The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in difficult financial situations for some F-1 students. Here we share some possible options of financial resources that some students may be eligible for depending on their specific situations.
International students and scholars are welcome to receive scholarship or grant funds – this is not a problem from an immigration perspective. There will likely be tax documents to complete for any awards you may receive. If you have questions about the tax documents, please follow up directly with the organization awarding you the funds.
You are welcome to use any of these options that you are eligible for. If an award asks if you have completed a “FAFSA,” please note that only US citizens or permanent residents are eligible for FAFSA, which is a form of US government-subsidized financial aid for students.
UMBC’s “Stay Black and Gold Fund”
UMBC is promoting its “Stay Black and Gold Fund” for current students, which involves a short application and can possibly award one-time grants for $500-$1,000.
Read more about eligibility, what expenses can be covered, and how to apply here: https://studentaffairs.umbc.edu/stay-black-gold-emergency-fund/
UMBC’s Student Business Services Office offers flexibility with late payments
UMBC’s SBS Office has the following information posted on their website:
“UMBC is closely monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. As the situation continues to change, our top priority is the health and safety of our community.
We understand the current situation presents many challenges. As such, we will not be charging late payment fees for at least the months of March and April. In addition, delinquent accounts will not be referred to Maryland Central Collections for March and April.”
As the situation develops, please check their website for updates on months after April.
UMBC Retriever Essentials
This UMBC organization gathers donated food items and toiletries that are available for free to the UMBC community. Please see specific COVID-19 information on their website here: https://retrieveressentials.umbc.edu/
This resource connects individuals to programs that address access to essential human services, such as food security and housing. Many services, but not all, are open to international students. https://211md.org/
Consider taking a semester off, or enrolling part-time, for mental health
Some students might want to consider a “Medical Reduced Courseload” to take a part-time semester or a semester off, while remaining legally in the US. A Medical Reduced Courseload is an immigration function that allows part-time or no enrollment if a student has a medical reason supported by a doctor. This includes both physical or mental health. The current environment may be causing much stress or anxiety, among other challenges, to some students, and a mental health professional can help students develop tools and resources for processing difficult situations and feelings. Lack of financial security can lead to many difficult problems, and students in this situation are encouraged to consider the support that mental health counseling can provide.
Students physically in Maryland can work with UMBC’s Counseling Center for support in these difficult times, at no cost, and if the Counselor feels that the student’s situation warrants a reduced courseload, they can make this recommendation. Students are also welcome to see a counselor of their choice outside of UMBC for this purpose as well, as long as the counselor is legally licensed in the state or country where they are practicing.
Consider taking online courses from home
As UMBC courses are almost entirely online in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, with future semesters to be determined, students facing financial difficulties might consider taking their courses remotely from home (including outside of the US), to benefit from the cost of living savings and the support of family. During COVID, an F-1 student can keep their immigration record active if they enroll full-time, even if they are outside of the US. This does not impact CPT or OPT eligibility.
International Students and the CARES ACT Stimulus Checks – am I eligible?
Some international students may be eligible to receive the “CARES ACT” stimulus checks of $1,200 per person that earns less than $75,000 per year.
Eligibility is based on tax status – only international students that are “residents for tax purposes” are eligible to receive the stimulus checks. Recipients also need to have an SSN.
The process to determine your tax status is called the Substantial Presence Test. You would take this test as part of the Sprintax program that is provided to you by UMBC to complete your tax return each year. In general, for international students, you would be in the “non-resident alien” (NRA) tax category until you have been in the US for at least 5 years, at which point you become a “resident for tax purposes.”
There is no negative impact on current or future immigration applications if you are eligible to receive a check – you are welcome to receive the funds.
This article summarizes this option well.
Unemployment Benefits for those working full-time on OPT or the STEM OPT Extension
International students that are working full-time and lose their job through no fault of their own can choose to apply for unemployment insurance, and receive additional funds for a specific period of time. There is no negative impact on current or future immigration applications if you are eligible to receive unemployment benefits – you are welcome to receive the funds.
Unemployment rules vary by state, so you will need to research the program in the state you are living in to learn if your state would consider you to be eligible to apply, and to find specific directions to apply.
This article gives additional details about international individuals’ ability to apply.
Economic Hardship Work Permission from USCIS
The government agency USCIS offers a kind of work permission called “Economic Hardship,” where international students can apply for a work permit if they have a sudden and unexpected interruption to their funding source. If approved, the student is issued a work permit for one year (or until their I-20 end date, whichever is shorter), and can work part-time during the semesters and full-time during summer and winter breaks for any employer they like. USCIS has not changed any rules related to this program for COVID-19 – there still needs to be a documentable interruption to your original source of funds.
The application costs $410 and typically takes between 3-5 months to be approved. Students must have been in the US and enrolled full-time for at least 2 semesters to be eligible.
The most important part of the application is that the student must prove that there has been a sudden and unexpected interruption, through no fault of their own, to their original source of funding that they provided when they first got their UMBC I-20.
For example, if a student shows family funds or a loan as proof of finances to get their I-20, then loses an on-campus job, this does NOT make them eligible for Economic Hardship, as the interruption is not to the original source of their proof of funding.
Alternatively, a student who shows family funds to get their I-20, and whose parents have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, WOULD be eligible to apply for Economic Hardship, as the interruption is to the original source of funding. Documentation would be required to prove that the family members had lost their jobs in this example.
In general, we would strongly recommend considering CPT as an alternative way to work off-campus and earn money. CPT does require that the work be related to your degree, so does restrict what kinds of jobs you can do, but can be approved quickly through the IES Office. Economic Hardship requires a $410 application fee, a lot of work to get the documentation together, and waiting 3-5 months for a potential approval. Economic Hardship is also difficult to have approved, and is often denied.
If you believe you have a potential case for Economic Hardship, please contact us at email@example.com to discuss your case in more detail.
Special Student Relief – no changes based on COVID-19
You may have heard of a program for international students called Special Student Relief. Through this program, students from specific countries that have experienced a natural disaster or other large-scale crisis are given the opportunity to apply for a work permit and have additional off-campus work options. At this time, no additional countries have been added due to COVID-19, and no countries currently have this program actively in place.
More information can be found here: https://www.nafsa.org/professional-resources/browse-by-interest/special-student-relief-f-1-students-essential-concepts