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My friend's in South Korea, and he would like to get training in the USA soon. He currently has a PPL in Korea and it is still valid.

I'm sure that he can start an IFR course in the USA and another country's PPL could be converted to an FAA PPL license.

First question:

I'm wondering if he can get flight training or just time-building with a non-converted license, i.e. just his Korean PPL?

Can he fly just with a CFI just as dual time? I'm sure that he cannot log PIC time if he doesn't have an FAA PPL. However, he would like to be familiar with USA PPL flying first before starting the IFR training.

Second question:

He will apply to the TSA first for time-building, but I'm not sure which category should be approved. There are category 3 (instrument rating) and category 1 or 2 (training event). Which one should he do?

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First, to act as PIC of a US aircraft in the USA, you must have an FAA pilot's certificate. Assuming that a South Korean PPL is ICAO-compliant then the easiest route for your friend is to 'convert' his PPL by requesting a foreign-based FAA private certificate. See this question for more information, but note the disadvantages mentioned in this answer.

Second, time-building using only a South Korean PPL really depends on what South Korea allows. It might be possible for your friend to rent an aircraft and hire a US commercial pilot to act as PIC while your friend flies it. In theory the FAA wouldn't care because your friend isn't acting as PIC, and the TSA wouldn't care because it isn't flight training. So if South Korea allows logging time flown abroad, then your friend could log it as 'Korean time'.

But I don't know if that's really practical, and your friend would have to pay the same money (or even more) that he would pay for instruction. It would be cheaper to just convert his PPL, do some ground school and a couple of orientation flights to learn about flying in the US, and then rent only the aircraft.

Finally, for instrument rating training your friend must have TSA approval. Instrument students are usually category 3, which is for aircraft less than 12,500lbs MTOW.

Overall, I'd say the simplest thing is to get both an FAA foreign-based private certificate (i.e. 'convert' the South Korean one) and TSA approval for instrument training. Then your friend has complete flexibility to fly whatever solo and training time he needs.

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Except perhaps for a US government blacklist of terrorist countries, the US honors licenses of other countries (foreign GA pilots enter US airspace daily i.e. Russia, Canada, Bahamas & Mexico). If your friends South Korea PPL is current, and he can speak and understand English, also has no known medical condition that would disqualify him, within the US he may act as PIC of any aircraft he is rated for.

Foreign pilots must pass background checks before they are allowed to receive training. There are certain other requirements and a few exceptions (like ground training). See this AOPA article for all the specifics.

The foreign pilot prerequisites before training can start are:

  1. Verify that you have an appropriate visa
  2. Notify the flight school that you want to begin taking flight training
  3. Ensure that you have a valid email address
  4. Create a login account at TSA’s AFSP website
  5. Apply for training on TSA's AFSP website
  6. Wait for the flight school to acknowledge your training request
  7. Pay the nonrefundable $130 processing fee per instructions emailed to you
  8. Look for a “Preliminary Approval” email from TSA.
  9. Submit fingerprints to TSA per the instructions emailed to you
  10. Wait for TSA to notify you and the flight school of its decision
  11. Once you have received TSA approval, START FLIGHT TRAINING!
  12. On your first day of training, the flight school must take your picture
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