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Spotlight on Foreign Students and Exchange Visitors

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Spotlight on Foreign Students and Exchange Visitors

The U.S. education system has been attracting international students for decades. In the past 10 years alone, admissions of foreign students and visitors on educational and cultural exchange programs have risen approximately 46 percent, reaching almost one million in 2005.

This Spotlight describes the foreign student and exchange visitor population in the United States and highlights recent policy developments affecting them. The data used in this Spotlight are from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Institute of International Education (see Special Note for details).

Note: All yearly data is for the government's fiscal year (October 1 through September 30).

Click on the bullet points below for more information:


Foreign students and exchange visitors are generally admitted to the United States in one of three nonimmigrant visa categories: academic student (F visa), vocational student (M visa), or exchange visitor (J visa).
U.S. immigration law stipulates three categories of visas for foreign students. Foreign students who wish to come to the United States to pursue full-time study at an academic institution (e.g., a college, university, or high school) or participate in a language training program can apply for an F-1 academic student visa.

Foreign students who wish to attend a full-time program at a vocational or other nonacademic institution can apply for an M-1 vocational student visa.

According to the Border Commuter Student Act of 2002, certain nationals of Canada and Mexico who commute to the United States for either full- or part-time study can apply for an F-3 academic student visa or an M-3 vocational student visa.

The "J" exchange visitor program is designed to promote the interchange of persons, knowledge, and skills in the fields of education, arts, and sciences.

The J-1 visa category encompasses 13 categories: students (university/college and secondary), physicians, au pairs, camp counselors, summer worker/travel visitors, trainees, government visitors, international visitors, professors, research scholars, short-term scholars, specialists, and teachers.

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The spouses and children of foreign students and exchange visitors are allowed to accompany primary applicants for the duration of their study or visit in the United States.
As part of U.S. visa policy, the spouses and children of foreign students and exchange visitors can enter the country by obtaining an F-2 visa if the main applicant is an F-1, an M-2 if the main applicant is an M-1, and a J-2 if the main applicant is a J-1.

The law does not permit the holders of F-2, M-2, and J-2 visas to study or work in the United States unless these foreign nationals obtain their own student or work visas.

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U.S. immigration law permits foreign students and exchange visitors to adjust their visa status, but the requirements vary.
While most return home, F-1s are permitted to adjust their visa status to other visa categories. These include categories for family-sponsored immigrants, employment-based immigrants, and fiancés of U.S. citizens. M-1s and J-1s may also adjust their status but must meet stricter requirements in most cases.

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In 2003, DHS implemented a new tracking system to monitor all international students and exchange visitors.
On August 1, 2003, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented a program to collect, maintain, and manage information about all foreign students and exchange visitors during their stay in the United States. The program, called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), is used to track and monitor schools and programs, students, exchange visitors, and their dependents throughout the duration of approved participation in the U.S. education system.

SEVIS was mandated in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996; the full implementation date of August 1, 2003, was set forth in the Patriot Act of 2001 and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002. All schools and related academic institutions must enter and regularly update student information electronically into a central database that the government can access.

As of March 31, 2006, 8,471 SEVIS-certified schools reported having 611,581 foreign F-1 and M-1 students who were registered and enrolled in classes. Similarly, 1,433 SEVIS-approved exchange visitor programs reported having 154,471 J-1 exchange visitors.

(For more information on SEVIS, see Policy Beats from August 2003 and February 2003).

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There were nearly one million foreign student and exchange visitor admissions to the United States in 2005.
In 2005, there were 972,337 foreign student and exchange visitor admissions under the F-1 (621,178), F-3 (39), M-1 (8,378), and J-1 (342,742) visas.

Altogether there were 1,046,421 foreign student and exchange visitor admissions, including spouses and children, in 2005.

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Foreign student and exchange visitor admissions have risen by approximately 46 percent in the past decade.
In 1996, foreign student and exchange visitor admissions (including family members) totaled 716,113. By 2005, 1,046,421 admissions were recorded, an increase of 46.1 percent. Although there were declines in student admissions between 2001 and 2004, the overall admission trend has been upward (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Total Foreign Student and Exchange Visitor Admissions, 1996 to 2005
Notes: *The chart shows the admission of foreign students and exchange visitors and their families. Source: Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2005: Data on Temporary Admissions (Nonimmigrants), Table 26.

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Student and exchange visitor admissions declined seven percent between 2001 and 2002.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. immigration system has faced intense scrutiny. The effects on temporary admissions of foreign students and exchange visitors are evident in Figure 1. After a continuous and significant rise in student admissions from 1996 to 2001, admission rates fell by a total of more than 73,000 from 2001 to 2002, representing a seven percent decrease.

This decline is consistent, however, with the overall decline in temporary admissions (15 percent) between 2001 and 2002.

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Foreign students and exchange visitors represented about three percent of total temporary admissions in 2005.
Foreign students and exchange visitors, along with their spouses and children, composed 3.3 percent of all 32 million temporary admissions in 2005 (see the Spotlight on Temporary Admissions of Nonimmigrants to the United States for more on this category).

