Applying for a U.S student visa
Most of those who wish to study in the United States will seek an F-1 student visa, but there are other visa types that are sometimes used. A short description of the two types of student visas:
This visa is the most common for those who wish to undertake studies in the U.S. It is for those who wish to study at an accredited U.S. college or university. If you are going to the United States to study and your course of study is more than 18 hours a week, you will need an F-1 or M-1 visa.
Students may remain in the US up to 60 days beyond the length of time it takes to complete their academic program. They are expected to complete their studies by the expiration date on the I-20 form (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status).
This visa is for those who will be engaged in non-academic or vocational study or training at a U.S. institution.
Applying for a US immigration visa
To apply for international student visas, you should apply at the US embassy or consulate in your country of permanent residence.
Although international student visa applicants may apply at any US consular office abroad, it may be more difficult to qualify for the visa outside the country of permanent residence.
In most countries, first time international student visa applicants are required to appear for an interview.
However, each embassy and consulate sets its own interview policies and procedures regarding these international student visas. Students should consult their local consular office for specific application instructions.
When to apply for an international student immigration visa
You should bear in mind that June, July, and August are the busiest months in most embassies and consulates. Interview appointments are usually very difficult to get during that period. It's important to plan ahead as much as possible to avoid repeat visits to the consular office.
To allow time to overcome any unforeseen problems that might arise, it is recommended you apply for your international student visa several weeks before they plan to travel.
You should not apply more than 90 days before the registration date noted on the I-20 form (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status).
Immigration forms and documents
The following items are required from all applicants for a student visa.
Acceptance form (I-20)
Before applying for an international student visa, you must be accepted by a school or institution approved by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
You can find out directly from the institution whether it has that approval. If you are applying for the F-1 visa, the institution must send you a Form I-20A-B, (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant [F-1] Student Status for Academic and Language Students).
If you are applying for the M-1 visa, the institution must send the applicant a Form I-20M-N (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant [M-1] Student Status for Vocational Students).
All four pages of the I-20 form must be submitted with the application. The form must also be signed by the applicant and by a school official in the appropriate places.
Each applicant for a student visa must pay a nonrefundable application fee. Contact the consular office to find out the current amount of the fee.
You must submit a Nonimmigrant Visa Application Form DS-156, completed and signed.
Free blank forms are available at all US embassies and consulates. A copy of the form can also be obtained online from the US State Department website.
Each applicant must have a passport valid for travel to the United States and with a validity date that extends at least six months beyond the applicant's intended period of stay. If more than one person is included in the passport, each person applying for a visa must make a separate application.
Each applicant must provide one photograph 1 and 1/2 inches square (37x37mm), showing full face, without head covering, against a light background.
Evidence of financial resources
Applicants must provide evidence that shows they (or their parents who are sponsoring them) have sufficient funds to cover their tuition fees and living expenses during the intended period of study.
Applicants or sponsors who are salaried employees should bring income tax documents and original bank statements.
Applicants or sponsors who own a business should bring business registration, licenses, and tax documents, as well as original bank statements.
A student's spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 also can apply for visas to come with the student to the US. Applicants who wish to bring dependents with them to the US must also provide marriage and/or birth certificates as proof of the relationship with his spouse and/or children.
In addition, students may also be asked to provide:
- Transcripts and diplomas from schools they have attended.
- Scores from standardised tests required by the US school such as the TOEFL, SAT, GRE, GMAT, etc.
The consular officer reviewing the visa application is required to determine that the following items are true.
- You have successfully completed a course of study equivalent to that normally required of an American student enrolling at the same institution.
- You have not submitted forged or altered transcripts of previous coursework to the school.
- You have not incorrectly accepted an applicant's previous coursework as the equivalent of its normal requirements.
The applicant, unless coming to the US to participate exclusively in an English language training program, must have enough knowledge of English to pursue the intended course of study.
If that is not the case, the school must have made special arrangements for English language classes for the student, or must teach the course in the student's native language.
In order to determine whether the applicant has the necessary knowledge of English, the consular officer must perform the visa interview in English and may require the applicant to read aloud from an English-language document, and to explain in English what was read. The officer also has the option to refer the applicant for language testing.
Ties to the country of origin
The student must prove intent to return to the home country after completing the coursework by showing strong ties to the country of origin. The student must demonstrate that he has no intention of abandoning those ties.
Conversely, if the student has close relatives or other ties in the U.S, those may affect the intent to return to the home country. Examples of ways to provide evidence of ties to the home country are given below.
- The names, addresses, ages, and occupations of close family members who remain in the home country.
- Financial interests in the home country.
- Evidence of job prospects in the home country.
Additionally, the INS may require the student to post a Departure Bond to guarantee departure after the course of study is completed.
Changes to your USA student visa
Making changes to or extending the I-20 form
If the student is not able to complete their studies by the expiration date on the I-20 form, they must apply to the school's foreign student advisor for an extension at least 30 days before the expiration date.
Usually extensions will granted if the student provides academic or medical reasons.
If the student changes their degree course (e.g. from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree program), the student will need to get a new I-20 form and submit it to the foreign student advisor within 15 days of beginning the new program.
No changes need to be made to the I-20 form simply a change of major.
In order to transfer to another school, the student will need to notify the current school of the transfer and obtain an I-20 form from the new school.
The student must provide the foreign student advisor at the new school with the completed I-20 form within 15 days of beginning classes at the new school.
Length of stay
The length of time that a student carrying an F-1 visa is authorised to remain in the US is determined by the INS, not the consular officer.
At the port of entry, an INS official will validate the student’s Form I-94, Record of Arrival-Departure, which states the length of stay.
Usually the student will be admitted into the US for the duration of his coursework.
In other words, the student may stay in the US for as long as he is a full-time student, even if the F-1 visa expires.
However, if the student departs the US with an expired F-1 visa, he will need to obtain a new one before returning to the US to resume his studies.
An F-1 visa cannot be renewed or re-issued by the State Department inside the United States; it must be done at an embassy or consulate abroad.
Renewing a student visa for study in the USA
All applicants applying for renewals must provide the following items.
- A passport valid for at least six months.
- A completed and signed application form (DS-156) with a photo for each person applying. A separate form is needed for children, even if they are included in a parent’s passport. These forms are available at the consular office at no charge.
- Payment for the processing fee for each applicant.
- A new I-20 or an I-20 that has been endorsed on the back by a school official within the past 12 months.
- All applicants applying for renewals should also be prepared to submit:
- A certified copy of his grades from the school in which he is enrolled.
- Financial documents (from him or his sponsor) showing the ability to cover the cost of schooling.
For more help and advice on applying to university in the U.S, please see: