Maintaining a Full Time Course Load

Overview and Requirements

To maintain F-1 and J-1 status, students must be enrolled full-time for all quarters listed on the I-20/DS-2019, with the exception of the vacation quarter (usually summer). For most students, ‘full time’ means three classes (300 units) each quarter. Check with your department to verify what is considered ‘full time’.  

Any drop below 300 units requires prior authorization from OIA and must be based on one of the three circumstances explained below.  You are not authorized to drop below full time enrollment unless you have a Reduced Course Load Authorization (RCL) printed on your I-20 (F-1) or a letter from OIA stating you are approved for part-time enrollment (J-1).  If you are under enrolled and do not have an approved RCL from OIA, you cannot maintain F-1/J-1 status.

Full Time Course Load and Thesis Writing 

Generally, doctoral students who are finished with coursework and working on their thesis in advanced residence will still appear as full-time enrolled with the registrar. Pro forma registration is considered a full-time status; Extended residence is not considered full-time. 

However, Master's or Bachelor's students working on a thesis or capstone project must be full-time enrolled in classes to maintain F-1 status.  If your BA/MA courses have finished and you are only working on your thesis, capstone, or other final project, you cannot maintain or extend your status based solely on the project. You must finish your thesis or project during the grace period or while on OPT or AT (if eligible).

Summer/Vacation Quarters

Vacation quarters that are considered official school breaks by your program (typically summer quarter) do not require registration and you are not expected to enroll.  Some programs, such as some PhD. programs in Chemistry or Computer Science, do not have break quarters and require registration year round. Additionally, you are required to be enrolled during the final quarter listed on your I-20; if you your I-20 ends at the end of summer quarter, you must be enrolled during that quarter.

Taking Courses During Your Vacation Quarter

There are no immigration regulations that prevent you from enrolling in your vacation quarter.  As long as your program has an official vacation quarter (most do), you can take part time, full time, or zero courses during the vacation quarter with no impact to your immigration status. 

If you choose to enroll during your summer/vacation quarter, it will not cause immigration problems.  However, you will still need to be enrolled full time during the academic year.  Additionally, if taking summer courses makes you finish earlier than expected, you may need to shorten your F-1/J-1 record to reflect the change. Contact your academic program with any questions you have about summer enrollment eligibility or procedures.

Authorization to Drop Below a Full Course Load

With prior authorization and an updated I-20 (or J-1 letter), limited exceptions can be made to the full-time enrollment requirement. All of these exceptions must be authorized in advance by your international student adviser and is a separate requirement from anything you must do for your academic department. 

Note: You are not authorized for a Reduced Course Load (RCL) unless you receive a new I-20 showing the authorization on page 2 (F-1 students) or a letter of authorization (J-1). 

The RCL authorization is for immigration purposes only and has no bearing on your academic eligibility to take a reduced course load or withdraw.  Prior to any changes, you must clear any part-time enrollment plans or leave with your department, as well as OIA. 

Exceptions to full-time enrollment include:

Final quarter 

Degree students who are in their last quarter and require less than a full course load to complete their degree requirements can apply for reduced course load authorization.  Non-degree students, such as graduate students at large, non-degree visiting students, college students at large, or other non-degree programs are not eligible for final quarter RCLs.

If approved, you can take less than a full-time course load during your final quarter, but you must take at least one course.  Reduced course load authorization does not affect your eligibility for OPT or CPT.

To Apply for Final Quarter RCL: Submit the Drop Below Full Time Registration Request to OIA before your final quarter begins. If you are finishing your program sooner than the current end date on your I-20, you must also submit the Verification of Completion form, so that your I-20 can be shortened to reflect the change.

Note: Final quarter reduced course load authorization is only available to students enrolled in degree programs and cannot be used for exchanges, students at large, short-term, or any other non-degree programs.

Medical condition

If you have a documentable medical reason that prevents you from attending class, you can obtain reduced course load authorization (no more than four quarters).

To Apply for Medical RCL: Submit the Drop Below Full Time Registration Request, along with documentation from a licensed medical doctor, doctor of osteopathy or licensed clinical psychologist stating that you are not able to attend classes this quarter or not able to attend classes full-time this quarter. Your physician can create a custom letter or use the Medical RCL Template Letter. The documentation does not have to contain a diagnosis or details of your condition or illness. Reduced course load authorization does not affect your eligibility for OPT or CPT.

Medical RCLs are meant to cover a break in studies.  If you are in your final quarter of enrollment and have an approved medical RCL, you will need to take at least one course. Please contact your OIA adviser if you have questions.

Academic Difficulties

If you are experiencing academic difficulties due to one of the circumstances outlined below, you may be eligible to apply for a Academic Difficulty RCL. USCIS allows a drop below full-time enrollment for academic difficulties in the following situations only:

  • Initial difficulty with the English language or reading requirements
  • Unfamiliarity with U.S. teaching methods
  • Improper course level placement,

Outside of these situations, Academic Difficulty RCLs cannot be approved. An application for Academic Difficulty RCL requires a formal letter from your Dean of Students confirming the reason for the request.

An Academic Difficulty RCL can only be granted once in your entire program. The authorization lasts for one quarter only and only one course may be dropped. 

To Apply for Academic Difficulty RCL: Submit the Drop Below Full Time Registration Request, and a letter from your Dean of Students or academic adviser containing details of your circumstance and attesting to one of the following specific difficulties: 1) Initial difficulty with the English language or reading requirements, 2) Unfamiliarity with U.S. teaching methods, or 3) Improper course level placement.  

An RCL can only be approved for one of the above circumstances only.  USCIS does not allow for Academic Difficulty RCL to be granted for any other reason.