Ultimate Guide to the Form I-20 

 October 5, 2022

By  Chuky Ofoegbu

What is the Form I-20?

The Form I-20, formally called the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, is a 3 page document given to nonimmigrants who intend to study in the United States on an F-1 student visa or an M-1 student visa.

This document can only be issued by a school certified by the Students and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which is a program under the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 

The I-20 is also given to the dependents - spouses and unmarried children under age 21 - of nonimmigrants who intend to enter the US on an F-1 or M-1 visa. 

These dependents enter the US on an F-2 or M-2 visa.

Uses of the Form I-20

The primary use of the Form I-20 is to

  1. Apply for an F or M student visa at a US embassy or consulate
  2. Seek entry into the United States on these student visas 

After an F or M visa holder enters the US and enrolls in a program of study, the I-20 is used for other essential purposes such as

  1. Applying for a US social security number
  2. Applying for a US state driver’s license or a state identification card
  3. Serving as a proof of work authorization when starting a job with a US employer
  4. Serving as evidence of your academic status as an F or M visa international student
  5. Requesting employment authorization for Optional Practical Training (OPT)
  6. Applying for a change of your immigration status

How To Get the Form I-20?

Obtaining the Form I-20 is a two step process.

Step 1: Be accepted into a SEVP certified school, which could be a university, college, secondary or primary school.

Step 2: Provide evidence of financial support as requested by the school's Designated School Official (DSO).

This proof of financial support must include funds covering your tuition, fees and living expenses for one academic year of study.

Proof of funds could be in the form of

  1. Bank statements showing personal and/or family savings
  2. An award letter showing scholarships, fellowships, or assistantships from the school 
  3. A letter of sponsorship from a government, company or organization

Obtaining Form I-20 for Family Members

International students who intend to bring their dependents to the US such as a spouse, child or children must obtain an I-20 for each dependent.

To get an I-20 for each of your dependent,  you must show evidence of financial support covering the living expense for each dependent as specified by the DSO. 

Sections of the Form I-20

So now let’s take a close look at each section of the I-20.


At the top left corner of page 1 is the SEVIS ID number, this number always starts with a letter N.

Your SEVIS ID number tracks your status as an F or M nonimmigrant in the US. 

You will need your SEVIS ID number when paying your I-901 SEVIS fee and applying for a US visa. 

Page 1 of the Form I-20 highlighting the SEVID ID Number

Biographical Section

The first box on page 1 contains your biographical information, your admission number and your admission class, which could be the F-1 or M-1 status or F-2 or M-2 status if you are a dependent. 

This box also contains the reason for issuing the form. When you first receive an I-20 from your school’s DSO, the form issue reason would be stated as “Initial Attendance”. 

After you have enrolled in your program of study, you would be given a new Form I-20 that states “Continued Attendance” as the form issue reason.

School Information Section

The second box on page 1 is the school information, here you would find the name of your Designated School Official (DSO) as mentioned earlier.

Page 1 of the Form I-20 highlighting the school information section

This person would be your main point of contact when seeking to enter the US at a US Port of Entry. So keep a note of your DSO's contact information before traveling to the US. 

Your DSO is primarily responsible for helping you maintain your nonimmigrant F or M student status throughout your period of stay in the US. 

So reach out to them whenever you have any questions about what you can or can't do while in the US on a student visa.

Program of Study Section

The third box on page 1 contains information about your program of study.

You should take note of the program start and end date shown in this section. This is very important. 

You are only allowed to enter the US on an F or M visa within 30 days of this program start date. 

Page 1 of the Form I-20 highlighting the program of study section

On the flip side, once you have reached your program end date, you would enter a grace period. This is usually a period of 30 days (for M nonimmigrants) or 60 days (for F nonimmigrants) that allows you to prepare for departure from the United States.

Also note that the end of your F or M student status in the US does not depend on the expiration date of your F or M visa but on the end date shown on your current Form I-20. 

This important difference between the end date of your F or M status and the expiration of your current F or M student visa is explained in the video below.

Financials Section

The 4th box on page 1 summarizes your financial responsibility.

Page 1 of the Form I-20 highlighting the financials section

When applying for your student visa or seeking entry into the US on an F or M visa, you should have evidence of financial support covering the total amount in this box.

Remarks Section

The 5th box is the remarks section, where your DSO would make any appropriate comments about your I-20 at any point in the future.

School Attestation Section

Your DSO must sign the school attestation section whenever the Form I-20 is issued or modified

Your DSO must sign the school attestation section whenever the Form I-20 is issued or modified

The 6th box would have the signature of your DSO, certifying that you have provided correct information and indeed meet the qualification to attend the school to pursue a full program of study.

Student Attestation Section

The 7th and last box on page 1, is for you to sign and date. If you are under the age of 18, this box should also be signed and dated by a parent or a legal guardian accordingly.

Employment Authorization and Employer Information Section

Page 2 of the Form I-20

Anytime you request an off campus employment, your DSO must enter this information in the employment section of the Form I-20

The 1st and 2nd boxes on page 2 are relevant to your authorization for off-campus employment such as Curricular Practical Training (CPT) for F-1 students only and Optional Practical Training (OPT) for F-1 and M-1 students only.

F-1 students become eligible CPT and OPT after completing 1 academic year of studies in an active F-1 status.

While M-1 students become eligible for OPT after completing their program of study in the US.

As an F or M visa holder, you may not engage in any kind of work off-campus without receiving this work authorization from your DSO.

You can learn more about CPT and OPT in our article discussing how to work in the US on a student visa

Change of Status/Cap Gap Extension Section

Information entered into the change of status/cap gap extension box is generally applicable to F-1 students changing into another non-immigrant visa class such as going from an F-1 student class to an H-1B worker class.

Page 2 of the Form I-20 highlighting the change of status section

Authorized Reduced Course Load Section

As an F-1 or M-1 student, you are required to be enrolled full-time during a 9-month academic year. 

F-1 or M-1 students who wish to take a part-time course load, would need to obtain permission from their DSO. This approval for a reduced course load would be added to the 4th box on page 2. 

Page 2 of the Form I-20 highlighting the authorization for reduced course load section

Keep in mind that what is considered a full-time or part-time course of study varies across programs and schools. 

So it is best to consult with your school program. 

Travel Endorsement Section

Finally is the travel endorsement box. This is another important section of the I20. 

Page 2 of the Form I-20 highlighting the travel endorsement section

Once you enroll as an F-1 or M-1 student and receive an I-20 issued for continued attendance, you will need a valid travel signature from your DSO to re-enter the US after a brief departure from the US. 

Instructions to Students and Schools Page

The 3rd page of the I20 is the annotation section, containing instructions for you, the student signing this document and the DSO issuing and signing the Form I20.  

Page 3 of the Form I-20

Maintaining Copies of Your Form I-20

During your course of studies in an F or M student status, you will certainly receive several copies of the form I20.

Anytime information on your I20 is modified, your DSO must issue a new Form I20. A new form is also issued if you lose your I20 at any point in the future.  

You must use this new Form 20 as proof of your legal status thereafter. 

Nevertheless, as you rack up old copies of the I20, you should make sure to keep them somewhere safe.


From the day you obtain an admission to a US school to the day you finish your program of studies and depart the United States or change your immigration status, you will need the Form I-20. 

So ensure to keep it safe at all times. 

If you found this article helpful, please share it with others who may find it valuable. 

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.

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

Subscribe to our newsletter now!