Navigating Primary and Secondary Education as an F-1 Visa Holder or Undocumented Immigrant

Undocumented students are guaranteed the right to a public education, though this could be jeopardized by detainment and deportation.

Receiving Primary and Secondary Education in the U.S., F-1 Visa Holders

Public School

The F-1 visa is designed for international students to obtain academic (rather than vocational) education in the U.S. as non-immigrants. (1) While the F-1 visa is often associated with higher education, it is also useful for international students who want to attend primary or secondary school here. (1)

That being said, F-1 students who are looking to attend a public primary or secondary school face certain limitations. For instance, an F-1 visa cannot be obtained by international students who want to go to public primary school in the U.S. (2) This is because international students must attend public schools certified by the Student and Exchange Visitors Program (SEVP), and public primary (K-8) schools are not eligible for that certification. (2)

Dependents of those holding an F-1 or M-1 visa are exempt and may attend public primary through secondary school, even if those schools are not SEVP-certified. (4)

For secondary education, international students can get an F-1 visa to study at a SEVP-certified public school, for up to 12 months. (4) However, if the student entered secondary school with a different visa, then that does not detract from the 12 month limit attached to the F-1 visa. (4)

In contrast to American citizens and immigrants, these students are required to pay the full, unsubsidized per capita cost of attending the public school. (2) This tuition can range from $3,000 to $10,000 and is listed on the prospective student’s Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.” (2) 

If that cost is not present on the Form I-20, they will need to contact the Designated School Official (DSO), who assists F-1 students, to learn the cost and obtain a signature affirming they’ve paid. (2) 

While a student can be sponsored by an individual or external organization to cover the cost, the fee cannot be waived by the school and must be paid prior to applying for the F-1 visa. (2) 

Private School

By contrast, private schools are not subjected to these same laws. (2) Private primary schools may be verified by SEVP, meaning that an international student can go to a private K-8 school in the U.S. with an F-1 visa. (3) 

Another perk of choosing private school is that there is no set limitation on how long a student can study in the U.S. (3) Therefore, international students who attend private school do not need to return after 12 months in the U.S. and can receive a complete K-12 education. (3) 

Alternatively, if an international student decides to return to public school, they will be required to adhere to those associated laws. (2) 

Given that international students need to pay to attend either private or public school, private school may appear to be the better choice. However, depending on the state of residence, private school tuition may be drastically more than public school tuition. 

In Georgia, the average tuition for private primary schools is $9,110 and $11,861 for private secondary schools, according to Private School Review. (5) Given that public schools will cost from $3,000 to $10,000 for an international student, Georgia private schools fall at the top end of that range. (2) 

Receiving Primary and Secondary Education in the U.S., Undocumented Immigrants

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyer vs. Doe that undocumented children are entitled to the same K-12 education that American citizens and documented residents have access to. (7) They are similarly obligated to attend school until they reach a mandated age. (8)

If a child is undocumented, they cannot be denied admission into a public school and are guaranteed the same privileges. (8) This includes the ability to apply for free or reduced breakfast and lunch programs, even without providing a social security number or sharing immigration status. (8)

Additionally, employees of the public school do not need to disclose that a student is known to be undocumented to immigration authorities. (7) That being said, if a student’s parent(s) is detained, they may struggle to continue their education and access resources. (7) 

Therefore, while undocumented students may access public education without cost unlike F-1 students, they face risks of deportation posed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)


  • F-1 visa : allows international students to enter the United States as a full-time student at a SEVP-certified academic institution (i.e. primary, secondary or higher education)
  • SEVP : a Department of Homeland Security program that maintains SEVIS and approves and oversees schools that enroll F or M students 
  • SEVIS : a web-based system that contains information on international nonimmigrant and exchange students 
  • Primary school : includes kindergarten through 8th grade
  • Secondary school : includes 9th grade through 12th grade 
  • Designated School Official (DSO) :  a school employee who oversees F-1 or M-1 students 
  • Sample Form I-20 
  • I-901 SEVIS fee : a fee paid to SEVP to cover costs of maintaining SEVIS in order to receive an F-1 or M-1 visa 
  • Sample Form I-94
  • Plyer vs. Doe : a Supreme Court case that guarantees public education for undocumented children in the U.S.
  • Social security number : nine-digit identification number issued to U.S. citizens and legal residents 
Works Cited 
  1. “Student Visa.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State,
  2. “Foreign Students in Public Schools.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State,
  3. “Kindergarten to Grade 12 Schools.” Study in the States , Department of Homeland Security,
  4. “Grade 9 to Grade 12 Public Schools.” Study in the States, Department of Homeland Security,
  5. “Average Private School Tuition Cost.” Private School Review , Private School Review ,
  6. “Your Guide to Studying in the States F-1 Kindergarten through Grade 12.” Study in the States, Department of Homeland Security ,
  7. “Undocumented Students.” National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals,
  8. “Immigrant Student’s Rights to Attend Public Schools.” Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction,

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