*Updated February 4, 2020
Anyone who wants to study full time in the United States but holds a non-U.S. passport will need a student visa. (The Visa Waiver Program is only applicable to citizens or nationals of participating countries who travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less.)
Depending on the nature of the study, you will need either an F-1 or M-1 student visa. The former is for academic students, while the latter is for vocational students.
So, how do you know which one you need? Take a look at the chart below to help you determine the visa you need.
In this article, we will only address relevant questions regarding the F-1 student visa. If you need information on an M-1 student visa, click here.
A. What is an F-1 student visa?
The F-1 student visa is for academic students only. Anyone with an F-1 student visa may enter the United States as a full-time student at an accredited college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic high school, private elementary school, or other academic institution, or in a language-training program.
Note: You cannot get an F-1 student visa unless you are enrolled in a program or course of study where you can earn credit towards a degree, diploma, or certificate, and your school must be authorized by the U.S. government to accept international students.
B. What must you do before you apply for an F-1 student visa?
Before you apply for an F-1 student visa, you need to comply with certain requirements.
1. You must first apply, and be accepted by, a school approved by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Once you are accepted by the U.S. school you plan to attend, you will be enrolled in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
2. Once you are enrolled in SEVIS, you will receive Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status — For Academic and Language Students,” from your school. The Form I-20 must be signed both by your designated school official (DSO) and yourself (or by your parents, if you are under 18 years of age).
Note: Keep the Form I-20 somewhere safe, as you will need it for various purposes, including: applying for an F-1 student visa; entering the United States; maintaining your F-1 status; and application for a driver’s license or Social Security Number.
3. Once you have the Form I-20, you must pay the SEVIS I-901 Fee. Keep the receipt, as you will need to show proof of your payment during your visa interview.
Note: If you intend to bring your spouse and/or dependent children (unmarried under 21) with you to the United States so they can live here while you study, they must get their own Form I-20s but they don’t have to pay the SEVIS fee.
C. How do you apply for an F-1 student visa?
Applications for an F-1 student visa involve several steps. Check the individual instructions for each embassy or consulate before you apply, as rules vary depending on the location.
1. Complete online visa application. You must first complete Form DS-160, “Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application form,” and submit it electronically. You will be required to upload your photo as well. Your photo must match the required format.
Note: When you have completed the Form DS-160, print the barcode page that will serve as confirmation of your application and keep it somewhere safe. Also, if you intend to bring your spouse and/or dependent children, they will need to complete their own Form DS-160.
2. Schedule a visa interview appointment. Generally, you must schedule an appointment in the country that you live in. While you may schedule your interview at any U.S. Embassy or Consulate, the reality is that it may be difficult for you to get a visa in any other country. You should get specific instructions for the U.S. Embassy or Consulate where you will be interviewed.
Note: Apply for your visa early, as there could be a lengthy wait time for interviews.
3. Pay the non-refundable visa application fee. You must pay the application fee, if you are required to, before your interview. Get specific instructions for the U.S. Embassy or Consulate where you are applying.
4. Pay a visa issuance fee, if required. You may be required to pay a visa issuance fee when your visa application is approved. Whether you have to pay the fee or not depends on whether your country has a reciprocal arrangement with the United States. If U.S. citizens have to pay a fee to your country for the same category of visa, then you will be required to pay a fee.
You can find out if you have to pay a visa issuance fee by clicking here and entering your country and selecting F-1 as your category of visa.
D. How long do you have to wait to get a visa interview?
It depends on the location, season, and visa category. You can get a sense of how long it would take for you to get an interview by typing in the location of the embassy or consulate where you will apply by checking here.
If you are a new student, your F-1 student visa could be issued as early as 120 days prior to your school’s start date (maximum window), but the earliest time you may enter the United States is 30 days before the start date.
The limitation does not apply to students who are already studying in the United States and have F-1 student visas — as long as these students maintain their student status and have current SEVIS records, they may renew their visas and enter the United States at any time.
E. How do you prepare for your visa interview?
You have to pass the interview to get an F-1 student visa, so take it seriously and prepare for it. First, you should assemble all the documents that you need for the interview and put them in a file folder.
Here is a list of the documents you are required to bring to the interview:
- A valid passport that’s good for at least 6 months more than the time you will be in the United States, unless your country is party to an exemption. For example, if you intend to stay in the United States through April of next year, your passport must be valid at least through October of next year.
- Confirmation of your Form DS-160 visa application (see section C1 above).
- Receipt of your visa application fee (see section C3 above).
