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I was issued an F1 visa (valid thru 2019) about a year ago to attend grad school in the US. But I have eventually decided not to attend that program and have come back to my home country in Asia ever since (completed all the steps with the international student office). And I now intend to participate in an academic conference in the US.

I am not sure if I can enter the US with my previous visa or do I need to apply for a B1 instead. And if I do apply for a B1, can I be exempt from the interview and just mail my passport to the consulate (since I live kind of far away even from the closest consulate and I will have to travel to another city and stay there for 3 days just for the interview and I'm trying to avoid all the unnecessary cost of time and money )?

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    You're out-of-status on your F-1, even if it hasn't been invalidated, so yes, you need to apply for a B-1. I would imagine that you will have to go for an interview, but I don't know for certain.
    – mkennedy
    Jun 15, 2017 at 18:29

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I am not sure if I can enter the US with my previous visa or do I need to apply for a B1 instead.

Yes, you have to request an new B1 visa.

Typically your F1 goes accompanied by your I-20 (document provided by your university) that you need to show at the border. Even though your visa was not invalidated, your I-20 for sure is. Unfortunately, I don't think you hold any chance to make it through the border, and if you do, it will be a risk situation for you.

More info here: Status and Nonimmigrant Visa Violations

And if I do apply for a B1, can I be exempt from the interview and just mail my passport to the consulate

I am afraid that the requirement of an interview will not be waived due to the fact that you had a previous visa.

The Drop-off service apparently seem to require that you apply for the same kind of visa;

"You must be applying for the exact same type of visa. For example, you had a B visa and wish to apply for another B visa"

as you can read more carefully here: Applying for a Visa without an Interview (in the case that your country is China), although I believe similar policies will be applied for neighbouring countries.

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