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Immigration Updates
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  • STEM OPT Update - Get to know the new Training Plan
    • Overview of OPT and STEM OPT Extensions – F-1 international students at approved U.S. academic institutions of higher education may apply for work authorization to gain practical experience upon completing their degrees.  F-1 students are generally eligible for 12 months of post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT), regardless of their field of study with each degree level pursued. Students graduating in Science, Engineering, Math, and Technology fields (STEM), may apply for an extension beyond the initial 12 months.  

      New Form I-983 Required for STEM OPT – On May 10, 2016, federal regulations increased the previous 17-month STEM OPT extension to a 24-month extension. The new regulations require F-1 STEM OPT applicants to submit a formal training plan to their academic institution's Designated School Official using the Form I-983 "Training Plan for STEM OPT Students."  The Form I-983 is similar to Career Development Plans already used at NIH, which are approved by the NIH sponsor. The NIH sponsor should sign the Form 1-983 "Employer Certification" sections since they are the most knowledgeable about the student's research goals, progress, and attendance. For more information on the STEM OPT Extension, visit the Department of Homeland Security's Study in the States website.

      Contacting DIS for STEM OPT and I-983 Information – DIS has prepared a sample Form I-983 and an email with information for STEM OPT applicants. Before DIS sends these resources to the F-1 student, the student and their NIH sponsor must complete our STEM OPT Request Form. Please direct all questions about the Form I-983 and the STEM OPT application process to DIS at DIS@mail.nih.gov.
  • Common Travel Questions
    • ​INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL

      Where can I find DIS travel information? The DIS website has travel pages for J-1/J-2 Exchange Visitors, H-1B Temporary Workers, and O-1 Aliens of Extraordinary Ability. These pages have travel advisories, Form I-94 information, and more! If you have questions, email or call us (301-496-6166). F-1 Students, contact your Designated School Official (DSO)/International Student Advisor for travel advising.

      Will I have to apply for a new U.S. visa? You need a valid U.S. visa in your passport to re-enter the U.S. from overseas. If you are entering from Canada, Mexico or an adjacent island, please check the information in the "Other Common Questions" section below and follow the links to the DIS webpage on this topic.  Check your visa expiration date before you leave so that you can plan to apply for a visa at the beginning of your trip abroad, if necessary. Contact a U.S. Consulate or Embassy in the country you are visiting to find out about their application requirements and processing times. If you will not be in your home country, ask if they allow visa applications from third country nationals. See Getting Your Visa for more information.

      Should I bring a travel letter? Having a travel letter is especially encouraged if you are applying for a U.S. visa so the Consular Officer can see a simple, clear overview of the purpose of your time in the U.S. The letter should outline your research in easy-to-understand language and can be signed by your IC sponsor or supervisor.  Please use the DIS Sample Travel Letter as a guide. 

      What if I get "Administrative Processing"? Some visa applications are subject to a more extensive background check, referred to as "Administrative Processing," that can delay the visa application process by several days to several weeks or longer. Let DIS know if you are going through administrative processing so that we can advise you and take note of any trends in the experiences of NIH Visiting Program participants.  The Sample Travel letter above may help reduce misunderstandings and background checks.

      What do I do when I get back to the U.S.? DIS needs to review any new immigration documents to check for accuracy and to make sure your DIS record is updated. Give DIS copies of your and your family's new passport admission stamps, your electronic Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Records, and your new U.S. entry visas (if applicable). Please fax (301-496-0847) or hand-carry these items to DIS.

      TRAVELING WITHIN THE UNITED STATES

      What documents should I have with me? You will probably not need to present your immigration documents when traveling inside the U.S., but it is a good idea to bring your passport and immigration documents with you as identification in case of an emergency or an unusual situation.  Also, it is possible to be asked to present your immigration documents if you are driving along the U.S. border.

      TRAVELING AS AN NIH-SPONSORED J-1/J-2 EXCHANGE VISITOR

      Do I need a travel signature? You need a valid travel signature on your Form DS-2019 when you re‑enter the U.S. These signatures are valid for one year and can only come from an authorized DIS staff member. If you need one or are unsure, bring your original Form DS-2019 to the DIS office during walk‑in hours, 1:30pm-3:30pm, Monday-Thursday. Try to come at least two (2) weeks before traveling!

