Travel

Documents Needed for Travel 

It is strongly recommended that you always carry your original documents when traveling internationally and within the US.   

To reenter the U.S. from abroad, you will need the following documents based on your status:

Student Type Required Documents
F-1: Current Student
  • Most recent valid I-20 form with a travel signature on page 2 that is less than 1 year old
  • Valid passport (that won't expire for at least 6 months)
  • Valid F-1 visa (except Canadian citizens).
  • Optional documents: evidence of financial resources, official University of Chicago transcript, name and contact information of your OIA adviser.

Note: Always use your most recently issued I-20 form. Students who were issued a transfer I-20 must obtain a new I-20 issued for "continued attendance" in order to re-enter the U.S. to resume their program.

F-1: Student on OPT
  • Most recent valid I-20 form (showing OPT recommendation on p. 2) with a travel signature that is less than 6 months old
  • Valid passport (that won't expire for at least 6 months)
  • Valid F-1 visa (except Canadian citizens)
  • Valid Employment Authorization Document (EAD), which is the card authorizing your OPT
  • Letter from employer verifying employment start date or resumption date
  • Optional documents: evidence of financial resources, official University of Chicago transcript, name and contact information of your OIA adviser.

Note: Students re-entering the U.S. after program end date but before OPT start date must have their EAD with them.

F-1: Student on STEM OPT Extension or pending STEM OPT Extension

  • Most recent valid I-20 form (showing OPT recommendation on p. 3) with a travel signature that is less than 6 months old
  • Valid passport (that won't expire for at least 6 months)
  • Valid F-1 visa (except Canadian citizens)
  • Valid Employment Authorization Document (EAD), which is the card authorizing your OPT. Note: If you have a pending STEM OPT application, you should carry your expired post-completion OPT EAD card with you, for reference, along with the receipt notice from your pending application.
  • Letter from employer verifying employment start date or resumption date
  • Optional documents: evidence of financial resources, official University of Chicago transcript, name and contact information of your OIA adviser.
F-2: Dependent of Current  Student
  • Most recent valid I-20 form with a travel signature on page 3 that is less than one year old
  • Valid passport (that won't expire for at least 6 months)
  • Valid F-2 visa (except Canadian citizens)
F-2: Dependent of Student on OPT
  • Most recent valid I-20 form with a travel signature that is less than 6 months old
  • Valid passport (that won't expire for at least 6 months)
  • Valid F-2 visa (except Canadian citizens)
  • Additional recommended documents: copy of F-1 student's I-20 form showing OPT recommendation, and copy of F-1 student's EAD
J-1: Current Student & Their Dependent
  • Most recent valid DS-2019 form with travel signature that is less than one year old
  • Valid passport (that won't expire for at least 6 months)
  • Valid J-1 or J-2 visa (except Canadian citizens)
  • Optional documents: evidence of financial resources, official University of Chicago transcript, name and contact information of your OIA adviser.
J-1: Student on Post-Completion Academic Training (AT)
  • Most recent valid DS-2019 form with travel signature that is less than one year old
  • Valid passport (that won't expire for at least 6 months)
  • Valid J-1 visa (except Canadian citizens)
  • Job offer letter
J-2: Dependent of Student on AT
  • Most recent valid DS-2019 form with travel signature that is less than one year old
  • Valid passport (that won't expire for at least 6 months)
  • Valid J-2 visa (except Canadian citizens)
  • Additional recommended documents: copy of J-1 student's DS-2019 showing AT and job offer letter

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Travel Signatures

Travel signatures, also called 'travel endorsements', are OIA adviser signatures that can be found on your I-20 (page 2) or DS-2019. When OIA provides a travel endorsement on your document, it is confirming to the U.S. government that you are eligible to return to the University.  Anytime you travel internationally in F or (including F-2/J-2 dependents), you must have a valid travel signature on your I-20 or DS-2019 at the time of re-entry to the U.S.

Travel Signature on I-20 (F-1 Student): Page 2

Sample travel signature_0_0.png

Travel Signature on DS-2019 (J-1): Page 1

Sample travel sig j1_1_0.png

Travel Signature Validity

Travel signatures are valid for 12 months from the signature date listed on the I-20/DS-2019 (shown above). If you are an F-1 student on post-completion OPT, then your travel signature will be valid for 6 months only.  Travel signatures are located on page 2 of I-20s or in the lower right hand corner on page 1 of DS-2019s. 

For the example listed above:

  • Travel Signature Issued: 11/07/1867
  • Travel Signature expired: 11/06/1868 (one year validity)
  • Expiration for student on OPT: 04/06/1868 (6 months validity)

For a complete list of documents needed to re-enter the U.S. please see "Documents Needed for Travel" on our website.

