Thousands of South Asian students at US universities will be forced to return home if their schools and programs go fully online for the fall semester due to COVID-19.

In a statement released yesterday (July 6), the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced that non-immigrant students (F1 and M1) currently enrolled at US schools that are fully switching to online classes in fall 2020, “may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.”

In order to remain in lawful status, students must transfer to schools that offer in-person instruction or are at risk of being deported. Active students who are unable to transfer must depart the country or face “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

The temporary exemption offered for the spring and summer semesters when COVID-19 forced schools to go into remote learning mode earlier this year, no longer applies. That emergency policy permitted nonimmigrant students “to take more online courses than normally permitted by federal regulation to maintain their nonimmigrant status.” Students will now have to consider alternate options or make plans to head home.

Vihan’s Story

Vihan Krishnan (22), a rising junior and Singapore national, studying mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California, was due to graduate in 2022. The policy has left him scrambling to find the right mix of hybrid classes that will allow him to stay in the country and on track for his degree. The information from USC within the context of the new policy has been “ambiguous” he says, and his attempts to contact USC administrators have met with no response.

“Betrayed and robbed are how I would define my emotions. I have done my fair share to be in the country. I have followed due process and I’m still being deported. I feel unwelcomed.”

Vihan is worried about the health risk of taking in-person classes, and concerned that his university health insurance may not cover him adequately should he fall ill. Yet, returning to Singapore to complete his education is complicated by the difference in time zones, and could set him back. The draconian policy offers few lifelines and has left many eligible F1 students like Vihan grappling with a dilemma that they did not expect.

Options for F1 students

Federal regulations offer limited options for eligible non-immigrant F1 students depending on whether their schools offer in-person classes or adopt a hybrid model of online and in-person classes.

Nonimmigrant F-1 students can take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online if they are enrolled at schools offering in-person instruction.

Eligible F1 students at schools adopting a hybrid model can take more than one class or three credit hours online.

In order to qualify for these exemptions however, schools must offer SEVP proof (Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status) that their programs are not entirely online. They will also need to certify that the student is not taking a fully online course load this semester and that the student has enrolled in “the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.”

Schools have to update any changes to online classes and student course loads in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) in order to ensure that nonimmigrant students in the United States are not flouting the new policy by fulfilling their course of study through online classes. If a student finds themselves in this situation, they must leave the country or try to maintain their eligible, nonimmigrant status by reducing their course load or taking appropriate medical leave.

Unfortunately, M-1 students pursuing vocational coursework and F-1 students in English language training and programs are not permitted to enroll in any online courses and do not qualify for these exemptions.

Bad News for Incoming Foreign Students

It’s also bad news for thousands of newly admitted international students hoping to arrive at US campuses this fall. If their programs are fully online, the U.S. Department of State says it will not issue visas to students nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States.

Impact on US Universities

The regulation will have severe financial implications for American colleges that accepted more than one million students from India, China and South Korea for the 2018-19 academic year. International students pay full tuition at higher rates than most domestic students, so the drop in international enrollment will have a serious impact on university budgets.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...