      Do I have to pay the visa fees? NIH-sponsored J-1 Exchange Visitors and their dependents are exempt from certain visa fees. However, it can be hard to schedule a visa appointment at a U.S. Consulate or Embassy without paying the fee, especially if you are using an online system. Here are some tips:
      1. Schedule your appointment over the phone so that you can explain that you are a government-sponsored J-1/J-2 Exchange Visitor. This is most effective with small-volume posts.
      2. Check the U.S. Embassy or Consulate website for information on making special appointments.
      3. Always bring a copy of the DIS J-1 Fee Notice to your visa appointment.

       

      OTHER COMMON QUESTIONS

      I'm going on a cruise, what should I consider? For cruises leaving from the U.S., check with the carrier ahead of time for any immigration restrictions for visits to foreign ports or reentry to the U.S. If you are going on a "closed loop" cruise (cruise begins and ends at the same U.S. port), your Form I-94 record will NOT show your cruise return date as your entry date. Your Form I-94 will be revalidated with no change to your status or previous date of entry. Sea port inspectors may not be as familiar with automatic visa revalidation rules (see below), so it may be helpful to have a valid U.S. visa when returning from a cruise.

      Travel to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean Islands – How does automatic visa revalidation work? Under certain circumstances you do not need to have a valid U.S. visa if you are traveling to Canada or Mexico (if in J-1/J-2, H-1B, or O-1 status), or certain Caribbean Islands (J-1/J-2 status only). Our J-1/J-2, H-1B, and O-1 travel advisories cover this in detail. Please note that you may still need to apply for visas to enter these countries. Also, J-1/J-2s will still need a travel signature on their Form DS-2019.

      Do I need an eTA to fly to Canada? If you do not need a visa to visit Canada, you are encouraged to have an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) before boarding your flight (will be required beginning October 2016). To find out if you need an eTA and how to apply, visit Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
  • Watch out for Tax Identity Theft Phone Scams
    • Do not fall victim to scammers who call and say they are with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)! There have been many aggressive phone scams where people call and threaten you with police arrest or deportation if you don't pay them. Even if you do owe taxes,
      • The IRS will NEVER call and demand immediate payment over the phone
      • The IRS will NEVER try to threaten or intimidate you, demand payment with a prepaid debit card, or ask for your credit card or debit card number over the phone
      • The IRS will NEVER threaten to call the police or immigration agents if you don't pay
      Please tell DIS about scams you encounter! For more information on IRS scams, the IRS has a video and a special IRS Tax Tip. Visit the USCIS Avoid Scams webpage for help avoiding other immigration scams.
  • New Requirements for Flying to Canada
    • ​Canada is launching a new Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) system for those flying to and through Canada. As of March 15, 2016, individuals who do not need to obtain a visa to visit Canada will be expected to have an eTA before boarding their flight. U.S. citizens and individuals with a valid Canadian visa will not need an eTA. There are no new requirements for entering Canada by land or sea. To find out if you need an eTA and for easy application instructions, visit Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

  • Notify DIS if Your J-2 Dependent Changes Status
    • ​If your J-2 dependent changes to another non-immigrant status, such as their own J-1, please notify DIS immediately so that we can end their J-2 dependent record as required by the Department of State. DIS is not automatically notified of these status changes, so it is important for you to alert DIS so that your dependents are not in the U.S. with more than one active immigration status. Please provide a copy of their new I-94 and visa (if applicable) so DIS can verify their new status before ending their J-2 record.

  • Changes to United States Visa Waiver Program
    • ​The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) permits citizens of 38 countries to travel to the United States without a visa for business or tourist trips of up to 90 days. The recent Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (The Act), describes categories of travelers who are no longer eligible to travel under the VWP. The majority of travelers will not be affected, but restrictions include:
      • Nationals of VWP countries who have traveled to or been present in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011 (with limited exceptions for travel for diplomatic or military purposes in the service of a VWP country).
      • Nationals of VWP countries who are also nationals of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria (dual citizens of Libya, Somalia, and Yemen are not restricted at this time)
      The Act does not bar these travelers from entering the U.S., but they must first obtain a visa from a U.S. Consulate or Embassy. The Secretary of Homeland Security may waive these restrictions on a case-by-case basis. For more information on the Act, including potential waiver eligibility, the Act's impact on travelers with valid Electronic System for Travel Authorizations (ESTAs), or what a traveler should do if notified that they are no longer eligible for the VWP, please see the DHS press release.
  • No Barcode on New Form DS-2019s and New Form I-20s
    • ​New Form DS-2019s for J-1 and J-2 Exchange Visitors will no longer have a 2-D barcode in the upper right corner as of the December 2015 updates to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). The Form DS-2019 and the Form I-20 for F-1 students both had barcodes designed to be scanned by U.S. Consulates and Embassies and by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), but these bar codes were never actually used. The barcode disappeared from the Form I-20 in June 2015, and now from the Form DS-2019, resulting in simpler, more aesthetically pleasing forms.