Getting a Travel Signature

Travel signatures are provided as a walk-in service at the OIA front desk anytime during regular business hours; no appointment is needed. Make sure to bring your I-20/DS-2019 and a photo ID.

Can't come to OIA?

If you are outside of Chicago and can't visit our office, fill out the Travel Signature Request E-Form and a new document will be sent to you via the mailing method you specify on the form.  If you request express mail, your document will not be sent until you complete the express mailing instructions linked on the form.

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Visa Renewal Information

Visa stamps are available outside the U.S. only. Their sole purpose is for entry into the country; once you are in the U.S., you only need to renew an expired visa if you leave the U.S. and want to return in the same status.  Please see this page for more information on the difference between a visa and status.

Visa Eligibility

You continue to be eligible to apply for an F-1 or J-1 visa for the duration of your F-1 or J-1 status, including any periods of post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) or Academic Training (AT) that follow your program.  OPT and AT are continuations of your F-1/J-1 status, respectively, and you remain eligible to apply for a visa anytime your SEVIS record is still active (e.g. until your OPT/AT end date). However, visa approval and issuance is always up to the individual consular officer reviewing your case.

Visa Application/Renewal Materials

To renew your visa, you will need the following documents:

F & J Students and their Dependents 
  • All travel documents listed in your category for re-entry (except valid visa)
  • Verification of enrollment letter from OIA (provided as a walk-in service - no appointment needed)
  • Official University of Chicago transcript
  • Proof of finances
  • Any other documents listed on your specific U.S. embassy/consulate's website: http://usembassy.state.gov/

Recommended Additional Documents

Letter from PI or faculty advisor for those in advanced areas of science or technology in case of background check

Current visa wait times can be viewed on the State Dept website. Look specifically at the wait times for "student/exchange visitor visas." 

Third-Party Countries & Visa Applications

OIA recommends applying for a new visa in your home country whenever possible.  Attempting to renew your visa in a "third party country" (i.e. not the U.S. and not your home country), can cause application delays or even rejections. Accepting and approving third party applicants is at the discretion of the specific embassy or consulate you wish to visit.

If you are hoping to renew your visa in a third party country, you must check with the embassy or consulate at which you want to apply. Verify:

  1. If they accept third party applicants, and
  2. If it is likley your application will be delayed or rejected. 

Often third party countries must clear your application with your home country, which can cause significant application delays or even rejections. 

Visa Validity and Arrest Records

If you have had a U.S. arrest or conviction for a crime in the U.S., including driving under the influence of alcohol or driving while intoxicated, it is possible that your visa has been revoked without you being aware of it.  If you are in this situation, contact the embassy/consulate where you received your visa to check its validity.  If it has been cancelled or revoked, contact OIA and we can also assist you in finding a reputable immigration attorney, if the need for such services were to arise.  See the OIA news article additional information.

Practice your Visa Interview

You will only have 2 or 3 minutes to make your case for the visa, and you should have thought about certain issues in depth. For example, you should be prepared to explain what you are studying, what you plan to do after your studies are completed, why you want to study in the U.S. rather than your home country, why you will return to your home country after completion of your studies, and more. It is important to note that F-1 and J-1 statuses are strictly non-immigrant statuses; if you show immigrant intent, the visa will be denied. At your visa interview, you should truthfully answer all questions, but you should only answer the questions asked and not offer any additional information.  For more tips on applying for a non-immigrant visa, please see this document from NAFSA.

Administrative Processing (Background Check)

In response to applications for visas, consulates may refer the applicant to "administrative processing" (background check), based either on the applicant's field of study or research, or on ties that may be actual (by citizenship or birth) or assumed, such as with a country having a predominantly Arab or Muslim population. Students from China often receive background checks as well.

These checks usually take six to eight weeks, although occasionally they take longer. Once the Visa Officer initiates a security check, the consulate must wait for an answer from Washington, D.C. to issue an entry visa. No matter how long the delay lasts, neither the University of Chicago, the consulate, or the Department of State in Washington can influence the length of the background check. Pleas by universities or applicants that the delays are causing inconvenience or hardship do not have an effect on the process. 

Security checks may be repeated. Even after you have undergone one security check in the past, another may be made each subsequent time that you apply for a visa, even after a short visit abroad, and even if you will be returning to continue your study or employment at the same institution in the U.S. Please notify your adviser if you are subjected to a background check. It is also wise to discuss the possibility with your PI or academic adviser before you travel, notifying them that you may be delayed in your return to research, classes, etc. Please remain patient with the system.

If you might be subject to a background check based on your research in a field of science or technology that is tagged for closer scrutiny based on the so-called Technology Alert List, you may be able to forestall or at least shorten the check if you bring a letter from your department or PI with you detailing your research. Please have your faculty advisor or PI follow these guidelineswhen writing the letter.

