for more information and a full list of countries.

With specific exceptions, students residing in any of these restricted countries will need to spend at least 14 days in a different, unrestricted country before traveling to the United States.

Effective July 16, 2020, F-1 student travelers from the Schengen Area, the UK and Ireland who are applying for or have valid visas may now travel to the United States, even though the current presidential proclamations regarding travel remain in effect. F-1 students traveling with valid F-1 visas do not need to seek a national interest exception to travel to the United States, but students traveling from these countries may experience delays at inspection from Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) upon entering the United States. Students from those areas who are traveling on a J-1 visa may contact the nearest embassy or consulate to initiate an exception request.

For 14 days after travel, monitor yourself closely for symptoms of COVID-19 and strictly follow USC public health guidelines.  Take extra precautions and consider being tested if you have engaged in higher risk activities such as travel to an area with high levels of COVID 19, attending a large social gathering, being in crowds, or travel on a boat. For more information, visit the CDC website.

Please consider these safety restrictions imposed by the U.S. government and plan your travel carefully.

International students who are currently in their home countries can contact their local USC office for support.

International students in Los Angeles who are having trouble finding flight routes home can reach out to the university’s travel service for advice and guidance. Please contact:

USC’s Office of International Services encourages international students with personal travel plans outside of the United States to review the travel guidance on its website for information about required travel documents.

Please visit our travel section for information about travel guidance and regulations. In addition, USC Environmental Health & Safety developed a domestic travel safety guide for students, faculty and staff.

Options for Doctoral Students

If a student who has accepted a multi-year funding offer cannot enroll in fall 2020 due to visa or COVID-19 issues, the Graduate School will hold the multi-year funding offer for this specific student for use beginning in either spring 2021 or fall 2021.

Students should inform their department of their plans by the following deadlines:

  • Not planning to enter in fall 2020 – July 15, 2020
  • Planning to enter in spring 2021 – Oct. 15, 2020
  • Planning to enter in fall 2021 – April 15, 2021

The deadlines are designed to be late enough for incoming PhD students to be able to assess their own situations and respond to changing global conditions, but early enough for principal investigators (PIs) to plan for lab staffing and assign research assistantships, for schools and programs to assign teaching assistantships, and for the students’ stipend checks to be processed on time. Exceptions will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Graduate deans will supply lists of students deferring their enrollment and submit them to the Graduate School and Office of Graduate Admissions. The students will then be readmitted to the new term, and the I-20s of international students will be issued to reflect their new start and end dates.

Currently enrolled USC PhD students may face COVID-19-related challenges that prevent their return to campus. To address this situation, the university created the option of a COVID-19-related pause for PhD students. With the approval of the program and school dean, currently enrolled PhD students have the option of pausing their studies in fall 2020 and then resuming them in either spring 2021 or fall 2021.

The pause is unfunded and similar to a leave of absence, but it comes with safeguards for both the student and the program in the form of an academic plan outlining specific expectations for the resumption of the student’s studies, funding and progress toward the degree. The duration of the pause does not count against the student’s progress toward the degree.

PhD students planning to use the COVID-19-related pause must develop an academic plan with their faculty advisor and obtain the signature of the advisor and school dean or dean’s designee indicating approval. The following dates are recommended as deadlines, but there is some room for flexibility.

The deadlines are designed to be late enough for students to be able to assess their own situations and respond to changing global conditions, but early enough for principal investigators (PIs) to plan for lab staffing and assign research assistantships, for schools and programs to assign teaching assistantships, and for the students’ stipend checks to be processed on time. In collaboration with the school dean, the PhD program will handle any exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

  • July 15, 2020: Confirm the pause option for fall 2020 and plan to resume studies in spring 2021 or fall 2021.
  • Oct. 15, 2020: Confirm a return for spring 2021, or confirm the pause option for spring 2021 and plan to resume studies in fall 2021.
  • April 15, 2021: Confirm a plan to resume studies in fall 2021.

The student, student’s home program and school dean’s office will keep a record of the COVID-19-related pause.

Students who are ill and undergoing treatment for COVID-19 or any serious illness should consider the possible advantage of a voluntary health leave.

International students should consult with USC's Office of International Services before making plans for any type of leave. Students who select the pause option must live outside of the United States during the semester(s) they are not enrolled due to U.S. immigration regulations.

USC will be able to process fellowship stipends for both incoming and continuing PhD students who are located in or outside the United States and have at least a semester of fellowship available in their multi-year funding offer. We will process stipends for continuing students per the standard protocol, and we will provide details soon regarding processing stipends for incoming students who are outside the United States.

