What is an I-20?

by Kat Tretina | In Guides and Tools | 17 April 2023 | Updated on: June 7th, 2023

Last year, nearly 950,000 students from more than 200 countries studied at schools in the United States. If you’re eager to join that number, you may be overwhelmed by all of the steps and paperwork that the U.S. government requires for international students. 

One of the most critical documents is the I-20. It’s a document you need to have to obtain a student visa and enter the U.S. But what is an I-20, and how do you get one? Here is what you need to know. 

What is an I-20 ? 

If you are an international student planning to attend college or graduate school in the U.S., you’ll need to get a Form I-20 first. It’s one of the first steps you have to complete before you can enter the country. 

When a qualifying U.S.-based college or university accepts you into its program, a designated school official (DSO) will issue you a Form I-20. There are two versions: 

  • Form I-20: Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status – For Academic and Language Students
  • Form I-20: Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (M-1) Student Status – For Vocational Students

The forms are the same other than the name, and which you receive is dependent on the program you’re entering. You can view a sample I-20 form through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security website. 

Who Needs an I-20? 

The I-20 is necessary for any student attending college or university in the U.S. that are residents of other countries.

An I-20 is also necessary for any eligible dependents you plan to bring to the U.S. with you while you attend school.

Why is the I-20 so important? 

Obtaining the I-20 is vital for the following reasons: 

  1. Paying the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee: The US$350 SEVIS fee is mandatory for all international students entering the U.S. It must be paid before you can enter the country, and you need to have the form I-20 before you can pay the fee. 
  2. Applying for a student visa: The Form I-20 lists the start date for your program, and allows you to enter the country 30 days beforehand. To qualify for a student visa, you must have the original I-20 at your visa interview. 
  3. Entering the country: As you enter the United States, you will need to have your I-20 form on hand. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer will request it at the port of entry, and you won’t be able to enter the country without it.  
  4. Obtaining a driver’s license: If you intend to apply for a U.S. driver’s license, you must present your I-20. 

How to Get an I-20 Form

The process to get an I-20 form is straightforward: 

  • Collect proof of funding: International students must show that they — or a sponsor — have enough money to cover at least one year of school at the selected college or university. When you apply, you’ll need to show proof of funds, such as bank statements, loan certificates or letters from the lender or private sponsor bank statements. How much money you’ll need to have is dependent on the program and what education funding in the U.S. you may qualify for, such as institutional scholarships or grants. 
  • Apply to a Student and Exchange Visitor Program-approved school: You can use the Study in the States website to find approved programs that are eligible to enroll individuals with student visas. Submit your application materials by the program’s deadline to ensure your application is reviewed. 
  • Ask for a Visa Support Letter (also known as a Sanction Letter): You can ask for this from your educational loan provider if you are receiving an educational loan. This should be a ‘no cost’ letter that confirms the funding you are receiving to pay for your educational program. 
  • Look for Form I-20: When you are accepted, the school will send you an acceptance letter and Form I-20. 
  • Pay the SEVIS fee: Use the I-20 form and register with the SEVIS system and pay the required fee. 
  • Apply for a visa: After you receive the I-20 and pay the SEVIS fee, you must visit a U.S. embassy or consulate for a student visa. You will have to undergo a visa interview, and you’ll need to present your I-20 form at that time. 

If your spouse or children will be living in the United States with you while you’re in school, they must also register with SEVIS, obtain Form I-20s and apply for visas. However, they do not have to pay the SEVIS fee. 

In some cases, you may need to get a new I-20 form. For example, if the physical version of the original form is damaged or lost, you’ll need to get a replacement. If your information changes, such as your program of study or your name after marriage, you’ll need to obtain a new I-20. Contact the college or university’s registrar office to get an updated form. 

[Tip: When you take out a loan through MPOWER Financing, MPOWER will issue you a visa support letter — at no cost — upon final credit approval, which you can use to obtain your I-20 if studying in the U.S.]

Studying in the United States

Bottomline, before you can attend classes in the United States, you must obtain Form I-20: Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. The I-20 form is essential; without it, you cannot get a student visa or enter the country.

Once you have the I-20 and pay your SEVIS fee, you can move forward with your student visa application and interview. With all these documents in hand, you can begin studying at a college or university in the U.S., launching your U.S. educational journey. 

Author: View all post by Kat Tretina

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