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I entered the US in 2018 with a valid I-20 and valid F-1 (exp 2023) but gave up my program and left during Covid in the middle of 2020.

I came back to the US in the middle of 2021 this year on an ESTA visa waiver from Australia to visit some friends, and now decided to want to resume studying in the US on my old F-1. I applied and have been granted a new I-20 from my US school.

I plan to leave the US before my ESTA expires (after ~85 days of staying) and re-entering the US essentially immediately on my F-1 with valid I-20.

My question is will I be able to do this, or will the long stay of my ESTA raise concerns with immigration in conjunction with my immediate planned re-entry on a new visa?

And do I have to travel all the way back to my home country (Australia) in order to come back in on a different visa, or could I travel to a closer country like Canada and reset that way?

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This is all legitimate. You might arouse the suspicions of the immigration officer that you are trying to do something deceptive, but if you can show that you haven't violated the terms of your VWP admission and that you are a legitimate student then you should be fine.

You can go to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean to request readmission to the US in F-1 status, though there is much misunderstanding about the law surrounding this, so you can probably find people who say you have to leave North America.

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  • by "there is much misunderstanding surrounding this" do you mean to imply that this method might not be allowed as you assume, or that others often assume incorrectly that you cannot even though you can.
    – Dale C
    Nov 16 '21 at 10:51
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    @DaleC it's definitely allowable under the statutes and regulations governing the VWP and F visas. The VWP has a provision that allows the US to readmit VWP travelers for the balance of the initial 90 day period after a brief trip to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. That doesn't prevent them from admitting someone in a new different status, but people tend to overgeneralize the rule with overbroad statements like "once admitted under the VWP you must leave North America within 90 days." Imprecise statements like this lead people to misunderstand the technical operation of the VWP provision.
    – phoog
    Nov 16 '21 at 11:03

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