In addition to the forms and fees that you’ll need to submit in order to apply for an F-1 or M-1 student visa, you’ll also need to assemble copies of your official or personal papers. The purpose is to confirm your ability to support yourself during your studies in the U.S. and attest to your intent to return home at the end.
Below is a full list of the required documents, with references to discussions below that provide further explanation. You’ll need:
- a copy of the primary pages of your passport, which must be valid for at least six months longer than your intended stay in the U.S.
- if you’re already in the U.S. and applying for a change of status, your original I-94 card (if you received one at the U.S. border) or if you entered the U.S. after this form was automated in early 2013, a copy printed from your online record at the Customs & Border Patrol website
- if already in the U.S., documentation that you have not fallen out of lawful immigration status (by overstaying or violating the conditions of your visa) since arriving; normally your I-94 will be enough to show that you have maintained lawful status
- documents showing that you will return to your home country (see below)
- documents showing that you have the academic credentials to attend the school or program of your choice, including diplomas, transcripts and scores from standardized tests required by the school that you’ll be attending
- documents showing that you can pay your tuition, fees and living expenses, including a Form I-134 Affidavit of Support if necessary (see, below)
Proving Your Intent to Return Home
One of your most important tasks in applying for student status is to prove that you plan to return home when your studies are over. The most convincing documents are those that come from official sources. A deed, for example, showing that you own a house, will be considered stronger evidence than a letter from your mother saying she wants you to come home. Nevertheless, there is no limit on how many documents you can submit. Consider providing:
- a copy of a home title or rental agreement, either of which shows that you have a stable place to live in your home country
- a sworn affidavit from your parents listing all the family members who live in your home country, including details to show that they are all firmly settled there; even better is to include examples of why you, too, are likely to return (especially if there is a family business or property)
- a sworn affidavit drafted by you that lists all the reasons why you plan to return home; and if you can provide documentation for any of the reasons you list, make sure you provide that too
- evidence that you are leaving a spouse and children in your home country, such as copies of marriage and birth certificates; leaving your family behind is not a requirement, but if you do plan to leave them, make the most of this information
- documentation of an existing business or employment that you will return to, such as a business license or a letter from your employer
- evidence that you maintain bank accounts in your home country
- documentation of your career potential in your home country, including statistics from a reputable source showing that people with your skills are in high demand; or a letter from a potential employer
- documentation of any monetary bonds that you paid to government scholarship funders in order to guarantee your return (copies of your receipts and correspondence will be best), and
- a copy of a prepaid plane ticket out of the United States.
Proving Your Ability to Pay
You must prove that you can cover your tuition and living expenses not only for yourself, but for any spouse and children who will be staying with you in the United States. You do not have to show that you have the funds to cover the entire period of your stay, but you must have enough to cover the expenses for your first academic year of study. Try to provide a combination of documents that show:
- personal or family funds, such as copies of bank statements or stock certificates. Combine this with a list summarizing your total cash assets. If a bank statement shows a recent deposit but a low average balance, the U.S. government will want an explanation. Attach your own statement or an official document showing the source of the new cash to the bank statement. Your goal is to overcome suspicion that the money was borrowed from a friend to pad the account and make the financial situation look better than it is.
- the employment status of family members who will support you, such as a letter, on company letterhead, from an employer or copies of their income tax statements; it helps if that family member also provides a letter that states how much money they plan to provide you from their income.
- assets held by you or your family members that can be readily converted to cash. (The conversion must be done in a country whose currency is traded internationally.) For example, real estate (land) is a good asset to show. Provide information about whether the property is owned free and clear or whether it carries any debt or lien; such as bank or other receipts showing the extent to which loans or mortgages have been paid off. If the ownership papers don’t make the value clear, or show a value that seems too low, you can hire a professional appraiser to prepare an estimate and report.
- scholarships, fellowships, assistantships, grants or loans from your school, government, or private sources. Although these will also be listed on your I-20, you must provide independent confirmation. Usually a copy of the notification letter you received is best.
If your family members will be supporting you, they can use a USCIS Form I-134 to indicate that they not only have the income and assets you’ve shown, but they are willing to spend them on your studies and living expenses.
If individuals who are not members of your family are willing to support you, use any of the types of evidence mentioned above for family members, including a Form I-134 Affidavit of Support, plus a sworn statement explaining why they are so willing, able, and motivated to support someone outside their family. The statement should mention that the person understands that she is not just a “backup” if other sources fail, but that she will be immediately responsible for paying all or part of your tuition, fees and expenses.
For more information on student visas, see the articles on the "Student and Exchange Visitor Visas" page of Nolo's website.