If you want to study in the US and are not a US citizen you will need to obtain a student visa. Applying for a US student visa can be a long process, so make sure you start preparing well in advance – at least three to five months before your course is due to start. There are usually several steps to apply for a US student visa. These steps vary at each US embassy or consulate so it’s important to consult the instructions on the website of the embassy or consulate where you intend to apply.
In general, prospective students will go through five stages when applying for a US student visa:
- Apply to and be accepted by a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-approved school in the US (six to twelve months prior to US study);
- Pay the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee;
- Complete a US student visa application along with recent photo(s);
- Pay the visa application fee;
- Schedule and attend a visa interview.
Read on for detailed advice on each of these five steps.
1. Apply to an SEVP-approved institution
As an international student, you should ensure you choose an institution and program accredited by the US government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).
Accreditation is important as it ensures your degree is recognized by other universities, professional associations, employers and government ministries worldwide. Only SEVP-approved institutions can enroll students in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and provide you with the documents necessary to apply for a US student visa. Use the government’s Study in the States website to identify accredited institutions.
Unlike some countries, the US does not have a centralized university application system, so you will need to apply to each institution you are interested in separately. You’ll need to fulfill each institution’s admissions requirements, and usually will also be asked to provide proof of sufficient financial resources.
Once you have been accepted by an institution, the university will enroll you in the SEVIS system and you will be sent a SEVIS-generated document called Form I-20 if you are eligible for an F or M visa, or Form DS-2019 if you are eligible for a J visa.
The SEVP manages international students in the F and M visa classifications, while the Department of State (DoS) manages Exchange Visitor Programs and international students on J visa classifications. Both SEVP and DoS use SEVIS to track and monitor institutions, exchange visitor programs and international students.
2. Pay the SEVIS fee
You must pay the SEVIS fee at least three days prior to submitting an application for a US visa. In order to pay the fee you’ll need to file either an online or paper form. Both can be accessed through the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) SEVP website. Take care to input the required details exactly as they appear on your I-20 or DS-2019 form.
At the time of writing the I-901 fee is US$200 for F/M visa holders and $180 for J student visa holders. J visa holders working as camp counselors, au pairs or in summer work/travel pay $35 instead. The website explains the procedure for different types of payment including debit or credit card, check, international money order and Western Union Quick Pay. Having paid the fee you can return to the website to check on your payment status if desired. A third party (such as your sponsor) can also pay the fee for you. If the fee is paid on your behalf you should receive a receipt from that third party.
You can obtain and print a payment confirmation from the website at any time after processing your payment. You’ll need this confirmation as proof of fee payment at your US student visa interview. You may also be required to show the confirmation to the customs officer at your chosen US Port of Entry, if ever you change your non-immigrant status, or if you’re applying for any other US immigration benefits.
3. Complete a US student visa application
Once you have received your SEVIS form and paid the SEVIS fee, you can make an appointment with a US consulate or embassy in your country for a US student visa application. It’s best to apply as early as possible, regardless of when your program is due to start, as visa processing times can vary. Your visa can be issued up to 120 days before you’re due to enter the US.
Most countries have their own dedicated website for everything to do with making a US student visa application, which can be accessed from this main page. If you cannot find your country in the list, you may still be able to find the US embassy or consulate in your country using the US embassy’s website.
Online visa application: DS-160
In all cases you’ll need to complete the online visa application form DS-160. You’ll need to select the location from which you wish to apply and ensure you have all the documents and information you need to fill in the application. After selecting and answering a security question, you’ll be taken to the pages of the form. At the top you’ll find your application ID. You’ll need this ID to retrieve your form if you need to exit the application and return to it later.
Personal details required to complete the DS-160 form include:
- Name and date of birth
- Address and phone number
- Passport details
- Details of travel plans, and travel companions
- Details of previous US travel
- Your point of contact in the US
- Family, work and education details
- Security, background and medical health information
- SEVIS ID and address of US school/program you intend to enroll in (as printed on I-20 or DS-2019 form)
You’ll also need to upload a suitable recent photo of yourself in the format explained in the photograph requirements. If your photo upload fails you’ll need to take a printed photograph, which meets the requirements, to your visa interview.
