After all your preparation to apply for a student (F-1 or M-1) visa, you will have the chance to speak with an official at a U.S. consulate in your home country and hand over your forms and documents. While a few consulates may require you to do everything by mail, most want to meet applicants personally before granting a visa.
Look again at your calendar and your I-20 form before you choose a day to go to the consulate. Your visa cannot be issued more than 120 days before your program start date. You can have your interview earlier than that, but you will not get your visa until 120 days or less before your program start date.
In preparation for your visit to the U.S. consulate, carefully look through your materials one last time, checking for completeness. Read over your forms and documents to make sure all the information is clear in your head. (If you spot any mistakes or inconsistencies, fix them fast.) Then engage in a little role-playing: Knowing that the official will approach your case -- and every case -- with a bias against you, put yourself in his or her starched shirt and think of any reason the officer may have to conclude that you won’t return home after your U.S. studies are done. Be sure that you have convincing answers before you head for the consular interview.
If you’re not entirely comfortable in English, practice it as much as possible in the days before you go to the consulate. The more smoothly you can speak, the less likely the officer is to hold up the application on the grounds that you are not ready to study in the United States. (The exception, of course, would be if you are applying for an F-1 visa for the sole purpose of studying the English language.)
The interviewing officer’s decision rests in large part on whether he or she believes that you’re telling the truth. You’ll come across as more sincere if you’re dressed neatly, professionally and even conservatively. Avoid t-shirts or jewelry with slogans or symbols that might make the officer wonder about your lifestyle or morals.
Each consular office has its own procedure for reviewing applications. You may have to ask for an appointment for your visa interview, or you may be able to arrive when you’d like and wait in line. Often a clerk will be the first person to meet with you. The clerk’s job is to simply review your paperwork to make sure that everything is in order. Presenting the clerk with a well-organized file will go a long way toward getting a “Yes” answer to your visa request.
After these preliminaries, a consular officer will meet with you, place you under oath (where you raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth) and review the contents of your entire application. Many consulates now conduct interviews through bulletproof glass windows, which make you feel like you’re in a bank or a prison. And don’t count on much privacy. To make sure that the officer can hear you, some consulates have installed microphones that broadcast your conversation to everyone within hearing range.
Most consular interviews are conducted within a few minutes. Listen carefully to the precise questions you are asked. The officer wants to talk to a responsive human being, not a preprogrammed robot. (Some officers complain that visa applicants come in with memorized speeches.)
The officer will probably start by reviewing your forms and documents. He or she may ask you -questions that are identical to the ones on your forms. Since you will have reviewed these carefully, you should be able to supply the answers. If you can’t remember something, it’s much better to say so than to guess at the answer.
The officer may test your English by handing you a book, newspaper or USCIS form and asking you to read aloud from it. Even if you already passed a language exam such as the TOEFL, the officer wants to make sure that you didn’t send an English-speaking friend to take the exam for you.
The biggest area of discussion will probably be your intention to return to your home country after your travels or studies are through. The officer may ask questions such as:
If you have close family who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, the officer will wonder whether your true intention is to have them start the process of applying for a green card for you in the United States. You’ll need to come up with a convincing reason why you aren’t inclined to take advantage of this possibility.
The officer will probably consider him or herself to be an expert on your country, and you may also get some surprising questions. There’s a story about one consular officer in Eastern Europe who maintained that people from that country would always return if they owned cows, and regularly asked applicants about this.
If things are going badly; for example, the officer is acting displeased or obsessively focusing on a difficult area of your application; do not just sit quietly waiting for the officer to ask the right question. Speak up and explain what he or she has overlooked.
If the issue is whether you’ll return home after your stay, you might also ask the officer what further evidence the officer will accept; perhaps a nonrefundable airplane ticket or a “maintenance of status and departure bond” (a sum of money that only F-1, not M-1 student visa applicants can submit to the U.S. government, which you will forfeit if you do not leave the U.S. when you say you will) are two possibilities. Or, if you can name a specific item or document that you would like to bring that might change the consular officer’s mind, explain this and ask for time to submit it later. The officer may say no, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Unfortunately, the consulate’s decision will depend in part on two factors you cannot control: what country you are from, and how many people from your country have violated the terms of their visa and not returned home.
If you’re from a developing nation, you face an uphill battle. The consular officer may look at you as just another person anxious to get into the “land of opportunity.” Consular officials in Asia and Russia, where economic crises have made life very hard, believe that many applicants are really looking for a way to earn money in the United States, not to study. In addition, it is widely reported that the U.S. consulates in Asian countries frequently deny student visas for high school programs. Officers figure that since some Asian countries’ pre-college entrance exam preparation is so rigorous, any student who would miss it must not be planning to return.
Although it seems unfair, you will also be judged on the basis of those from your country who have gone before you: The State Department keeps statistics on how many visitors to the United States return home. If the statistics look bad at a certain consulate, the State Department will put pressure on that consulate to get tougher in its visa decisions.
At the end of your interview, the officer may approve your visa, ask for more information, or deny it outright.