  • Extended Vacation or Research Abroad?
    • ​If you are taking a personal trip over five weeks or will be participating in research activities abroad longer than a typical conference or meeting, make sure to submit an Extended Absence Abroad (EAA) request to DIS at least two weeks before your planned departure. Along with the EAA request form, you will need a memo signed by both your NIH sponsor or supervisor and your Institute/Center’s Scientific Director (FTE employees do NOT need the SD signature). Instructions for this memo are included in the EAA request form.

  • Recommendation Letters & Ethics: Know the Rules
    • ​U.S. Government ethics rules limit how a U.S. Government employee can write letters of recommendation for another individual. You need to be familiar with these policies because they determine when your boss can write a recommendation letter for you and what that letter can say. These limitations apply to letters in support of green card applications as well as letters in support of obtaining a visa or other immigration benefit. Please take time to review these policies, available on the NIH Ethics website: https://ethics.od.nih.gov/topics/visa-support-letter.htm
  • Long Delays in USCIS Change of Status Processing Times
    • ​Change of Status (COS) processing times for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) are historically unpredictable and often change dramatically. However, DIS has noticed a recent trend of much longer USCIS processing times than we usually see. For COS to H-1B, USCIS is currently taking 5-6 months to process an application without Premium Processing. For COS to J-1, USCIS is currently processing I-539 applications from December 1, 2014, over a year processing time! If you are considering changing your non-immigrant status to J-1, please consult with DIS regarding your options. Traveling outside of the U.S. and returning in J-1 status may be a better pathway than attempting to change your status within the U.S.

      If you have a COS to J-1 application currently pending with USCIS: check with the DIS Immigration Specialist currently processing your case to discuss whether you should consider an alternative COS pathway before your current status expires.

      If you are a COS to J-1 in the future: Make an appointment with DIS at least twelve months ahead of time to discuss your options. If you do not work in Maryland, you may e-mail DIS to discuss your options or schedule a phone appointment.
  • Top International Travel Tips
    • Whether you are going home to spend the holidays with family and friends or attending an overseas conference, here is a brief travel guide to help this high-volume traveling season go as smoothly as possible! You are welcome to contact our Customer Service Team or come to the DIS office during our walk-in hours (Monday-Thursday, 1:30pm-3:30pm) if you have any questions. We also have Travel Advisories with more information for those in J-1/J-2, H-1B, and O-1 status.

      GETTING READY TO GO
      • Do you have a valid travel signature? (J-1/J-2 Exchange Visitors)  –You need a valid travel signature on your DS-2019 when you re-enter the U.S. If you need one or are unsure, bring your original Form DS-2019 to the DIS office during walk-in hours, 1:30pm-3:30pm, Monday-Thursday. Try to come at least two (2) weeks before traveling!
      • Will you need to apply for a new U.S. entry visa? – If necessary, make plans to apply for a new U.S. entry visa while you are traveling. Contact a U.S. Consulate or U.S. Embassy in the country you are visiting to find out about their application requirements and processing times. If you will not be in your home country, ask the Consulate if they will allow visa applications from third country nationals. Always be prepared for possible delays due to additional security or technology checks or other requirements. See Getting Your Visa for more information.
      • Do you need a visa for countries you are visiting? – If you are traveling to a country that is not your home county, even if it is only for a brief layover, you may need a visa to enter. Citizens of certain countries may even need an entry visa for visits to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean Islands. Contact the country's embassy or consulate for information on their requirements.

