What You Need to Know Before Taking Online Classes as an International Student

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Want to study abroad but can't afford the expense? Studying on a visa in the U.S. and considering online courses? We offer some tips that can help international students make the most of a virtual education.

Online Classes for International Students

With the rise of our global culture, international borders are becoming less and less defined - at least online. That's good news for students whose chosen college or university is too far away to travel to. If you're interested in virtual study as an international student, we have a few tips that can help make it easier and some resources that can give you a better experience too.

Online Classes in the U.S.

American schools offer a variety of programs to help students gain the knowledge and experience they need for a successful career. However, if you find that you need classes that are only available online, want to take a course not offered at your university, or broaden your horizons a bit, there are ways to do that without endangering the status of your visa.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators and Flywire offer these tips for understanding immigration status. You can use them to ensure that you're following the rules and maintaining your legal immigration status.

  • Verify the type of visa you have. F1 students must maintain full-time student status. If your online class doesn't meet this standard, make sure you have enough credits through your school for it to remain valid.
  • Know your immigration status. Certain immigrants can choose to study, or not, and it has no impact on their status. For others, particularly those in the United States on certain tourist visas, enrolling could be a violation of their immigration status and lead to serious trouble.
  • Keep paperwork up to date. If an online course leads to change in major or enrollment status, immigration documents and your visa should reflect that change, or you could be in violation of the law.
  • Know how many courses you can take. Students on an F-1 visa may only take one online course towards their degree requirements per semester. J-1 students must enroll in courses with classroom components, which most virtual classes do not have. M-1 students cannot count online courses towards their degree programs. Most other students are exempt from these restrictions.

Understanding the type of visa you have and its restrictions is key to keeping your status current and avoiding legal trouble.

Online Classes at Overseas Colleges

If you want to take advantage of courses from a university outside of the U.S., whether as an American citizen or a foreign national, there are many ways you can do so online. These virtual classes allow you to pursue the education you want and avoid the expense of traveling and living abroad.


With the rise in popularity of online learning, even venerable institutions like the University of Oxford are offering students the chance to study in a virtual setting. These online classes provide insight into a subject from a new perspective and allow students to make connections with peers from around the world.

While this can be a huge benefit for students who couldn't otherwise afford to go to these locations in person, as U.S. News & World Report points out, there are some serious points to consider before committing to an international distance learning program.

  • Acceptance: If you plan on taking online courses as part of your current program, you'll need to verify that your current school will accept the credits. You should also check to see that your government views the degree program and the school as valid. Some governments, to keep tuition dollars within the country, will limit student access to foreign platforms. These limitations can leave students with a tuition bill but no degree.
  • Time differences: If you are taking a course from a school on the other side of the world, group work could be an issue. Before you enroll, decide whether you'll be able to keep up with class discussions and projects that take place at two in the morning.
  • Language barriers: If the course isn't offered in your native tongue, will you be able to make the most of it? Make certain you can communicate with the instructor and your classmates - otherwise, taking the class is pointless.
  • Cultural barriers: Open discussions and video chats can be a great way to connect online learners. But if you aren't well versed in a country's culture, it can be hard to connect. Immerse yourself in a local cultural group or look for online videos to help you understand subtle references. Don't be afraid to ask questions if something doesn't make sense.

Learning abroad can be an eye-opening experience that can provide you with an excellent education and broaden your horizons. But the time, expense, and hardship involved in leaving one's family behind to do so can make it prohibitive. Online courses can help to mitigate those factors and allow students to gain a new appreciation for another culture without ever leaving the comfort and security of home.

If you've considered taking courses as an international student, do your research with websites like Study.com and InternationalStudent.com. Make sure you understand how the process works, how it can impact your residency status, and whether you can expect to receive credit for your course before taking the time and assuming the additional expense to enroll.

By Patricia Willis
February 2017
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