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Traveling to Canada, Mexico or the adjacent Caribbean islands for less than 30 days (Automatic Revalidation)

F and J students whose visas have expired and who plan to travel to Canada, Mexico or the adjacent Caribbean islands for 30 days or less may re-enter the U.S. as though their visa were still valid. This applies also to F and J students who changed their status in the U.S. and whose visa is in the category in which they entered the U.S.

Documents required for reentry to the U.S. include:

  • Valid I-20, DS-2019 or I-797 Approval Notice form; I-20 or DS-2019 must have valid travel signature
  • Valid passport
  • Expired visa (either in current passport or previous passport)
  • Approval Notice of change of status, if applicable
  • I-94 Departure record (If crossing at a land border, you must ensure that this is not taken at departure. If you have an Electronic I-94 entry record, you do not need to print a paper copy.)

Automatic revalidation does not apply to students who are nationals of Iran, Syria, Sudan or Cuba or who applied for an F or J visa during their visit and were denied. It also does not apply to those who are returning from another country via Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean islands.

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Grace Period

'Grace Period' refers to the cushion of time before and after your F-1/J-1 program that allows you to be in the U.S. to prepare for your program or prepare for departure.  The length of the Grace Period varies for F-1 and J-1 students. Only certain activities are allowed during your grace period.  The grace period is not shown on your I-20/DS-2019 or any other document.

J-1 Student Grace Period Length:
  • Pre-program: Enter U.S. up 30 days before your DS-2019 start date
    • This grace period at the beginning of your program allows you time to settle in and begin looking for an on-campus job, if you so choose.
  • Post-program: Following completion of DS-2019 end date, you have a 30 day grace period
    • During the grace period following your end date you may NOT attend classes or work
F-1 Student Grace Period Length
  • Pre-program: Enter U.S. up 30 days before your I-20 start date
    • This grace period at the beginning of your program allows you time to settle in and begin looking for an on-campus job, if you so choose.
  • Post-program: Following completion of I-20 end date or Optional Practical Training EAD end date,you have a 60 day grace period
    • During the grace period following your end date you may NOT attend classes or work.
Activities Allowed in Grace Period

During the grace period following your end date you may NOT attend classes or work (unless you've been approved for post-completion OPT). However, you can finish incomplete work, incuding working on your thesis, or other required academic completion tasks, such as taking the Bar Exam if you are a Law graduate.

This grace period is just an opportunity to prepare for departure. You can travel within the U.S. or apply for a different immigration status during this time.  Once you exit the U.S. you will not be permitted to re-enter in F or J status if your  program of study has finished or you have not been approved for post-completion OPT. You can re-enter the U.S. in another status, such as tourist, if you choose.

Complying with the Grace Period

Once your I-20/DS-2019 end date passes, you must do one of the following by the end of the grace period:

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General Travel Tips

  • Valid documents, including a valid visa, do not guarantee admission to the U.S. Admission is always granted at the discretion of the port of entry officer.
  • Always use the most recently issued I-20/DS-2019 form. All previous documents should be kept for record keeping purposes, but are not required for travel.
  • Authorization to work in the U.S. does not exempt you from visa requirements.
  • The I-94 Record changes each time you enter the U.S. If you have a paper I-94 card, it is to be surrendered each time you leave the U.S. When you re-enter, you will be issued an Electronic I-94 Record (except for trips under Automatic Revalidation or if you are arriving from a land border, which will still generate a paper I-94). Canadian citizens are usually issued just one I-94 record that is valid for multiple entries and departures.
  • travel signature on your I-20 or DS-2019 form is not required to leave the U.S. (although it may be required to obtain entry to Canada or Mexico as proof of return in the case of a third country national).
  • If you have to leave the U.S. suddenly, for example because of an emergency, and don't have a travel signature on your I-20/DS-2019 to return, contact our office as soon as possible via e-mail to international-affairs@uchicago.edu. We can assist you while you are abroad.
  • If you will be visiting a third country, ensure that you have the proper entry documents for that country. To locate a consulate in Chicago or elsewhere in the U.S., go to: http://www.state.gov/s/cpr/rls/fco/
  • Under no circumstances should you re-enter the U.S. on a B-1/B-2 visa or under the visa waiver program while you are enrolled here. Enrollment in a course of study and employment are prohibited under those statuses and you would be in violation of that status and would have to leave and re-enter the U.S. again to resume your studies.
  • The re-entry requirements refer to those who will be outside the U.S. for a temporary absence (a short break of 5 months of less). They do not apply to students who are returning from an official leave of absence.

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