- A passport photo, if you couldn’t upload your photo at the time you completed the online Form DS-160 (see section C1 above).
- Form I-20 (see section B2 above).
- Receipt for SEVIS I-901 fee (see section B3 above).
Note: If you are required to pay a visa issuance fee (see section C4 above), you must bring enough money in local currency to cover the fee.
You should also bring with you the following documents:
- Proof that you are qualified to attend a U.S. academic institution, including: (a) transcripts, diplomas, degrees, or certificates from prior schools, and (b) test scores for standardized tests required by the U.S. school you plan to attend, such as TOEFL, SAT, GRE, and GMAT.
- Proof that you intend to leave the United States after you’ve completed your contemplated course of study, such as owning property in your home country that you intend to keep, strong family ties, job offer etc.
- Proof that you (or your parents) have enough money to pay all the costs associated with your contemplated course of study, including tuition, room and board, and travel costs, such as income tax statements, bank statements, and/or business registration.
After you’ve assembled the documents, review them carefully and be prepared to answer any question related to them or that is relevant to your application for an F-1 student visa. You will have to convince the consular officer that you are not just qualified to study in the United States, but that you also intend to go back to your home country after you’ve completed your studies. You will also have to explain why you chose the school you want to attend, why you want to study in the United States, as opposed to other countries, and why you would not be staying in the United States after your studies.
Note: If you are bringing your spouse and children to the United States with you, you must also show proof of your legal relationship with them, including certificate of marriage and birth certificates.
F. What is involved in a visa interview?
You should plan on arriving earlier than the appointment time, so you can get yourself together for the interview. Make sure you have all the documents listed in section E above.
The consular officer will ask you questions and review your documents and then decide if you are qualified for an F-1 student visa. You will also be fingerprinted during the interview.
If the consular officer decides that you are qualified and issues you an F-1 student visa, you must pay a visa issuance fee if required (see section C4 above). You will also find out then how long it would take for the visa to be processed and ready for either pick-up or delivery by courier.
Sometimes a consular officer may decide that your application will have to wait for further administrative processing, which are usually resolved within 60 days. In such an event, you may be asked to submit further support for your application.
Note: You will be expected to show that you are proficient in the English language, or that you are headed to the United States for English language courses.
G. What is involved in entering the USA?
Once you have your F-1 student visa, you can make arrangements to come to the United States. Keep in mind that you can’t enter the United States more than 30 days before the start date of your course of study.
You should know though that just because you have the visa doesn’t mean you are automatically allowed to enter the country. You still have to go through an interview at your chosen port of entry (air, sea, or land) and ask for permission to enter the United States. Check here for entry procedures. Have your passport, your F-1 student visa, and all the supporting documents (see section E above) ready for your interview.
If you are allowed to enter the United States, you will either get an admission stamp on your passport or paper Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record, depending on your form of entry. Whether digital or paper, the Form I-94 has the admission number, the admission date, the class of admission, and the date until which you are admitted.
When you enter the United States on an F-1 student visa, your entry is legal as long as you maintain your student status, so you can live in the United States even after your F-1 student visa has expired.
Note: If you have an F-1 student visa, you have an extra 60 days from the date the program ends (see Form I-20) to leave the United States or enroll in another program. If you were authorized to take part in an authorized practical training, you also have extra 60 days to leave the United States or enroll in another program.
H. How to maintain your F-1 status?
Here is a list of what you need to do to maintain your student status:
- Contact your DSO (see section B2 above) upon your arrival in the United States.
- Contact your DSO again when you arrive at school by the start date of your program, as listed on your Form I-20.
- Attend and pass all your classes. Keep in mind that you are required to attend school full-time as a condition of your F-1 student visa.
- Consult your DSO if you think you can’t complete the program by the end date listed on your Form I-20 and check if you can get an extension.
- Don’t drop a class without consulting your DSO.
I. What does your DSO do for you?
DSOs are trained to help students with visa questions or issues, and serve as a liaison between you and the SEVP, so students should reach out to them first if they have any questions on the legal requirements of their stay in the United States. If you have an F-1 student visa, it’s important that you consult your DSO before you take any of the following steps:
- Change your major, program, or degree level;
- Change your education level;
- Transfer to a new school, or take a leave of absence;
- Take a break from school;
- Travel outside the United States;
- Move to a new address; or
- Request a program extension.
If your DSO can’t help you, you may contact the SEVP directly by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions or concerns.
Susan Chu is a writer and editor who likes to write about trends in higher education.