Taking Online Classes as an International Student

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With the world becoming an even more digitally connected place, online classes and programs have become quite popular. In fall 2011, more than 6.7 million students took an online course at a U.S. institution, which was an all-time high. For international students, distance learning can be an especially attractive option because they don’t need to physically be in the country of the institution but can still achieve a top-notch education. If the school is in the United States, the UK, or Australia, students can avoid the high costs of living in these countries. For students who have families, a full-time job, or other similar commitments, online education provides them the opportunity to take classes at their own pace.

If you’re thinking about an online education program, here are some basic questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is it reputable? Check to see if the program is regionally and/or nationally accredited.
  2. Does it offer a valuable support system? This can include technical support, tutoring services, career advising, access to student groups, and other off-campus resources.
  3. Will your credits transfer? If you’re looking to enter a degree program in the U.S. after taking online courses, make sure that the credits from these classes will transfer.
  4. Is it right for you? Online education isn’t right for everyone, or might not be the best option for your specific situation.

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International students have a great opportunity to choose on-campus classes, online courses, or a combination of both. Some students will begin their university coursework online before physically arriving to the campus. However, keep in mind that the application process for an online program may be just a rigorous as applying to on-campus program.

Once you’ve selected an online class or program, it’s important to know which visa you will need or the regulations of your current visa. International students in certain other visa categories are exempt from this restriction. This an overview of the rules and restrictions regarding online courses and non-immigrant U.S. visas, but please check with U.S. immigration and/or your international student office.

  • F1 or J1 (student category) visa – Per U.S. immigration regulations, you cannot pursue a full online degree program. However, if you’re enrolled in a full-time on-campus degree program, you can count one distance learning or online class (three credits) toward your minimum number of credits each semester. For example, if you register for a 5 credit online course, only 3 of the 5 credits will be counted towards the required 12 credit load. As long as you’re registered for at least the minimum required credit load, you can take more than 3 online credits, but they will not count towards your full-time credits. Students on an F-1 visa in their last semester that only need to complete one more course must take it on campus because they must maintain a “physical presence” on campus.

  • M1 – Per U.S. immigration regulations, you cannot pursue an online degree program or count online classes towards your full-time enrollment credits.

  • H1, H4, or J2 visa – You can take a fully online program.

  • J1 visa (other than student category) – Check with immigration.

Beyond your specific visa regulations, you may want to ask your school or program if you’ll need to pay taxes on your tuition, if you’re eligible for financial aid, and what type of visa (if any) you’ll need to travel to the U.S. or school country for school events like graduation.

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