International Student’s Guide (Getting a Student Visa)

College students from all over the world choose to study in the U.S. because it offers access to a wider range of programs; the chance to attend a world renowned institution like the University of Southern California, the University of Illinois, or New York University (the three leading U.S. schools for international student attendance); and the opportunity to live abroad and experience American culture firsthand. However, in order to accomplish any of these goals, a foreign student must first obtain the documentation required for living, learning, and (in some cases) working on American soil. This U.S. student visa guide will explore the three primary types of visa, the required process for obtaining each one, and some resources for prospective international students.

Understand who Needs a Student Visa

According to Export.gov, 214,490 international students attended college in the United States during the 2010-11 academic year—an increase of more than 35 percent in just five years. Students from China, India, South Korea, Canada, and Taiwan comprised more than half of all international students. NAFSA: Association of International Educators reports that these foreign-born learners annually contribute more than $20 billion toward the U.S. economy. And all of these individuals underwent the same U.S. student visa process in order to attend college on an American campus.

Foreign citizens who wish to study at a high school, community college, four-year university, or vocational school must obtain a student visa; this type of visa is classified as ‘nonimmigrant,’ which means the recipient is not visiting on a permanent basis. In most cases, students begin the visa application process after they have been accepted into a U.S. college or university program; the institution will often assist the student with the process of applying for and obtaining the visa.

On the other hand, foreign students are not eligible for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which is granted to citizens of certain countries who plan on visiting the U.S. for 90 days or less; this program is reserved for those who travel for business or pleasure, but not educational purposes. However, citizens of Canada and Mexico are granted a special type of student visa that allows them to attend school in the United States while maintaining residence in their country of origin; these visa holders are classified as border commuters.

Prepare for General Interview Questions and Requirements

Foreign individuals between the ages of 14 and 79 who wish to study in the United States must first undergo an interview at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate office. Being interviewed by a government official may sound intimidating, but it not only ensures applicants understand the requirements for living and studying in the United States, but also determines which visa they should be given. Remember, U.S. colleges and universities want foreign student attendance in order to boost diversity on-campus and foster an international exchange (not to mention the extra money international students contribute). Try not to worry about the interview; chances are it will go much smoother than you think.

Here are a few of the questions most commonly asked during these meetings:

  • Why do you want to study in the U.S., and why at that particular university?
  • If you aren’t receiving any scholarships, who is sponsoring you financially?
  • Do you have relatives in the U.S.?
  • Will you immigrate to the U.S. if you are given the chance?
  • Why would you return to the U.S. after your education?
  • How do you plan to repay your student loans, if any?
  • Will your degree provide you with job opportunities in the U.S.?

Prior to the interview, you’ll need to assemble some materials to present to the consular officer. These include:

  • Passport: This must be valid for up to six months beyond your expected stay. The reason behind this is that many international students choose to travel in the U.S. once their academic programs have concluded.
  • Nonimmigrant Visa Application (Form DS-160): This form must be completed and signed prior to your interview appointment. For those required to pay an application fee, a receipt for this payment will also be required.
  • Photo: This image will be included with your visa and follow you throughout your stay in the U.S.
  • Certificate of Eligibility Form: Once you’ve been accepted into an academic program, the school will complete this form and mail it to you. A certificate of eligibility is required for all three types of student visas (see next section).

Other documents may be required on a case-by-case basis. These include high school and/or college transcripts, scores or tests required by the U.S. school (GRE, SAT, GMAT, TOEFL, etc.), and a signed letter stating you will immediately depart the U.S. following completion of your program.

Know the Types of U.S. Student Visas and Requirements

Figuring out how to get a U.S. student visa or determining which one to obtain can be a confusing process. This section will cover the requirements for the three types of U.S. student visa: the F-1, M-1, and J-1.

