Maintaining a Full Time Course Load

Overview and Requirements

To maintain F-1 and J-1 status, federal immigration regulations require 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’ for your program.  

In some very specific circumstances (outlined below), students can be authorized by OIA to drop below full time enrollment. Any drop below 300 units requires an application to OIA in addition to anything you are required to do for your program.

You are not authorized to drop below full time enrollment unless you have received a Reduced Course Load Authorization (RCL) approval email from your OIA adviser (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 and your status will be terminated.

Full Time Course Load and Thesis Writing 

Some programs have a thesis or dissertation requirement as part of graduation.  The course load requirements for thesis writing are as follows:

  • PhD Students: 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
  • 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).
    • Enrollment in required courses is necessary to maintain your immigration status

Summer/Vacation Quarters

Vacation quarters that are considered official school breaks by your program and typically occur during the summer.

  • You do not require registration and you are not expected to enroll during your vacation quarter
  • You can enroll full or part time if you are eligible or want to during your vacation quarter. See more information below.
  • You are required to be enrolled during the final quarter listed on your I-20; if your I-20 ends at the end of summer quarter, you must be enrolled during summer in required courses
  • You automatically receive the vacation quarter (if eligible) and do not need to apply for a RCL for it or receive an permission from our office
  • Some programs, such as some PhD programs in Chemistry or Computer Science, do not have break quarters and require registration year round.  Check with your program if you are unsure whether or not you require summer registration.
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

There are three circumstances in which an international student can be authorized by OIA to take a Reduced Course Load (RCL) during the school year.  They are outlined below in detail. Outside of the circumstances listed below, F-1/J-1 students are not eligible for part-time enrollment for any other reason.

  • Prior authorization from OIA is required for all RCLs
  • RCL applications are for immigration purposes only and separate from anything you must do for your academic department
  • Prior to any changes, you must clear any part-time enrollment plans or leave with your department, as well as OIA. 
  • You are not authorized to drop below full time until you have an updated I-20 (or J-1 letter) stating the authorization

Exceptions to full-time enrollment include:

1: Your Final Quarter of Study

  • For degree students who  are in their last quarter that require only 1 or 2 courses to graduate
  • You must apply for RCL before your final quarter begins
  • Reduced course load authorization does not affect your eligibility for OPT or CPT.
  • You can be approved for one final quarter RCL only
  • 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.
To Apply for Final Quarter RCL:
  • Submit the OIA's Reduced Course Load Request to OIA about 2 weeks before before your final quarter begins.
  • Finishing early? 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.
  • Questions? Visit our FAQs to learn about RCL timing and when you will get your new I-20

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.

2: Medical Condition

If you have a documentable medical reason that prevents you from attending class, you can apply for an RCL based on the medical condition.

  • Requires a note from a licensed physician or mental health care provider (template below). The note need not contain diagnostic information, but must provide details about your RCL
  • Medical RCL allows you to stay in the U.S. or travel abroad
  • You can be enrolled in zero courses or part-time courses
  • You must apply for medical RCL on a quarterly basis with a complete application
  • You are limited to four quarters of medical RCL per academic program
  • Medical RCLs are meant to cover a break in studies, which means you are going to return to studies after the break. 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.
To Apply for Medical RCL:
  • Submit OIA's Reduced Course Load Request
  • You must include 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. If your doctor is creating a custom letter, it must include all information listed on the template above.
  • Reduced course load authorization does not affect your eligibility for OPT or CPT.
  • Questions? See our FAQs for more information.

3: Academic Difficulties

If you are in your first or second quarter of your program and are experiencing academic difficulties due to one of the three 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:

  1. Initial difficulty with the English language or reading requirements
  2. Unfamiliarity with U.S. teaching methods, or
  3. 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 during the first or second quarter of your academic program and can only be granted once. The authorization lasts for one quarter only and only one course may be dropped. 

To Apply for Academic Difficulty RCL:
  • Submit OIA's Reduced Course Load Request
  • Include a letter from your Dean of Students 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.  
  • The letter must indicate which of the three academic difficulties you are experiencing
  • 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. 
  • Reduced course load authorization does not affect your eligibility for OPT or CPT.

Reduced Course Load FAQs

  1. When will I get my RCL I-20? How long does processing take?
    1. RCL for Current Quarter: For Medical and Academic Difficulty RCLs, your I-20 will be processed within one week of your request.  You will receive an email when the new I-20 is ready to pick up. Please note that a new I-20 will not be issued for a Final Quarter RCL request unless your original I-20 Program End Date has been altered.
    2. RCL For Future Quarter: RCLs for future quarters cannot be processed until the current quarter ends. Your request will be processed within one week of the start of the RCL quarter. For example, if you submit a spring quarter RCL request in early March (during winter quarter), we must wait until winter quarter ends before we can process the spring quarter RCL. 
  2. Will having a RCL impact my eligibility for OPT or CPT? No. As long as you apply in a timely manner, an approved RCL will in no way impact your eligibility for OPT or CPT.  This is the case if you have already applied or plan to apply for work authorization in the future.
  3. With a Medical RCL, do I have to leave the country? No. With an approved medical RCL, you can continue to stay in the U.S. for the duration.  You do not need to leave or take any courses.
  4. I'm applying for a Medical RCL.  What kind of information is disclosed about me to the government? No diagnostic information is required to apply or be approved for an medical RCL.  When we add the medical RCL to your SEVIS record, the only information provided is that you are taking a reduced course load based on an illness or medical condition and the dates you are approved for the RCL.  No information about your physician, care provider, condition, or other medical information is provided to USCIS.
  5. Will having an RCL look bad on my immigration record or cause negative immigration impact? No. The RCL authorization is a benefit of your F-1 status.  If you apply for an RCL in a timely manner and have it approved, it has no negative immigration impact.
  6. Can I travel internationally if I have an apporved RCL? Yes.  An approved RCL will have no negative impact on your eligibility to travel--even if you are taking zero courses due to a medical RCL.
  7. Will an approved RCL impact by ITIN or SSN application? No. An approved RCL will have no negative impact applications or other F-1 benefits.