Foreign student and exchange visitors have maintained roughly the same share of temporary admissions over the last decade, fluctuating between 2.9 percent in 1996 and 3.8 percent in 2002.

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The top three countries of origin for foreign students are South Korea, Japan, and India.
Foreign students come to the United States from nearly 200 countries. Citizens of South Korea (97,242), Japan (76,305), and India (54,750) made up 34.4 percent of all 663,958 F- and M-visa students admitted in 2005; family members are included in these figures.

Admissions from these three countries — together with those from China (40,914), Taiwan (39,485), and Canada (26,149) — accounted for 50.4 percent of all entries of foreign students and their families in 2005 (see Table 1).

With 389,063 foreign student admissions, Asian countries accounted for 58.6 percent of all foreign student admissions. The remaining student admissions were from the Americas (130,225 or 19.6 percent), Europe (114,116 or 17.2 percent), Africa (20,608 or 3.1 percent), and Oceania (5,279 or 0.8 percent).


Table 1. Top-10 Countries of Nationality for Foreign Students and Exchange Visitors, 2005
Country of origin F-1 F-2 F-3 M-1 M-2 Foreign students and their families Country of origin J-1 J-2 Exchange visitors and their families
Korea, South 86,680 10,100 - 405 57 97,242 Germany 28,368 1,253 29,621
Japan 72,203 2,994 - 1,091 17 76,305 Russia 21,895 530 22,425
India 52,793 1,668 - 261 28 54,750 United Kingdom** 20,570 949 21,519
China* 37,242 3,311 - 347 14 40,914 Korea, South 13,211 7,302 20,513
Taiwan 38,069 1,278 - 131 7 39,485 Poland 18,932 362 19,294
Canada 24,993 624 6 494 32 26,149 France*** 16,241 1,156 17,397
Mexico 23,594 1,370 27 489 88 25,568 Japan 12,115 5,168 17,283
United Kingdom** 16,388 552 - 1,155 45 18,140 Brazil 14,464 956 15,420
Turkey 15,206 722 - 19 D 15,947 China* 10,702 2,958 13,660
Germany 14,020 341 - 457 13 14,831 Ireland 9,596 172 9,768
Other countries 239,990 10,796 6 3,529 306 254,627 Other countries 176,648 18,915 195,563
Total 621,178 33,756 39 8,378 607 663,958 Total 342,742 39,721 382,463
Notes: *China includes the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Macau; ** United Kingdom includes the United Kingdom, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, Montserrat, Pitcairn Island, St. Helena, and Turks and Caicos Islands; *** France includes France, French Guiana, French Polynesia, French Southern and Antarctic Lands, Guadeloupe, Martinique, New Caledonia, Reunion, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and Wallis and Futuna.
Source: Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2005: Data on Temporary Admissions (Nonimmigrants), Supplemental Table 1. Nonimmigrant Admissions (I-94 Only) by Class of Admission and Country of Citzenship: Fiscal Year 2005

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Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom are the top three countries of origin for exchange visitors.
Unlike foreign students, most exchange visitors are European, with Germany responsible for the most admissions (29,621), followed by Russia (22,425), and the United Kingdom (21,519) (see Table 1). Together, these three countries accounted for 19.2 percent of all exchange visitor admissions in 2005. The top 10 countries of origin accounted for 48.9 percent of all exchange visitor admissions.

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More than half a million foreign students were enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher learning in the 2004-2005 academic year.
According to the Institute for International Education, an independent nonprofit organization, 565,039 foreign students were enrolled in U.S. higher-learning institutions during the 2004-2005 school year.

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Foreign students accounted for four percent of the total student enrollment in the United States in the 2004-2005 academic year.
Nationally, foreign students made up four percent of the country's total student enrollment. As shown in Table 2, the top-15 host institutions of foreign students have a higher percentage of foreign students, ranging from 8.1 percent (4,140) at the Ohio State University to 22.8 percent at the University of South California (6,846).


Table 2. Top-15 Host Institutions of Foreign Students, 2004-2005
    Foreign students
Institution State N Share of total
student enrollment (%)
University of Southern California CA 6,846 22.8
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign IL 5,560 13.8
University of Texas at Austin TX 5,333 10.6
Columbia University NY 5,278 22.2
New York University NY 5,140 13.5
Purdue University, Main Campus IN 4,921 12.7
University of Michigan - Ann Arbor MI 4,632 11.9
Boston University MA 4,541 15.3
University of California - Los Angeles CA 4,217 11.2
The Ohio State University Main Campus OH 4,140 8.1
SUNY - University at Buffalo NY 3,965 14.5
University of Wisconsin - Madison WI 3,941 9.6
Texas A&M University TX 3,721 8.3
University of Pennsylvania PA 3,712 15.9
University of Maryland College Park MD 3,646 10.4
All institutions   565,039 4.0
Source: Institute of International Education, Open Doors 2005. Available online.

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Additional Resources

DHS's Office of Immigration Statistics: Data on nonimmigrant admissions

Department of State Visa Office

Definitions of terms can be found on the website of the Office of Immigration Statistics.

Information about the types of temporary visitors in the United States can be found on the U.S. Department of State website.

Institute of International Education

Student and Exchange Visitor Program