Skip to main content

Living in the US: A legal guide for international students

Posted by attorney Edward Chung

For many international students, this might be the first time you are leaving home or being on your own. Review the basic laws for international students related to immigration, employment, housing, driving, and criminal defense to ensure that your transition to studying in the US is as smooth as possible. Not only does the law tell you what you should or should not do, but more importantly, it is there to protect you and your loved ones.

General legal information any international student should be attentive to:

  • The legal drinking age allowed in the United States is 21 years old.

  • Always carry your Identification card, foreign passport or any valid proof of identity documentation, as you might be asked to present it when entering a bar, a bank, or when visiting your doctor.

  • Whether you need pressing help dealing with a fire, witnessing an accident or in need of urgent medical assistance, please call the emergency phone number 911 immediately.

Your immigration responsibilities as a non-immigrant F-1 visa holder

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) welcome international students to study in American universities, through a F-1 visa.

The visa stamp in your passport allows you to enter the United States for a specific purpose and within a determined period of time. The visa may either be for single, double, or multiple entries. It is vital to understand that once you are in the U.S, your I-20 and I-94 card become the controlling legal documents that determine the validity of your immigration status in the United States.

Form I-20 is issued to every international student wishing to obtain an F-1 student visa from a U.S. Consulate or Embassy.

  • You are required to keep the information on your I-20 accurate. You must carry Form I-20 with you if you travel outside the United States for any reason during your course of study.

  • In addition, you must contact your school to have your Form I-20 signed prior to your travel, or you may be denied re-entry to the U.S.

  • The Form I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record), also referred to as an I-94 card, is the small white card which was given to you upon arrival in the U.S.

  • It indicates your visa category and contains an 11-digit identifying number called the admission number, which is used to keep track of your arrival in and departure from the U.S.

  • Please understand that the I-94 card officially determines how long you can stay in the U.S. and is one of your most important immigration documents.

Failure to comply with your immigration responsibilities can entail severe penalties for visitors who violate their status. Indeed, one may be subject to deportation and future exclusion from the U.S. Most serious violations include working without authorization, falling below full-time enrollment, and failure to request a program extension prior to the expiration date on your Form I-20.

Can I be employed in the United State with my international student visa?

As an international student, your visa status requires several limitations regarding employment authorization. It is important for you to understand the extent of your employment allowance and respect instructions given by the USCIS.

A maximum of 20 hours per week is permitted while school is in session, otherwise, during annual vacation period, the allowance is up to 40 hours a week. However, graduate students who hold full-time appointments as teaching or research assistants are not permitted to accept additional employment.

  • On-Campus Employment: Employment for the school you are attending is permitted, provided that you are maintaining your status

  • Off-Campus Employment: You can apply to the USCIS for off-campus employment authorization, provided you can demonstrate an urgent financial need to work.

  • Curricular Practical Training: During your studies you can apply for permission to engage in up to 12 months of Curricular Practical Training. This is a valid employment authorization if considered as a required component of your academic program, or for which you will receive academic credit, and may occur anywhere in the U.S.

  • Optional Practical Training: During, or upon completion of, your studies you may apply for permission to engage in up to twelve (12) months of Optional Practical Training, provided you have not engaged in 12 months or more of Curricular Practical Training. This is employment directly related to your major field of study and may occur anywhere in the U.S.

How to deal with your landlord

When living in the United States, as an international student living off-campus, you will probably need to sign a lease, pay a rent and pay associated utilities, in other words, deal with your landlord on a regular basis. Renters should read housing contracts and other documents carefully before signing them.

We equally recommend having your housing documents first examined by your attorney in order to prevent any unexpected disagreements with your landlord, so as both protect you while maintaining your relationship with your landlord in good and fair terms. As for example, landlords are not legally responsible for your losses, should they occur in case of theft or fire. An international student should strongly consider purchasing an inexpensive renter’s insurance for their household.

Landlords cannot refuse to rent to you because of your gender, sexual orientation, race, or national origin. If ever faced with a situation where your landlord discriminates or abuses your rights, call an attorney to have your claim voiced.

Precautions to take when applying to a driver license and purchasing a car

As an international student, whether you have your foreign driver license or none at all, you are eligible to apply for a state driver's license. In the event that you already have a foreign driver license, you can ask your government for an international driver license, applicable in the United States.

On another hand, should you wish to apply for a driver’s license, please visit any driver licensing office (DOL) and bring:

  • Valid proof of residency and identification.
  • Payment for $20 fee.
  • A Parental Authorization Affidavit, if you're under age 18. Those with neither can get their university supervisor to sign.
  • A signed application from your instructor, if you're currently enrolled in a driver's education class.
  • You must also pass a vision test.

After submitting your application with the DOL, take the written test at a designated testing center in your county. A permit is valid for one year. If it expires, you're allowed one renewal. Your passing grade on the written test is valid for two years.

If you own or operate a motor vehicle, you must purchase and always have in your possession proof of liability insurance. Should you fail to present a proof of liability insurance, you will be exposed to a $500 mandatory fine.

Be equally aware that in most cases, already used vehicles and most other used items do not carry any guarantees or warranties. As cautious attorneys, we recommend having an independent licensed mechanic thoroughly examine any used vehicle before making a purchase.

What to do if you are confronted by a police officer

In the U.S., there are federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies that protect the public. In your community, law enforcement officers are the police or sheriff. It is important to find out the phone number of the police station nearest you, and keep it for record, next to your telephone. Remember that U.S. police officers are there to protect you and your family from harm.

When/if confronted by a police officer for any particular reason, we urge our students to maintain a calm and polite attitude. You might encounter police officers that will not act properly, our immediate legal advice is to not argue with the designated officer but to contact your attorney, whether you believe you have been ill-treated or discriminated under no justifiable circumstances. An attorney will assist you accordingly and resolve your matter in court if required.

Author of this guide:

Was this guide helpful?