How To Get A US Student Visa

Foreign students studying in the USA have to hold a valid student visa. This means among the many things you will need to plan, research and organise, you will have to make an application to US immigration authorities for permission to travel to the US and remain there while you study.

The following guide provides an overview of the F-1 student visa for the USA, with details of the eligibility requirements and the student visa application process.

It helps to start early and to allow around six months for your application to be processed. The visa can be issued up to 120 days before you are due to enter the US. Application caseloads and the continued impact of the pandemic have affected service levels, so it is best to take professional advice on the current status of processing times and what this means for you.

Which US student visa?

The F-1 visa is the main visa category for non-US nationals to undertake academic study in the United States. Students undertaking study that is vocational in nature, for example, foreign medical graduates seeking to pursue postsecondary medical education or training, should apply for an M-1 student visa USA. The F-1 visa is for those wanting to undertake academic study, rather than vocational training.

What is the F-1 visa?

An F-1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa for international students wishing to pursue a full course of academic study at a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) approved school or academic institution in the United States. This includes primary and secondary schools, colleges, universities and schools of theology or performing arts.

Only schools or academic institutions certified by the SEVP can accept international students. SEVP is responsible for managing F-1 students, and where applicable their dependents, on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security.

SEVP also provides approval and oversight to schools and academic institutions authorised to enrol F-1 students, and gives guidance to both schools and students about the requirements for maintaining lawful status.

What does an F-1 Student Visa USA allow you to do?

Before applying for an F-1 Student Visa USA you will first need to be accepted at a SEVP-certified school. However, having been admitted into the US you may be able to transfer to another school or academic institution.

For example, if you have attended a public high school for your maximum twelve-month limit, you may be able to transfer to a SEVP-approved private school to continue working toward your high school diploma.

Further, having completed one full academic year at an SEVP-certified school you should be eligible to take an annual vacation, and once every year after that if you maintain your student status and register for classes in the academic term following your vacation.

If your particular academic program has a unique schedule, for example, as with many English language-training programs, you must establish what constitutes a full academic year and the rules that apply to taking an annual vacation.

As for combining work and study, many states have strict age requirements relating to when minors can begin earning wages, so as a student under the age of 18 it is rare that you will be permitted to undertake any form of employment under an F-1 Student Visa USA.

As a post-secondary student you may, in certain circumstances, seek approval for on and off-campus employment, although you will be limited in the number of hours you can work when school is in session.

Approval should always be sought from your DSO prior to undertaking any employment under an F-1 Student visa USA. You may also require authorisation from US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

F-1 student visa requirements

The F-1 student visa is open to any international student enrolled at a SEVP-approved school or academic institution in the United States. The F-1 visa covers academic study from kindergarten through Grade 12 (ages 5 to 18), postsecondary schooling (18+), and even English language courses.

However, SEVP only certifies certain types of schools in the US. This includes private schools at all grade levels, as well as public high schools.

F-1 student visas cannot be issued for applicants to attend public primary schools. While an F-1 visa can be issued to attend public secondary schools, students are limited to a maximum period of twelve months. They must also pay the full, unsubsidised per capita cost of their education prior to applying.

If you are eligible, you can proceed with the application process, which generally includes the following stages:

  1. 6-12 months prior to commencing US study: apply for and secure a place at an SEVP-approved school.
  2. Pay the SEVIS fee at least 3 days before filing your visa petition.
  3. 4-6 months prior to commencing US study: complete and file your visa application form and pay the visa application fee.
  4. Arrange and attend your visa interview.
  5. Decision received.

How much does an F-1 Student Visa cost?

US immigration law requires that all prospective F-1 students pay the I-901 SEVIS fee before filing the application form and before the Department of State issues a visa. This is separate from any visa fee and is currently set at $200.

You should retain the proof of payment as you will need to take this to your visa interview and may also be requested to present this confirmation at the US border or if you make any future US immigration applications.

If your spouse and/or any qualifying children intend to live with you in the United States while you study, they must also enrol in SEVIS, although dependents of a prospective student do not have to pay the I-901 fee.

You will also be required to pay the application fee for your visa in the sum of $160. Further, if your visa is approved, you may need to pay a visa issuance fee, if applicable to your nationality.

