Guide to Student Visas in the USA
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Guide to Student Visas in the USA

Written by Taru Medha

The USA may have a fairly strict immigration system, but it is the most popular study abroad destination! It welcomes over one million students, that's more than the UK and France combined!

Student visa in the USA

The US Department of State grants two different kinds of student visa:

  • The M-1 visa is for non-academic vocational training programmes.
  • The F-1 visa is for attendance at universities and other higher education institutions.

If you’re studying a postgraduate course in the USA, you will need an F-1 visa.

What is an F-1 student visa?

If you are studying towards an academic qualification conferred by a US institution, you will need an F-1 visa. This applies even if your time in the US would otherwise be covered under a visa waiver programme or through another existing visa (such as a B visitor visa).

In normal circumstances, an F1 visa will be valid for the duration of your programme, as defined by your higher education institution. Note that the F1 visa is usually only granted to students on full-time programmes.

What is the F1 visa application process?

There are several stages to the application for an F1 student visa, but the overall process is very logical. The following are the normal steps involved in receiving an F1 visa for study in the USA:

Step #1: Be accepted to study at an SEVP approved institution – To get a US student visa, you must have successfully applied to a higher education institution approved by the US Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Programme (SEVP).

Step #2: Enrol in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System – This will occur once you have been accepted by an SEVP approved institution but will require the payment of a SEVIS I-901 fee, usually $350. At this point your institution should also provide you with a Form I-20, confirming your acceptance and student status. You will need to present this at your interview.

Step #3: Complete a Non-immigrant Visa Application online – This will require you to complete Form DS-160 and print its confirmation page ready to present at your interview. At this stage you will also need to upload a suitable photograph of yourself. Your photo should be in colour, less than six months old and provide a full, unobscured view of your face in front of a white background; further guidelines are available at the US Department of State website. Compare your photo with the official photo examples to make sure it'll be accepted.

Step #4: Arrange an interview at a US consulate or embassy in your home country – Interviews will usually be required for all applicants aged between 14 and 79. You will need to bring your passport, together with your Form I-20 and the confirmation page of your form DS-160. Your interview will be used to confirm that you are entitled to the F-1 visa and that your travel and study intentions are legitimate. In some cases, you may need to provide copies of academic transcripts proving your existing qualifications and academic background, but acceptance at a recognised university should usually be sufficient for this.

Step #5: Pay any additional fees – Depending on your nationality, you may need to pay a visa application fee prior to, or at, your interview and a visa issuance fee once your visa is approved. If paying for your visa application in advance, you will need to bring the receipt to your interview. The embassy or consulate you apply to will be able to provide more information on the requirements and procedure for fee payments. You can also look up fees for visa services at the US Department of State website.

Step #6: Collect your visa – The timescale for issuing a visa can vary between nationalities and from person to person. In most cases your documents will either be delivered to you by recorded courier or made available for collection at the embassy or consulate that interviewed you. Read more about approximate visa wait times.

You can apply for your visa up to one year before the start of your programme. However, you will not be able to enter the country more than 30 days before your start date.

What documents are required for an F-1 visa application?

As you can probably tell from the above, you’ll have acquired quite a collection of different documents by the time you’ve completed your visa application. The following checklist should help you keep track of things:

  • your passport;
  • Form I-20 – You should get this from your university once you’ve paid the SEVIS I-901 registration fee. It basically proves that you’ve been accepted as a student in the USA and recorded as such;
  • Form DS-160 – You complete this online as the first part of your actual visa application. Print out the confirmation page for your interview;
  • receipts for fee payments – If you’ve paid a visa application fee before your interview, bring your receipt. It’s a good idea to keep hold of other receipts related to visa fees too.

You might also need:

  • academic transcripts;
  • proof of financial support – Your interviewer may want to confirm that you can support yourself during your studies. Evidence of relevant scholarships / assistantships or other existing financial resources should demonstrate this.

Once you have your visa, all that’s left to do is pack your bags and fly! Read more about life as a PhD student in the USA in our guide.

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Last Updated: 08 January 2024