MIT policy regarding international student visa delays

February 6, 2003



Graduate and Undergraduate Administrators
Graduate Officers
Department Heads
Laboratory and Center Directors
Administrative Officers


Isaac M. Colbert
Dean for Graduate Students

As we are all aware, recent changes in national policy with regard to student visas has had some impact on our graduate and undergraduate international students. MIT, along with colleges and universities nationwide, is now adjusting to new reporting requirements, and international students are increasingly subjected to closer scrutiny as they apply for visa certification to come to MIT initially or to re-enter the US to continue their degree programs.

In most cases the added scrutiny had added a few days or a few weeks to the time needed to process and approve the visa application. Even this much of a delay, however, can create administrative and academic challenges for the department and the student. In only a very few cases so far students have been subjected to the more extensive “administrative review” by the State Department, resulting in a delay of indeterminate length while national security concerns are addressed with regard to the individual.

The attached document was approved by the Dean’s Group, a sub-group of the Academic Council. Its objective is to provide some initial guidance about how departments might proceed when a student has been delayed by the visa process. Generally, longer delays (past 60 days) create more serious concerns.

In the end, it will continue to be the responsibility of the faculty to consider each student’s situation on its merits and make decisions that make the most sense. Some circumstances will be easy to address using common administrative mechanisms and applying some level of forbearance for brief delays. Other circumstances will undoubtedly call for harder decisions about the ongoing viability of the student within the graduate program.

If we continue to be lucky, there will be relatively few students who will be challenged by the uncertainty of “administrative review.” For those who are, however, we will need to bring to bear all of the customary sensitivity and caring that have characterized our collective concern for the welfare of our international students.


In the event that an international student is delayed at the US border for an extended visa review process, department may want some guidance about how to proceed. A visa delay of days or weeks may be triggered by anything that a border agent deems to be unusual, “suspicious” or otherwise warranting further scrutiny. In most cases, the delay may be for a few days or weeks.

If the student was born in or retains citizenship in one of the (currently) twenty countries whose nationals are subject to “Special Registration,” or if the immigration officer sends paperwork to the US State Department for “Administrative Review” for any reason, the delay may extend for months while the US State Department and homeland security agencies conduct extensive security reviews.

Such delays create a number of immediate issues for the student and the department. The following policy and practice ideas should be considered, as faculty seek to resolve these problems in the best interest of the student and the department.


For relatively brief delays of a few days to a few weeks, faculty might take advantage of existing policies and practices, making minor adjustments to accommodate individual circumstances. The following are not exhaustive of possibilities but should suggest ways in which a department might seek to mitigate the delay.

Academic Courses

Late completion of course work and/or some project assignments can be negotiated individually with faculty. If end-of-term assignments are involved, departments might use the “O” (excused absence) grade more readily for international students. However, faculty need to be apprised of each case and should be encouraged to be lenient with students who are enmeshed in visa complications and who have otherwise performed well in their courses and programs.

For visa delays at the beginning of a term, students should communicate with the relevant instructor, with additional guidance from the departmental graduate officer, to determine the viability of starting course work late. If recovering lost ground is deemed unworkable, then the student might be given flexibility to take the course(s) later in the degree program. This would be an especially important consideration regarding courses required for degree eligibility.

Doctoral Qualifying Exams

The clock can be stopped for doctoral thesis examinations, so that the student may recover lost preparation time once the visa has been obtained. The student might be given a postponement of at least as long as the extended visa review period, or faculty might consider rescheduling the exam in the following term.

Thesis Defense

If the student is returning to submit and defend the dissertation or to submit a Master’s Thesis, and is delayed for visa review, then the tuition clock would start when the student arrives on campus. Departments should certify that date to the GSO and the ISO. The tuition adjustment would then reflect the elapsed time to acceptance of the thesis document. Effectively, this would continue to give the delayed student access to the one-week or two-week minimum tuition charge for Master’s and doctorates, respectively. Late fees would not be charged.

Registration Status and Fees

Students delayed for 60 or fewer days would be registered retroactively for the term and without late fees, via the standard petition process. The Office of Registration will need to coordinate closely with the International Students Office to minimize INS reporting problems attendant to the retroactive action.

Availability of Housing

Incoming students who have on-campus housing should make individual arrangements with the Housing Office regarding missing rental payments, should any occur because of the delay. In most cases, amounts in arrears can be recovered over a period of billings. Departments or individual faculty wishing to do so would be free to assist with such obligations.

No assurances can be offered for students who have off-campus leases. Again, however, departments that are able to help in such situations may consider using discretionary resources to do so.

Research Appointments and Funding

In most cases of a relatively short delay, an RA appointment can be adjusted to reflect the student’s actual start date for the term. This is normal practice for students who start late for other reasons.

Where publication deadlines, conference presentations or related time-sensitive concerns are affected by the visa delay, faculty may need to make alternative arrangements to meet these obligations. Care should be taken to ensure that the student’s intellectual property rights are protected and his/her contribution to the work is recognized.

Teaching Appointments

Courses, studios and related academic activities cannot reasonably be delayed, if the returning or new student is delayed more than a few days beyond the start of class. In most cases, the student will then lose the TA appointment. Certainly, departments will make reasonable efforts to find another funding source, but no assurances can be made.


Delays beyond 60 days will create significant academic, research and administrative concerns. Just as in all other matters related to their graduate students, departments and programs have the responsibility to make judgments about financial arrangements and about the continued viability of the delayed student’s academic and research programs. In most cases, faculty will want to seek reasonable ways to help the student complete the degree, but an extended visa delay may not make that possible.

Admittance and Academic Coursework

New students who are delayed for more than 60 days might be encouraged not to begin their graduate studies at MIT until at least the following semester. In some cases, even this much of a delay will be detrimental to the student’s ability to assimilate into the department, to find a research supervisor, or/and to have access to required coursework. It may be best to counsel such students to delay matriculation until the following Fall Term.

Some departments and programs may not wish to extend a guarantee of re-admittance. In such cases, the student would be given consideration for admittance the following year; and this would need to be made clear.

Research Projects and Funding

Faculty would not be able to put research projects (and RA funding) on hold to accommodate an extended visa delay with an uncertain end-date. Rather, the likelihood is that the student would not be able to return to the project and must then seek another research project.

Thesis in Absentia

For students whose delay occurs late in the thesis project, it may be possible for the faculty supervisor or/and department to consider arrangements for off-site supervision of the project. If this can be done, then the student could be registered for “Thesis in Absentia” status. However, this may not be possible or desirable in most circumstances. If the student cannot obtain visa clearance for an extended period, then it may not be possible to complete the thesis at MIT.


While the On-Campus Housing Office is likely to make reasonable efforts to help students who are delays beyond sixty days, no assurances can be made about availability or rooming arrangements. Situations will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but students cannot expect a priority or a guarantee of housing.

Access to Health Care

Once the student arrives after a lengthy delay, he/she should contact the Bursar’s Office and the Student Health Services Office in the Medical Department to make arrangements regarding payment of fees. Departments may want to consider assisting the student by paying some or all of these costs on behalf of the student, as seems appropriate.