Take care to answer all the questions accurately and fully as you may have to reschedule your visa interview appointment if you make any errors. If you get confused when filling in the application form you may find answers to your questions on the travel.state.gov website.
Once the visa application form is completed, you’ll need to electronically sign your DS-160 by clicking the “Sign Application” button at the end. After your application is uploaded you’ll be sent a confirmation page with a barcode, barcode number and your application ID number which you’ll need to print out and take to your visa interview appointment. You do not need to print the full application.
4. Pay the visa application fee
The visa application fee is also called the Machine Readable Visa Fee, or ‘MRV fee’. Make sure to review the fee payment instructions available on your embassy or consulate website as methods may vary. In general, however, there are three ways to pay the non-refundable, non-transferrable visa application fee:
- In person at an approved bank
- By phone (you’ll receive a fee confirmation number)
- Online (you’ll need to print your receipt)
During your research, don’t worry if you come across the term ‘visa issuance fee based on reciprocity’ – this does not apply for F1, F2, M1, M2, J1 and J2 visa applicants.
You’ll be asked for the MRV fee receipt when you get to your visa interview appointment. Some J visa applicants will not need to pay application processing fees if participating in a US Agency for International Development (USAID) program or a federally funded educational and cultural exchange program with a program serial number beginning G-1, G-2, G-3 or G-7.
5. Schedule and attend a US student visa interview
The final step in getting a US student visa is to arrange and attend a visa interview. You can do this either online or using the phone, by calling your nearest US embassy or consulate. In either case, you should complete the MRV fee payment first, as you may need to give your MRV fee number.
The visa application process cannot be completed until you appear for an interview with a consular officer. Don’t worry if you need to schedule your interview appointment at a different US embassy or consulate than the one you used to apply for your visa. The barcode from your DS-160 can be used to retrieve your information in any US embassy or consulate. However, be aware that it may be difficult to qualify for a visa if you apply outside your place of permanent residence. Wait times for visa interview appointments vary by location, season and visa category.
Documents for the visa interview
Check the website of the embassy or consulate where you will apply to make sure you have all the required documents needed for your interview. These documents may include:
- Passport valid for at least six months beyond your period of stay in the US. If more than one person is included in your passport, each person who needs a visa must submit a separate application. You may also need to bring all your current and old passports.
- Signed SEVIS Form I-20 or DS-2019 (including individual forms for spouse/children)
- Form DS-7002 (for J-1 Trainee and Intern visa applicants only)
- SEVIS fee receipt
- DS-160 application confirmation page with barcode and application ID number
- MRV fee payment confirmation receipt
- Printed copy of visa interview appointment letter
- 1-2 photographs in the format explained in the photograph requirements. Should be printed on photo quality paper.
You should also be prepared to provide the following documents:
- Transcripts and diplomas from previous institutions attended
- Scores from standardized tests required by the educational institution such as the TOEFL, LSAT, GRE, GMAT, etc.
- Financial evidence showing you or your sponsor (i.e. parents or a government sponsor) has sufficient funds to cover your tuition, travel and living expenses during your stay in the US.
You can also bring along a separate written list of all your previous employers and schools you have attended for reference.
Any derivative visa applicants will need to take:
- A copy of the marriage and/or birth certificate for proof of relationship
- A copy of the principal applicant’s visa (i.e. F-1, M-1, J-1), or official documentation from the USCIS confirming the principal applicant’s status.
- A copy of the personal data page from the principle applicant’s passports.
Attending the visa interview
It’s important to be on time for your visa interview – late applicants may be asked to reschedule for another day. In most cases only applicants with a scheduled appointment will be admitted inside the US embassy or consulate. Exceptions include a parent for children under 18, translators, and assistants for the disabled – you’ll need to contact your chosen embassy or consulate to give them the name of the parent, translator or assistant who will accompany you.
The purpose of the visa interview is for the consular officer to determine whether you are qualified to receive a US student visa and, if so, which visa category is appropriate for you. Be prepared to answer questions regarding ties to your home country, your English language skills, your academic background, the program in the US to which you have been admitted, and proof of your financial resources. You may also be asked to explain your plans for when your studies are finished.
Ink-free, digital fingerprint scans will be taken as part of your application process. This usually happens at your visa interview.
After your interview the consular officer will tell you if your application requires further administrative processing – this can mean additional time for you to wait to receive your visa. Wait times will vary depending on country. You will also be informed how and when your passport with the visa will be returned to you (usually pick-up or delivery by courier). In some countries the courier company will send you an email with a tracking number which you can use to track the delivery of your passport.
F-1 and M-1 visas can be issued up to 120 days in advance of your study start date, but you will not be allowed to enter the US earlier than 30 days before your start date. J-1 visas can be issued at any time. If you want to enter the US before these 30 days, you must qualify for and obtain a visitor visa. The 30 day limitation does not apply to students returning to resume studies – they may enter the US at any time provided they have a valid visa.
Using your visa
As there is no guarantee you will be issued a visa, do not make final travel plans or buy tickets until you have a visa. Be aware that a valid visa does not guarantee entry into the US: it only allows you to travel to a US port-of-entry and request permission to enter the US. Permission to enter is given by a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official.
Always carry your visa-related documents in your hand luggage, as you’ll need to be able to present the documents at your port of entry. Documents you should keep with you include:
- SEVIS Form I-20 or DS-2019
- Evidence of financial resources
- Evidence of student status (such as recent tuition receipts and transcripts)
- Name and contact information for your Designated School Official (DSO), including a 24-hour emergency contact number at your chosen institution.
- If you’re an exchange student: letter from your home university stating your intent to return to your home university.
You must have your Form I-20/DS-2019 every time you enter the US – if you take a vacation outside of the US you will need the SEVIS form to re-enter the country.
Arrival in the US
If arriving in the US by plane, you’ll need to fill in a Customs Declaration form (CF-6059) before you land. You can ask a flight attendant for help if you don’t understand the form. You will also need to fill in an Arrival/Departure Record I-94 form, online or paper form. Your US student visa is valid until the date shown on your visa. The CBP officer will record a separate date or “D/S” (duration of status) on your I-94 form. This is the date by which you must leave the US. You may stay in the US until this date even if your visa expires during your stay. However, if you depart the US with an expired visa, you will need to obtain a new one before being able to return and resume your studies. A student visa cannot be renewed or re-issued in the US; it must be done at a US embassy or consulate abroad.
If you are given a paper I-94 form, the date will be noted on the paper. If you are given an electronic I-94, the CBP officer will provide an admission stamp on your passport which serves as proof of your electronic I-94 and write the D/S on the stamp.
If you are given a paper I-94 form make sure to keep it safe in your passport as you’ll need to return it to a CBP official when you leave the US. If you have an electronic I-94, a CBP official will instead record your departure using manifest information obtained from the air or sea carrier with which you are travelling.
You should report to the office in your institution which is responsible for assisting international students within 30 days of your course start date, as this appears on your SEVIS I-20/DS-2019 form. This could be the Office of International Services, the Office of International Education, the International Programs Office, or similar. A Designated School Official (DSO) will validate your intended participation by reporting your arrival to the SEVIS system. This must be done within the 30 days or your record on SEVIS will be automatically terminated and you may be considered to be in violation of your status in the US.
The DSO will also be available to advise you on matters such as insurance. As the US does not have a social healthcare system, it will almost certainly be a requirement of enrolment at your US institution that you provide proof of having purchased private health insurance to cover you for medical treatment.
Departure from the US
F-1 visa holders may remain in the US for an additional 60 days following the completion of their course, while M-1 and J-1 visa holders can only remain an additional 30 days following the completion of their course. This is called a ‘grace period’ and allows the applicant to prepare for their departure from the US.
All students must depart before the date on their I-94 form/stamp. Failure to depart the US will cause you to be out-of-status. Being out-of-status in the US is a violation of immigration laws, and may cause you to be ineligible for a visa in the future. If you wish to extend your stay you’ll need approval from USCIS. If you’re a continuing student you may renew your visa at any time, as long as you have maintained your student status and have current SEVIS records.
This article was originally published in December 2013. It was updated in February 2016.