Traveling Abroad for F-1 Visa Holders

(Except for Canada, Mexico, or the adjacent islands for which different rules apply.)

If you are a student holding an F-1 visa and you plan to travel abroad or to your home country, in order to be readmitted to the US you need to present to the Immigration Officer, at the port of entry, the following documents:

  1. Valid Passport. It must be valid for at least 6 months when you enter the US.
  2. Valid American (United States) F-1 Visa. A valid F-1 visa stamped in your passport. If you need to apply for a new visa, bring proof of financial support and your I-20 form to the American (U.S.) Consulate or Embassy. A current photograph will also be necessary when applying for a visa.
  3. Valid I-20. A new Form I-20 or a current Form I-20 which has been signed by an ISO advisor on page 2 of your Form I-20 within the last 12 months.
  4. Documentation of Financial Support (award letters, letters from departments, bank letters, or letters and bank statements from private/family sponsors, etc.)
  5. Documentation of MIT enrollment (admission letter, letter from department, unofficial transcript, MIT ID card, etc.)
  6. Form I-901 (SEVIS Fee) Receipt
  7. FOR CONTINUING MIT STUDENTS:  If while abroad you will be applying for a new entry visa at the U.S. Embassy/Consulate, we also advise you carry a letter from your academic advisor/research supervisor, to present at the Consulate and/or at your U.S. port-of-entry if requested, that details the nature of your academic research activities at MIT.  A template for your advisor/supervisor to use in crafting the letter is available here.

Please be advised that entry into the US is at the sole discretion of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) Officer at the U.S. Port-of-Entry. Also, please be aware that since the passage of the Immigration Act of 1996 it has become extremely hard to receive a new US visa in a third country.

Special Cases:

  1. Students who have changed their visa type while in the US, if you decide to travel outside of the US after the change of status has been approved, you must apply for a new entry visa at the American Consulate or Embassy in the country you are visiting.
  2. Students who are married to American Citizens or Permanent Residents, and students who have been included in a petition for permanent residency, please make an appointment to talk with one of the International Student Advisors before you finalize plans for your trip.

Inspection / Questioning at the U.S. Port-of-Entry

When entering the U.S. from abroad, every individual (including American Citizens), will be subject to questioning by USCBP officers. Primary Inspection will be where a USCBP Officer will ask you to present your visa documents and ask questions about where you are arriving from and the purpose of your stay in the U.S. The USCBP Officer can ask any question to determine your eligibility to enter the U.S. If the officer cannot determine your eligibility to enter the US from the documentation you present, or requires additional information, you may be directed for additional questioning at USCBP "Secondary Inspection" at the airport or land crossing.

Secondary Inspection is a separate, guarded room area where you will be asked to wait to speak individually with a more senior level USCBP Officer. Secondary Inspection also has access to additional information, including more details about your visa/SEVIS record. In Secondary Inspection, you may be advised that you are not able to make any phonecalls without permission of the USCBP Officer -- please follow their directions. Recent changes is U.S. Department of Homeland Security guidance allows USCBP to ask any question needed to determine our eligibility to enter the U.S, including your past travel history, financial information, information about your family members, previous travel to the U.S., as well as request that you provide access to your email or social media accounts for review. Please note that wait times at Secondary Inspection can be under one hour or it may take many hours. If you have to wait for an extended period, Secondary Inspection offices have bathrooms/toilets and access to water. If there are any concerns, you will be advised to speak with a Secondary Inspection Officer for assistance. Please note there is no way to expedite (speed up) processing at Secondary Inspection, so it is advised to remain calm.

Being referred to Secondary Inspection does NOT necessarily mean that you have done anything wrong. Similar to your visa interview appointment and visa processing at the U.S. Embassy/Consulate, security procedures must be completed in order to enter the U.S. and can take some time to resolve (based on the type of procedure and number of individuals in Secondary Inspection at the time of your entry to the U.S.). We ask that you be patient. If you are waiting for an extended period of time at Secondary Inspection, you may request from USCBP (which may or may not be granted) the ability to contact anyone who may be waiting for you at the airport. USCBP also has access to contact information for the MIT International Students Office.

After entry to the U.S., please be sure to download a copy of your I-94 record and upload a copy to iMIT.

If any questions arise during or after your time at U.S. Customs and Border Protection Primary or Secondary Inspection, you or USCBP can contact the MIT International Students Office (ISO) directly. During normal business hours (Monday-Friday between 9:00am-4:00pm Eastern Time), please contact the ISO main office by phone (617-253-3795). Outside of business hours, you may reach the ISO directly (617-258-5480) or by calling MIT Police (617-253-2996 or 617-253-1212) and MIT Police will notify ISO Staff to contact you by the phone number you provide.

Travel Within the US (especially near Canada or Mexico Border)

Students traveling within the US (anywhere outside of Cambridge/Boston) are always advised to carry their original passport, Form I-20, I-94 record, and proof of enrollment at MIT as evidence of their valid student visa status in the US.  This information can be requested by Federal authorities, especially if traveling by airplane, train, or bus. 
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will occasionally conduct enforcement activities (transportation checks, traffic stops) near the US-Canada and US-Mexico borders, claiming authority to do such random checks within a 100-mile border zone from Canada or Mexico.  Therefore, it is important to carry your original visa documentation with you when traveling in these areas. 
If any questions arise, please feel free to contact your ISO Advisor.

Request a Form I-20 with ISO Travel Signature

Students should check page 2 of your current Form I-20 for a ISO advisor signed travel signature. This signature should be dated at least within 12 months of the day you plan to re-enter the U.S.

To request an updated travel signature, visit the ISO during business hours and drop off your most current Form I-20 at the reception desk. You may return to the ISO after 2 business days to pick-up your Form I-20 with new travel signature.

Forgot to pick up your Form I-20 before travel?

Create an express shipping label to have the ISO mail the document to you.

More Information

Please see our pages on Traveling to Canada, Mexico, or Adjacent Islands or Travel for Canadians, for different guidelines on travel, if your situation applies. Also, see U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program guidelines on Travel Re-entry for F Visa.

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