      COMING BACK TO THE UNITED STATES

      • Are you ready for the U.S. border inspection? – Pack your immigration documents in your carry-on bag so that you can present them at the border inspection when you re-enter the U.S.
      • What do you need to send to DIS? – DIS needs to review any new immigration documents to check for accuracy and to make sure your DIS record is updated. Give DIS copies of your and your family's new passport admission stamps, your electronic Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Records, and your new U.S. entry visas (if applicable). Please fax (301-496-0847) or hand-carry these items.
  • NIH J-1/J-2s Exempt from Visa Fees
    • ​Since the NIH is a U.S. federal government agency, NIH-sponsored J-1/J-2 Exchange Visitors are exempt from paying the SEVIS, machine readable visa/non-immigrant visa application, and visa issuance fees. DIS provides a letter verifying NIH J-1/J-2 fee exemption for you to bring to your visa appointment. However, many online systems require evidence that you have paid the fees before you can schedule a visa appointment. We have found three common ways to approach this problem:
      • Schedule your appointment over the phone so that you can explain that you are a government-sponsored J-1/J-2 Exchange Visitor. This is most effective with small-volume posts.
      • Check the U.S. Embassy or Consulate website for information on making special appointments.
      • Pay the fees so that you can make the appointment, then ask for reimbursement from the Department of State. The SEVIS Fee reimbursement must be requested within 90 days of its payment. See the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) webpage on "I-901 SEVIS Fee Frequently Asked Questions" for more information.
  • Getting Approval for Outside Activity
    • Most NIH Visiting Program participants have an immigration status that only authorizes them to perform work or unpaid research at NIH. According to Department of State rules, J-1 Exchange Visitors are able to participate in outside activities, but only with advanced approval from DIS. This is especially true for professional activities such as giving a lecture, teaching a class, or providing short-term consultations. Volunteer and community-based activities without a direct career benefit or compensation do not require advanced approval (Ex: volunteering at a school or pet shelter). 

      Immigration statuses that are employer-based, such as H-1B, are less flexible, and paid outside work is generally not permitted. If outside work becomes a regular or intermittent part of an FTE's position (beyond an occasional conference or collaboration), DIS should be notified in advance.

      If you have a visiting scientist considering an outside activity, please have them fax or hand-carry a "Request for Outside Activity" form to DIS at least two weeks before the planned activity. If they are unsure whether or not the activity requires advanced approval, they can use our "Request for Outside Activity Wizard" and contact our DIS Customer Service Team if they still have questions.
  • DID YOU KNOW - DIS Annual Reports
    • ​Did you know that the most common countries of origin for NIH foreign national visiting scientists are China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Italy? Or that NIH brought in over 1000 new foreign nationals in Fiscal Year 2014? Have you ever wondered how many Pre-doc Fellows are at your IC?  

      DIS keeps track of these numbers and more in our annual fiscal year reports. These reports, available to NIH Users on the DIS website, are full of interesting tables and graphs that illustrate our dynamic NIH Visiting Program!
  • Watch Out for Scams!
    • ​Dr. Lee answered his phone without even pausing to look at the caller's number; he was tired after a long day at the lab and had just sat down to dinner. But the caller's words jolted him into a panic, "problem with your immigration status…deportation…pay fee…" Dr. Lee hastily gave the caller every piece of information they asked for, scrambling to make sure he could stay in the country. But there was nothing wrong with his immigration status; he had just paid $2,000 to a scammer who now had all of his personal information as well.

      While this is a fictionalized story, members of our NIH international community are often targeted by scammers. Many have received phone calls and emails and visited websites claiming to be legitimate sources that are actually fraudulent attempts to steal money, charge too much for services, or get personal information. Take time to educate yourself so that you can recognize and avoid scams! The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website has an "Avoid Scams" webpage that covers common immigration scams. Please tell DIS about any scams you encounter so that we can help keep our community informed.
  • Updates to form AR-11 - Change of Address for the USCIS
    • ​The U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), a component agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has recently updated the Form AR-11, which is used to report changes of address for non-US Citizens, other than F-1 students or J Exchange Visitors. At NIH, this form is mostly used by individuals in H-1B, O-1, or TN status, as well as LPR status. If you need to report an address change, please use the USCIS website to obtain the most recent version of the AR-11 form, as USCIS will no longer accept old versions after November 20, 2015. You will still need to submit a DIS Change of Address form as well.

      If you are in J-1 or F-1 Status, DIS or your sponsoring institution/school uses the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to report your address changes after you submit a DIS Change of Address form, so you will not need to use the USCIS Form AR-11. F-1 students need to notify their universities within 10 days of a move to assure an update in SEVIS.
  • Updates to Department of State Visa Bulletin
    • The Department of State recently released the October Visa Bulletin with an updated format. This follows the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) announcement of the revised procedures for determining visa availability for applicants waiting to file an application for adjustment of status from a non-immigrant to an immigrant status. The new procedures affect when certain foreign nationals, with approved I-140 or I-130 immigration petitions, and their eligible dependents may submit an application for adjustment of status, along with concurrently filed applications for advance parole and work authorization.  If this USCIS announcement applies to you, please notify the Division of International Services (DIS) immediately if you receive work authorization and/or advance parole based on an adjustment of status application.

