A non-US citizen desiring to study as a nonimmigrant at a US educational institution must obtain a student visa. The F-1 visa is the most common US student visa because it is an academic visa used to attend a college, university, or other learning institution that is accredited by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), part of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). There are other student visas, including the M-1 visa for vocational programs and the J-1 visa for other exchange programs, but this article discusses the F-1 visa.
The process to obtain an F-1 visa is strict and time-consuming and should be started well before your study program start date. The F-1 visa may be issued up to 120 days before your program start date, and you may arrive in the US up to 30 days before the program start date.
How to Apply for a US Student Visa
The first step to obtain an F-1 US student visa is to apply to and be accepted by an SEVP-accredited university. Once you are accepted, your designated school official (DSO) will provide you with a Form I-20, otherwise known as the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Status. The I-20 must be filled out carefully and completely. Each I-20 has a unique identification number.
Next, you must pay the I-901 SEVIS fee. SEVIS, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, is the DHS online system that tracks nonimmigrant students. SEVIS fees pay for administering the SEVP program and are separate from the university's academic fees. DHS provides a narrated tutorial on how to pay this fee. The SEVIS fee-$200 in 2019-is a nonrefundable fee that must be paid at least three days before submitting the I-20.
Once the I-20 is completed and the I-901 SEVIS fee has been paid, you must locate an embassy or consulate in your home country to schedule a visa application interview. Consult the website of the chosen embassy or consulate for requirements for scheduling the interview at that location.
Schedule your interview as early as possible-at least three to five months before the intended program start date. And do not purchase an airline ticket for US travel until your visa application has been granted.
US Student Visa Requirements and Interview Preparation
To be eligible for a US student visa, you must show the following:
- Not changing residency: You must show that you do not intend to immigrate by showing proof of a residence abroad, no intent to abandon it, and an intent to leave the US upon completion of the study program.
- Ability to pay: You must prove that you have enough funds in the form of liquid assets to pay for the first year of study, including fees and living expenses, as well as how you plan to pay for the remaining years of the program.
- Sponsoring institution: You must identify the educational institution at which you intend to study. Any visa granted would allow study only at the sponsoring institution identified on the visa application.
Prepare for your interview by gathering the following documents to take to your interview:
- The original I-20;
- Your passport;
- A photo of yourself;
- The I-901 SEVIS fee receipt; and
- Any other documents the consulate or embassy requires.
At the interview, be ready to tell the consular or embassy interviewer your story, including the following:
- Your ties to your home country;
- What you are planning to study and why;
- How you decided which university to attend; and
- What you plan to do upon completion of your studies.
Be organized because the interview will be short. You may be required to provide more information, and, if so, the decision on your application may be delayed. If the interviewer does not request additional information, you will find out whether your application has been granted at the end of the interview.
US Student Visa Limitations
The F-1 student visa is issued for a duration of one or more years depending on the type and length of the educational program. If the time period expires before completion of the study program, you may apply to renew it. However, if you travel out of the country and the visa has expired, you will not be able to return to the US without applying for and obtaining a new visa.
There are also strict limitations on the kind of work you may be allowed to do while studying in the US. Your university DSO will provide information about what kind of work is allowed.
An F-1 visa holder can travel within the US while attending the university, but you must carry your visa and your passport with you when traveling. You may also transfer to another SEVP-accredited university, but a SEVIS transfer is required to be approved ahead of time, and you must be in good standing at your current university.
How to Reapply for a Student Visa
You may want to reapply for a student visa because your visa application was rejected or because your F-1 visa has expired. If your first visa application was rejected, you can reapply, even more than once, but be sure to address the reason the previous application was denied.
If your F-1 visa has expired, how you reapply or request reinstatement will depend on several factors, including the following:
- Why the visa expired;
- Whether you are still located within the US
- Whether you are still enrolled in full-time study; and
- Any other relevant factors.
Consult your university DSO on how to obtain reinstatement or to reapply. A new I-20 may be needed, a new SEVIS fee may also be required, and other forms may be necessary depending on the circumstances.
Where to Turn for Help Regarding a US Student Visa
The rules for obtaining a US student visa are complicated, and applicants must manage the timeline properly. Finding all the student visa requirements can be confusing, and there are many factors consider in this complex process. Hiring a qualified immigration specialist to help you navigate the process can improve your chances of obtaining a visa to study in the US.
For more information on how to apply for a US student visa or to learn more about student visa requirements and limitations, contact Oscar R. Molina at Jenkins Fenstermaker, PLLC by calling (304) 523-2100, (866) 617-4736 toll-free, or by completing his online contact form.