Please remember, if you plan to attend a public high school in the US, you must pay the full, unsubsidised per capita cost before applying for a US visa. Once the payment is made, you will need to ensure that the DSO provides you with the necessary proof of payment to provide to the consular officer at interview.

How to apply for the F-1 Student Visa

Applications are processed in the US Embassy or Consular Office in your country of residence. Specific rules and processes can vary between countries and consulates, so it is advisable to check the website of the consulate where your application is being processed and to take professional guidance from a legal adviser familiar with your local consulate to ensure compliance with the rules and avoid any issues which can result in delays or even denials of the application.

In general, the process will be as follows. Once you have been accepted into a SEVP-certified school you will receive a Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status) from your DSO. The I-20 is an important document that you should keep safe, as you will need it throughout the student process.

After you receive the Form I-20 and have paid the necessary I-901 fee, you will be registered for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

SEVIS is a web-based system used by SEVP to maintain information on international nonimmigrant students. In this way students can be tracked and monitored during the course of their visit to the United States while participating in the US education system.

You can then apply at a US Embassy or Consulate for a Student Visa USA using Form DS-160.

Form DS-160 will ask for information such as your personal details and contact details, information about current and previous travel to the US, as well as education, work and family details, and of course details of your SEVIS ID, school and intended study program. Medical, security and background checks are also carried out on applicants.

You will also be required to submit a photograph of yourself, which must be recent and comply with US standards.

The next step is to arrange a visa interview with a consular officer.

Documents to take to the interview

During the interview, you will be required to explain why you want to study in the United States, how you plan to support yourself and any dependents, and what your plans are for when your studies are finished. You will also be required to provide biometric information (digital fingerprint scans).

You should present your signed SEVIS Form I-20, the DS-160 confirmation page, MRV fee receipt and SEVIS fee receipt, your passport (valid for at least 6 months after your intended period of stay in the US), together with any other necessary documentation, to the consular officer when you attend your visa interview.

Since rules differ between different consulates and embassies, you should check the website of the post where you will be attending your interview to ensure you take all the necessary documents with you. These could also include proof of qualifications and financial evidence to verify your ability to pay tuition, travel and living fees while in the US.

What happens if your visa application is approved?

If approved, the consular officer will advise when your passport with the visa will be returned to you.

It may be that during the interview, the officer advises that your application is subject to administrative processing, which will increase the waiting time.

F-1 and M-1 visas can be issued up to 120 days in advance of your study start date, but you will not be allowed to enter the US earlier than 30 days before your start date.

An F-1 Student Visa USA can be issued up to 120 days in advance of the start date for a course of study. However, you will not be allowed to enter the US more than 30 days prior to your official program start date listed on your Form I-20.

Moreover, a Student Visa does not guarantee admission into the country, rather it only gives you permission to arrive at a US port of entry. US customs officers have the authority to admit or deny your entrance into the United States.

You must present the customs officer with your Form I-20, as well as your valid visa and passport. It is also a good idea to have your acceptance letter from your SEVP-certified school, evidence of financial support and evidence of any payment for attendance at a public school.

If admitted into the country, you will be given an admission stamp passport and issued with an electronic Form I-94, “Arrival and Departure Record.” The Form I-94 will include your “duration of status”.

F-1 visa holders are permitted a grace period of up to 60 days after completion of their full course of study, plus any periods of authorised practical training, before being required to depart the United States. You may, however, be able to transfer to another SEVP-certified school or opt to change your status while in the US.

Maintaining F-1 status

Under an F-1 visa your primary purpose is to complete a full course of study at an SEVP-certified school, requiring you to maintain your nonimmigrant student status throughout your stay in the United States.

What constitutes a full course of study will depend on your education level. As a postsecondary undergraduate student for example, you must take at least 12 credit hours per semester, while as a kindergarten student through Grade 12 you are required to meet the minimum number of hours per week your SEVP-certified school determines is necessary for normal academic progress toward graduation or completion of your program of study.

If you believe that you will be unable to complete your academic program within the time permitted under your Student Visa USA, you will need to talk with your Designated School Official (DSO) about requesting an extension.

Every SEVP-certified school or academic institution must have dedicated employees for assisting and overseeing enrolled F-1 students, together with a Principal Designated School Official (PDSO) who also serves as the main point of contact for issues related to SEVP-certification.

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.