F-1 Student Visa

The F-1 Student Visa is the most common visa awarded to international citizens. Anyone who attends a high school, college/university, seminary, conservatory, or specialized, non-vocational institution (such as a language-training center) will receive an F-1 visa. This is the visa for students of all degree levels, from undergraduate to master’s and Ph.D.

Upon acceptance into the U.S. program of their choice, students will receive a Form I-20 from the school they plan to attend. This form is normally presented during the visa interview. The student will also be entered into a database maintained by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIS); in exchange, he or she must pay a $200 fee known as the I-901.

Once you’ve aced your interview and earned your student visa, contact the school and let them know the good news. You can only enter the United States 30 days or less prior to the commencement of your program; if the dates of your program are deferred, you may need to complete a new I-20 form (though it is rare for students to pay the I-901 more than once).

Finally, F-1 visa holders should arrange all the necessary transportation and housing accommodations long before their departure. Some early planning can ensure you’ll arrive in the U.S. with enough time to adjust to your new environment and enough time to find a place to stay. When your plane touches down in the U.S., you’ll be issued an I-94 form by customs officials; this confirms you entered the country legally, so be sure to carry it with you throughout your stay (and make a few copies just in case).

M-1 Student Visa

The M-1 Student Visa, like the F-1, is primarily given to students who wish to take part in a U.S. educational program; however, M-1 holders are almost always vocational students enrolled in technical programs (as opposed to the academic programs that F-1 holders attend). Individuals with an M-1 visa are not allowed to work during their visit, and many are required to pay the entire tuition bill up front (or, at the very least, provide documentation that all necessary funds are readily available).

The process for obtaining an M-1 visa is similar to that of the F-1; the applicant must submit a form I-20 that is issued from the higher learning institution the student hopes to attend. The individual must also complete a DS-160 form prior to their interview at the nearest American consulate office; in some cases, a DS-156 or DS-157 form will be required in lieu of the DS-160. In addition, the applicant must complete a Form I-20M-N in order to receive legal standing as a temporary immigrant.

J-1 Student Visa

The J-1 Student Visa is available to any foreign citizen who wishes to take part in a practical, on-the-job training course in the United States. Most individuals who obtain this type of visa do so as part of a workplace exchange program. There are currently 170,000 J-1 visa-holders in the United States; the vast majority of them stay with host families during their visit.

Individuals who wish to obtain a J-1 visa must first be endorsed by a ‘sponsoring organization’ approved by the U.S. Department of State. Sponsoring organizations come in all shapes and sizes, from corporations and large firms to startup companies and nonprofit groups. The popularity of the J-1 program has increased in recent years, as has the number of sponsoring organizations; for this reason, prospective applicant should research different options to make sure their visa comes from a legitimate entity. Once the applicant has been endorsed, they must complete and submit a DS-2019 form in order to receive the visa.

Compared to F-1 visas (which are typically given to traditional students), J-1s have a little more flexibility. For example, recipients often work part-time jobs in order to supplement their income. Another perk is that a student’s spouse or children may accompany them during their visit, but each relative must obtain a J-2 prior to their arrival in the U.S. However, the rules and requirements of each program vary; any applicant with special considerations should check with the program’s director prior to receiving an endorsement.

Programs for J-1 holders typically last between three and 18 months; upon completion, the student is required to return to their home country. Some students are able to receive extensions for their program, though this will require the completion of a new DS-2019.

Take Advantage of Government Resources

Finally, it should be noted that attending college in the United States can be much more expensive than in other countries. For this reason, international students should consider applying for scholarships that will help fund the hefty tuition bills; this site from U.S. News & World Report is a helpful resource for tracking down scholarship opportunities.

Foreign students who wish to attend school in the United States have no shortage of options when it comes to choosing a program, whether they wish to take part in traditional academic studies, vocational training, or a workplace exchange. While applying for and obtaining a visa may sound like a confusing jumble of forms and interviews, there are plenty of online and offline resources to aid you in the process. For more information on the F-1, M-1, and J-1 student visas, please visit the official website for the U.S. Department of State.