10 Biggest Mistakes International Students Make (And How to Avoid Them) 

 October 30, 2021

By  Chuky Ofoegbu

Studying abroad as an international student comes with several challenges. You don't only have to balance the demands of your academic studies with the challenges of being away from your family and loved ones, but you also need to successfully navigate the complex US immigration rules affecting your student visa status.

Make what you might consider a minor mistake, and your immigration status in the US could be in jeopardy.

In this article, we have ranked the 10 biggest mistakes international students make, and also discuss how they can be prevented.

So if you are an international student studying in the US on an F1, J1, or M1 visa, you should take note of these mistakes, and learn the best tips to avoid making them. 

Like they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

Ranked in order of severity, here are the 10 biggest mistakes that international students make during their stay in the US

10. Not Checking Your Immigration Documents After Entering the US

When you're admitted into the US as a foreigner at a US Port of Entry - which could be at an airport, a seaport, or the land border crossing between the US and Mexico or the US and Canada - a US Customs Official will stamp your passport. 

This stamp in your passport is called an admission stamp and is very important as it states how long you are allowed to remain in the US on your student visa. 

Typically, nonimmigrants entering the US on an F1 and J1 student visa, receive admission stamps containing the letter D/S.

D/S stands for "Duration of Status", which means that you are allowed to remain in the US on an F1 or J1 status until the end of your program. F1 students can find the end date of their program on page 1 of the Form I-20, while J1 students can find the end date of their program on page 1 of the Form DS-2019.

Failing to check the admission stamp is a big mistake international students make after entering the US

After entering the US on a student visa, check the admission stamp in your passport and your electronic I94 record.

However, nonimmigrants entering the US on an M1 student visa receive an admission stamp with a future date. This date is the last day an M1 student is allowed to remain in the US in an M1 status.

An M1 student who wishes to remain in the US beyond this date must first obtain an approval from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) before the end date is reached. 

Regardless of your student status, it is very important to be aware of these dates on your immigration documents.

It is a good habit to check your I-94 arrival and departure record a few days after entering the US on a student visa. You can do so on the US Customs and Border Patrol website.

If you have to remain in the US beyond this date, you'll need to contact your Designated School Official (DSO) - if you are an F1 or M1 student - or Responsible Officer (RO) - for J1 students - and take the necessary steps to extend your stay in the US.

Otherwise, if you remain in the US beyond this date, you will be violating your immigration status. 

9. Enrolling in Part-Time Studies without Permission

Unlike your classmates who are domestic students, as an F1, M1 or J1 student, you are required to enroll in a full-time course of study during the academic year (fall and spring semesters). 

If you wish to enroll in a part-time course load, you must first obtain permission from your DSO or RO. 

Note that the number of credits considered full time varies by degree level and across different university programs. 

This can be done by submitting an application to take a reduced course load. 

The only exception where you can enroll part-time without permission is when taking courses over a university break such as the summer semester or quarter and you had been enrolled full-time during the rest of the academic year. 

8. Not Filing Your Income Tax Return

International students studying in the US are not exempt from paying US income taxes.

It is your obligation as a nonimmigrant to file a tax return for any period you were present in the US.

Tax return deadlines are usually on the 15th day of April

Tax return deadlines are usually on the 15th day of April

Even if you never earned any income while present in the US in a given year, you are required to file at least one tax form with the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) before the tax deadline on April 15th.

Failing to file a tax return could have very serious consequences in the future when applying for a temporary US visa or planning to immigrate to the US on a permanent visa. 

7. Not Seeking Financial Assistance During Economic Hardship

In the unfortunate circumstance that you experience an economic hardship caused by circumstances outside your control, you should not hesitate to seek financial assistance from your university.

Some of these emergent events include

  • Unexpected changes in the financial support received from personal or family sources
  • Unforeseen medical conditions resulting in high costs that are not covered by insurance
  • Rapid devaluation of your home country's currency relative to the US dollar

As an F1 student experiencing any of these circumstances, you can reach out to officials at your schools international student office and request an employment authorization given to F1 students facing severe economic hardships.

This employment authorization allows you to earn an income by working off-campus.

International students facing these emergent events could also request a tuition assistance from their university's tuition office in the form of a tuition payment plan or a scholarship or grant.

6. Failing to Obtain a Travel Signature

When making travel plans outside of the US, you must ensure that your travel signature remains valid past the date you plan to return to the US. 

This travel signature could be found on page 2 of your Form I-20 - for F1 and M1 students - or page 1 of the Form  DS-2019 for J1 students.

If your travel signature is expired or will be expiring before you return to the US, you should obtain a new travel signature from your Designated school official (F1 and M1 students) or your responsible officer (J1 students) prior to your departure from the US. 

Otherwise, if you try to enter the US with an expired travel signature, you risk being denied entry into the US. 

5. Losing Your Passport or US Visa

Losing your passport and/or US visa during your stay in the US is almost always preventable. 

Many international students make the mistake of carrying and using their passport as their primary identification document wherever they go. 

What you should do instead is to apply for a state identification card or a driver's license (if eligible) within your first few weeks of arriving the US. 

You can conveniently carry this state identification card in your wallet, using it as your primary ID, while keeping your passport and US visa safely at home. You can learn how to easily obtain a State ID in the video below.

This way you would completely prevent the hassle of applying for a replacement passport or even worse re-applying for a new student visa at a US consulate or embassy outside the US. 

4. Not Reporting Your Address and Employment Information

At all times during your stay in the US, you should maintain an update record of your address with your school's international office. 

This is a requirement of your nonimmigrant student status. 

Any time there is change in your physical address or mailing address, you must report this to your DSO or RO within 10 days. 

Similarly international students engaged in off-campus employment such as Curricular Practical Training (CPT), Optional Practical Training (OPT) or Academic Training (AT) are expected to report any changes to their employment within 10 days. 

These changes could be

  • A change of employer
  • A reduction in the number of hours you work
  • A change in job title during OPT or AT

Failing to update this employment information could result in a termination of your employment authorization. Which will put you out of status. 

3. Remaining Unemployed on OPT

This mistake is very common among F1 international students on Optional Practical Training (OPT). 

While on OPT, starting from the valid date shown on your EAD card, you cannot accrue more than 90 cumulative days of unemployment on post completion OPT. 

F1 students who are engaged in the 24 month STEM OPT extension receive an additional 60 days of unemployment for a total of 150 cumulative days on both OPT and STEM OPT.

Many F1 international students fail to stop this unemployment clock from ticking because of a poor understanding of what is considered employment on OPT.

Do not make the mistake of remaining idle while you job search. Instead, you should pursue alternate employment options to stop the 90 day OPT unemployment clock from ticking. 

Check out this video that discusses the best methods of stopping your OPT unemployment clock from ticking.

2. Applying Late for Post-Completion OPT 

Applying late for post-completion Optional Practical Training is the most common mistake international students make.

This is the case for F1 students applying for post-completion OPT.

Many F1 students think that it is best to wait until they receive a job offer before they apply for their post-completion OPT. This way they could be certain that they have a job offer when they choose their post-completion OPT start date. 

The problem here is that you risk losing your job offer if your OPT Employment Authorization Document is not received on time.  

Regardless of where you are in the job search process, you should strongly apply for the F1 post-completion OPT as early as possible once the 90 day OPT window opens.  

If you do not have a job offer at the time of applying for your post-completion OPT, you can choose start date that falls on a weekday between the 30- 45 days after your program end date.

To choose the Post Completion OPT start date that works best for you, check out our FREE OPT start date calculator tool!

1. Engaging in Unauthorized Employment

By far the worst mistake international students make is working in the US without receiving prior authorization. 

The only exception when you can work without prior authorization is when working on-campus. 

Man standing watching an airplane take off

Engaging in unauthorized employment in the US could result in you getting kicked out of the US

Any other type of employment can only be done after receiving authorization from your Designated School Official (for F1 and M1 students) or Responsible Officer (J1 students).

The consequences of working in the US without authorization are the harshest on this list.

If your school's international student office finds out that you were engaged in unauthorized employment, your immigration status will be terminated immediately and you will need to depart the US. 

When considering the investment of your time and money to study in the US, the risk of working without authorization is not worth the reward. 


In many ways, the journey of an international student in the US is akin to navigating an obstacle course, where even a minor mistake could result in severe consequences.

With so much at stake on your journey to success, it's very important that you educate yourself on the immigration laws affecting your status as an F1, J1, or M1 visa student. 

As the saying goes, ignorance of the law is never an excuse for breaking the law. So if you are ever in doubt on what to do or not do while in the US, reach out to your school's international office for clarification.  

Your ability to be resourceful goes a long way.

Chuky Ofoegbu

With almost a decade of experience pursuing higher education in the United States, I fully understand the pain points foreign students endure. I created this website to help foreign students successfully navigate their way through the challenges they will face while living in the United States.

Leave a Reply

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Subscribe to our newsletter now!