      As a reminder, please report any immigration status change to DIS. This includes filing of an immigrant visa petition, adjustment of status application or changing your status from one non-immigrant classification to another.
  • I-94 Automation Reduces Wait Time for Social Security Application
    • The automation of the I-94 significantly shortened the required wait time before applying for a Social Security Number (SSN). Now new arrivals to the U.S. who qualify for a SSN, can apply after 3 days in the U.S.  Previously we recommended waiting 15 days.
  • Scam Alert from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)​
    • The Division of International Services (DIS) wants to make you aware of attempts to take advantage of new arrivals to the United States. Below is an edited version of a scam alert sent to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program. We would like to remind you that J-1 Exchange Visitors sponsored by the National Institutes of Health are exempt from the SEVIS (I-901) Fee. Please do not respond to individuals attempting to collect an immigration fee from you.

      Please contact DIS if you have questions or you have experienced this or other scams targeting non-immigrants to the U.S.

      SEVP Scam Alert

      Recently, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) became aware that scammers are targeting students in the Chicago area in an attempt to solicit funds on behalf of the I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) Fee. Scammers are requesting those targeted to send up to $4,000 to avoid deportation. The scammers are using the ‘Location Services’ app on students’ cellular devices to find the students’ location and threaten them with continued pursuit if they do not receive the money. The incidents are currently under investigation by the Chicago Police Department and SEVP intends to cooperate fully and will provide additional information as it becomes available.

      Coincidentally, these fraud incidents began after SEVP sent out the first batch of I-901 Non-Payment letters in mid-April. The I-901 Non-Payment letters request that students in active status, with no I-901 payment on their record, pay the I-901 Fee. The letter also states that failure to remit the payment within the time allotted will result in the termination of the student’s SEVIS record and/or possible deportation.

      Below, please refer to the detailed instructions when handling any future fraud incidents, should they arise:

      Red Flag 2: Additionally, scammers are reportedly requesting up to $4,000 in I-901 Fees; an I-901 Fee is $200 at the most. The only time the requested Fee will be more is if a student has a returned check. The additional amount would be limited to small, related service charges for bank processing.

      What to do if your student receives this type of phone call? Students should not give any information to the person on the phone, nor should they send any funds to the scammers. Those targeted need to immediately call their local Police Department and contact their school official to report the incident to SEVP.
  • Work Authorization Reminders to Scientists
    • Be Aware of your Dates!

      We encourage you to remind your lab administrators to submit your “cases” to the DIS as soon as possible. Processing times by other government agencies involved in immigration-related matters (such as the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security) are erratic and change without notice. In addition, we work on cases in the order received, according to our processing times to be fair to all new and renewing scientists.

      Do you know when your work authorization expires?

      Have you looked at your immigration documents lately? Do you know how long you can work at the NIH? How long you can stay in the US? Take a moment to understand your current work authorization end date. You can find it on your copy of the Notice of Action (NOA) issued by the DIS. The NOA is your notification that the DIS has processed a certain action, such as a “renewal” action to continue your stay.

      Additionally, your work authorization end date can be found on your Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record and, if applicable, your Form DS-2019 (for J-1 Exchange Visitors), your Form I-797 (for H-1B & O-1 Workers), or your Employment Authorization Document (EAD). If you are unsure of this date, contact the DIS and we will be happy to provide this to you.

      Once you understand your work authorization end date, mark your calendar several months in advance of that date to talk to your NIH laboratory/branch sponsor or PI about the possibility of continuing your stay. Ideally, you should discuss the possibility of renewal one year in advance of your work authorization end date (or as soon as possible if one year is not feasible). Certain immigration processes take time and the earlier you know about your future plans, the better!

      The DIS needs your NIH lab/branch to send us a request to continue your stay. Your lab/branch must submit this request 90 to 120 days prior to the end date listed on the NOA. We work on these requests in the order received according to our processing times to be fair to you and your colleagues. If these requests are not sent timely, you will have to stop work and are unable to be paid (if funded by the NIH) until we are able to process your renewal. Worse yet, you and your dependents may also be required to depart the US and then only able to return after your immigration status has been updated. 

      We will notify you via email when the renewal is processed. In that email, you may be asked to visit the DIS to pick up your renewal immigration documents. Please do *not* visit the DIS until you have received this email. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding in this matter.​
DIS Info 
Office Hours:
8:30 am-5:00 pm
Check-In Hours:
9:00 am Mondays
Walk-in Hours:
1:30pm-3:30pm Mon-Thurs
Phone:
301-496-6166
Fax:
301-496-0847 
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