Can I Bring the Kids? Tips for International Students Who Are Concerned About Their Dependents

By Ryan Hickey

Adult college students with dependents face some unique challenges, and for international students, those difficulties are compounded significantly. Of the more than 1 million international students in the U.S. today, a great many are older and have family obligations to consider. Being away from family members or dependents for long stretches of time may not be feasible, emotionally or financially, but the restrictions that arise when moving family members to the U.S. for academic reasons can be difficult to navigate. Here are answers to common questions about moving to the U.S. to study with a family in tow.

What’s the difference between M and F visas?

Vocational students require an M visa, while international students enrolled in academic courses receive F visas. These are necessary for international students to attend full-time educational programs. Student visas are usually F-1 or M-1, but sometimes J-1 (which allows greater flexibility, but is harder to obtain). For more information on the difference between F-1 and J-1 visas, the University of Michigan has a handy chart.

What forms do my dependents need?

Dependents need paperwork, too. After learning of your intention to bring a family member with you, the International Studies department at your school of choice will give you an I-20 Form, which allows dependents to apply for F-2, M-2 or J-2 status, based on your visa.

Can I work to support my family while in school? Can my spouse work?

Unfortunately, unless you have a J-1 Visa, your spouse cannot apply to work in the U.S. legally, so make sure you consider that before attending school. However, F-1 students are eligible to work themselves on campus and can also apply to work on or off campus for up to 12 months in a position that is directly related to their program of study—this is typically part of Optional Practical Training (OPT) or Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and has to be demonstrated to be practical training that relates to your specific field of study. An extension of 17 months is possible for certain STEM majors.

Can my child go to school?

Your F-2 or M-2 children are eligible (and usually obligated) to attend Kindergarten through 12th grades without any additional documentation after achieving their visa. There are state laws in place that may put children in a certain grade level according to their age.

Can my spouse go to school?

A spouse can attend school part-time, but must obtain an I-539 Form (“Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status”) and gain his or her own F-1 or M-1 status in order to study full-time.

Can we go home and come back?

The answer is yes, but travel can be tricky and the key is to have organized all paperwork beforehand, particularly for the journey back to the U.S. Dependents will need:

  • A current I-20 in their name (certifying that the primary visa holder is enrolled full-time in the U.S.)
  • A valid visa
  • A Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record

Before international students can study in the U.S., they must demonstrate financial stability and show that they can pay for tuition and living expenses during their visa period. On some occasions, you may be asked to present this same information when returning to the U.S.

What if I lose my immigration status?

As you might have guessed, if you lose your immigration status, your dependents lose theirs as well. That means it’s important to not only make sure you obey the laws of the U.S., but also to attend class and achieve passing grades.

What if I have a child while here?

Children born in the U.S. are citizens of the U.S. and therefore ineligible for F-2 or M-2 status.

What are some other resources where I can find more information?

Find out more from the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service. These are two of the best resources available, with clear information and step-by-step instructions for international students. That said, the best place to look for more information is at the individual schools to which you are applying. Each of these will have an international student services department. Reach out to these departments for the help you need. They have heard all the questions, and they have all the answers.

About the Author

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson’s and EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL; editing essays and personal statements; and consulting directly with applicants.

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