The United States is internationally known for offering quality higher education to international students. Each year, high school and college students seek to enter the United States for the purpose of gaining access to community college, state university and private college education programs. To accommodate this demand, the US federal government offers multiple types of visas to international students by which they may gain legal immigration status and make this goal achievable. As a matter of immigration policy, student visas are as classified as follows:
Types of Student Visas
- F-1 Visa: for study at an accredited U.S. college or university or to study English at an English language institute
- J-1 Visa: for participation in an exchange program, including high school and university study
- M-1 Visa: for non-academic or vocational study or training in the United States
To learn more about the various types of student visas, visit this official resource: https://educationusa.state.gov/your-5-steps-us-study/apply-your-student-visa/undergraduate.
Notably, two separate government agencies control international student arrival and legal status before and during their studies in the United States. The US Department of State is responsible for the visa application process and issuing visas. Once a visa holder arrives in the United States, the US Department of Homeland Security then is responsible for regulating entry into the country, in addition to creating, implementing, and enforcing immigration status regulations. It is not recommended that anyone attempt to enter the US as an undocumented student. If you are present in the US under the Deferred Childhood Arrival Act (DACA), you may be able to gain access to higher education on that basis.
On behalf of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) manages schools, nonimmigrant students in the F and M visa classifications and their dependents. The Department of State (DoS) manages Exchange Visitor Programs, nonimmigrant exchange visitors in the J visa classification and their dependents. Both SEVP and DoS use the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to track and monitor schools; exchange visitor programs; and F, M and J nonimmigrants while they visit the United States and participate in the U.S. education system. To learn more about SEVIS, visit their website: https://www.ice.gov/sevis.
An F1 visa is issued to international students who are enrolled an academic programs or English Language Program at a U.S. college or university. Throughout their academic program, F-1 students must maintain the minimum course load for full-time student status.
F1 Visa Qualifications
To qualify, applicants must demonstrate the following qualifications during a visa interview:
F-1 applicants must be residents of their home country and must intend to return there after their studies are completed.
Students are limited to studying exclusively at the academic institution which sponsored their visa.
Students must prove that have the financial means to support themselves while studying in the US.
Ties to their Home Country
Every visa applicant must prove that they do not intend to permanently immigrate to the U.S. This is typically demonstrated by what are known as “strong ties” to their country of origin. A “strong tie” is anything that you can offer which suggests that you have a concrete reason(s) to return to the country of origin (also known as nonimmigrant intent). Examples of “strong ties” may include:
- Offer of employment
- Property ownership
- Bank/Finance accounts
F1 Student Visa Application Process
To begin the visa application process, you must first be admitted into a higher education institution in which you intend to study. This requirement generally refers to a bachelor’s or graduate program. The institution must also be accredited by the Student and Visitor Exchange Program (SEVP). The requirements for admission into academic institutions often differ from one college to another. However, admission requirements are typically based (at least in part) on academic credentials, such as grade point average and criminal history. In addition, you will have to demonstrate that you have access to sufficient financial means and health insurance to cover living expenses associated with living and studying in the U.S. Students may also apply for financial aid through the college or university they plan to attend. Financial awards are granted based on the individual economic needs of each student.
After the academic institution has accepted your admission application, the same institution will issue an I-20 form to you. This is the form that you will present to the U.S. immigration authorities to begin the visa application process. The application process can take 18 months (or longer) from the date of application to the beginning of studies. Student visas are classified as nonimmigrant visas. This means that they are generally not considered a path to U.S. citizenship or becoming a permanent resident (a.k.a. green card holder). Immigrant students may not work within the U.S., unless they are granted a separate employment authorization or permit to obtain optional practical training. The requirements for completing a student visa application can be found here: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/study/student-visa.html.
F1 Student Visa Required Application Items
Requirements may differ depending on your home country, the following items will need to be included with your application when submitting your student visa:
You will have to pay an applicable application fee. This fee is not refundable, regardless of whether your visa application is approved or not.
The DS-160 form must be submitted by all applicants. This the online application for a non-immigrant visa.
A DS-157 form for all males aged 16-45.
A passport valid for travel to the United States and with an expiration date at least six months beyond your intended period of stay in the United States. If more than one person is included in the passport, each person desiring a visa must make an application.
To learn more about photo requirements, visit: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/photos.html
F1 Visa Interview
Before approval, an F1 visa interview will be conducted to determine if you are qualified to be granted a student visa. Make sure that you bring all of the documentation listed above and any other requested documentation with you to the interview, and you should be prepared ahead of time to answer questions regarding why you want to study in the U.S. Interview questions often include inquiries about your academic qualifications and where you intend to study within the U.S. You may also be asked about your “strong ties” to your home country (see above explanation) at this time. You will also be required to prove that you have the means to finance your studies. Tuition and related education expenses in the U.S tend to be higher than those of other countries. Being able to articulate a financial plan based on the duration of your studies is critical to achieve a successful visa interview result.
If you are granted a visa, you may also have to pay a fee to issue the visa. Images of your fingerprints will be taken and recorded for identification purposes. Your passport will be temporarily detained for processing your visa. After this step is complete, you will be notified as to when you may reclaim it. This is usually done either in person or by mail. There is no guarantee that your visa application will be approved. Therefore, you should wait to make final travel plans until your application has been approved. Waiving ineligibility is possible in some cases. An experienced immigration attorney may be able to help with this. If your F1 visa application is denied, it must be based on US immigration law. Upon denial, the relevant section of law upon which you are denied must be included in the notice of denial.
Fees for student visas can be found here: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/study/student-visa.html
Maintaining Student Visa Status
If your application is approved and you are issued a student visa, you will then be permitted to enter the United States as an international student. Thereafter, you will be required to maintain your obligations as an F1 visa holder. If you fail to maintain your visa obligations and your visa is revoked, you will then be removed from your academic program, deported to your home country, and barred from re-entry into the U.S. The following information may help you guide to successfully maintaining your student visa and legal immigration status.
Maintaining Your Program
You will be required to maintain full-time enrollment, class attendance, and a passing grade point average to keep your visa. If you are encountering problems meeting the demands of your academic program, you should speak with an international advisor about the situation. You may request an extension if you need more time to complete your studies. You may also be able to extend your passport if necessary, by submitting a request to your respective consulate or embassy through which you obtained your initial visa. It is strongly recommended that you carry a copy of your immigration documentation and passport at all times for identification purposes.
After you have completed your academic program (e.g. date of graduation), you are required to vacate the United States within sixty (60) days. If you intend to stay in the U.S., you may enroll in a graduate program, transfer to another school, or submit an application for a new visa based on another purpose, such as employment. You may wish to speak with an international advisor or immigration attorney to find out more information about legal services which may help advance your US education goals.