Individual schools will evaluate the academic value of the remote coursework or research opportunity available to students (both domestic and international) who are not returning to campus in the fall. If a school deems the academic value of the coursework or research opportunity to be insufficient, it will advise students to defer using the option of the pause for continuing students, or the option of the multi-year funding offer deferral for incoming students. (see FAQs above)

We are still finalizing the options for teaching assistantships and research assistantships and will share additional information soon.

Employment, Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

Current regulations state that you must be present in the United States when submitting your Optional Practical Training (OPT) and OPT STEM applications. You cannot mail your application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) from abroad. You must be present in the United States at the time USCIS issues a receipt number to acknowledge acceptance of your packet.

The application requires an I-94 number, which is only valid while you are in the United States. If you depart the United States, you will not have a valid I-94 and your application will likely be rejected. If you are able to re-enter the United States before your I-20 program end date, you can apply for OPT up to 60 days after the program end date listed on your I-20.

USC and other universities have made this issue known to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and have urged the agency to provide special accommodations for OPT application rules due to the COVID-19 situation. We will share any updates as soon as they become available.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has not released any changes to its existing STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) Extension application instructions. Therefore, students must be physically present in the United States to apply for a STEM OPT Extension.

Employers may ask their Optional Practical Training (OPT) employees to work from home. This will not affect their F-1 status. Students must still report their employment information to ensure they do not accrue days of unemployment in their Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record.

For the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) will allow students to work less than 20 hours per week and still meet the Optional Practical Training (OPT) employment requirements. SEVP did not specify a minimum number of hours, only that students should still be working and reporting employment to SEVP as required. Students on OPT can work remotely in the United States or abroad.

While students are normally required to work full-time while on Optional Practical Training (OPT), the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) stated that temporarily due to COVID-19, any work (even less than 20 hours per week) will be sufficient for OPT students to maintain their status. All employment must be related to a student’s field of study. Students may work on an unpaid basis or as unpaid interns where this does not violate any U.S. labor laws.

In the event you are unable to find paid or unpaid employment and you are nearing the 90th day of unemployment on OPT, you have the following options:

  • Depart the United States.
  • Transfer to another school in the United States to begin a new degree program. (This will end your OPT approval.)
  • Change your visa status to another visa category. Please contact an immigration attorney for this option.

It usually takes 1-3 weeks for students to receive an I-797 receipt notice from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). If you haven’t already done so, please check your bank/credit card statement to verify if USCIS has withdrawn the funds from your account. If you don’t receive the I-797 receipt notice by the third week, please contact USC's Office of International Services at ois@usc.edu.

As of March 18, 2020, USCIS has suspended all in-person services, but benefits that do not require in-person appointments with USCIS such as Optional Practical Training (OPT)/STEM OPT applications are still being accepted.

For the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) will allow students to engage in Curricular Practical Training (CPT) remotely in the United States or abroad – provided the student is enrolled in the appropriate USC internship course – and either the employer has an office outside the U.S., or the employer has a means to assess student engagement and attainment of learning objectives remotely.

Due to the high volume of applications they are receiving, the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) will only take in-person appointments for urgent cases, and on-campus work does not currently qualify as an urgent case.

If you do not meet the criteria to apply during this round, you can quickly apply once the SSA reopens to the public since you will have all of the required documents in hand. We are hopeful that the SSA will open soon. USC's Payroll Services will permit students to start working on campus without a social security number.

For new and continuing students currently in the United States and continuing students outside the United States, fall 2020 semester enrollment will count toward the one academic year requirement for Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT) eligibility.

Contact USC’s Office of International Services (OIS)

While the Office of International Services’ physical offices in the Royal Street Structure (University Park Campus) and Soto Building (Health Sciences Campus) are closed, staff are working remotely to continue providing essential services and information to the international community at USC. You may download a request form from our website and email your request to ois@usc.edu. We will process your request and ship it to your location. As authorized by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) during the COVID-19 pandemic, we will email an electronically signed document in certain cases.

Please email ois@usc.edu and include your name, student ID number, Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) number, phone number, current location and a description of your inquiry. An advisor from USC's Office of International Services (OIS) will contact you. You can find additional information at ois.usc.edu, including virtual office hours and a calendar of live online information sessions for international students.

Please know that we are currently receiving a very high volume of emails, and this may result in a delayed response. Our staff members are working as quickly as possible to review and respond to all inquiries.

University Housing

See our university housing FAQs for additional information about updated USC Housing policies, fall housing, contract and application cancellation, and more. This section also includes guidance for those living in off-campus non-university housing.

If you have any USC Housing-related questions or concerns, please contact USC Housing at 213-740-2546 or email housing@usc.edu.

Health Care and Coverage

See the fall 2020 health requirements for students currently residing in California, students currently residing outside of California but within the United States, and students currently residing outside the United States.

View additional details about the charges for the Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) that will be reflected in your fall 2020 tuition statement.