M-1 Vocational Student Visa to the U.S.: Do You Qualify?

Can you get an M-1 student visa to the United States for a vocational program, and if so, how?

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

The M-1 visa is available to people coming to the U.S. for vocational (non-academic) study, for example at a cosmetology, mechanics, flight training, or cooking course. (This visa is authorized by the the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act; see I.N.A § 101(a)(15)(M), 8 C.F.R. § 214(m).) There is no limit on the number of people who can receive M-1 student visas in any one year.

You might not need to go through the whole process of applying for a student visa, however. If you come to the U.S. as a visitor for pleasure (B-2 visa), it's okay to take a class or two for recreational purposes. Similarly, people who have a spouse or parent in the U.S. with an A, E, G, H, J, L, or NATO visa or status, or workers in H status can attend school so long as they don't do anything that interferes with the other terms of their visa or nonimmigrant status.

Key Features of the M-1 Student Visa

Here are some of the pluses, minuses, and important considerations for holders of an M-1 vocational student visa:

  • The application process is relatively quick and straightforward.
  • You may come to the U.S. as a full-time vocational or nonacademic student enrolled in a program leading to a degree or certificate.
  • You can arrive in the United States up to 30 days before the start of classes, and depart 30 days after your studies end (a "grace period," in which you are expected to prepare for departure from the United States).
  • You can transfer from one vocational school to another, but only if you apply for and receive permission from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) beforehand. Once you are six months into your program of studies, you are prohibited from transferring except under truly exceptional circumstances.
  • You are never permitted to change your course of study.
  • You may not work during your period of studies in the U.S.
  • You can request USCIS permission to work for up to six months after your studies are done. The job must be considered practical training for your field of study.
  • You may travel in and out of the U.S. or remain there until the completion of your studies, up to a maximum of one year. If you have not completed your program in a year or by the time your school projected, whichever is less, you must apply for an extension.
  • M-1 entry visas are typically issued for the estimated length of time it will take to complete your proposed program of studies. Consulates will use their judgment in deciding the expiration date of the visa.
  • The maximum extension allowed is three years from the original start date.
  • Visas are available for accompanying relatives (in category M-2), although your relatives may not accept employment in the United States.

Further below, we give a bit more information on some of these key features.

Do You Qualify for an M-1 Student Visa?

To qualify for an M-1 vocational student visa, you first must have been accepted at a school that has received advance approval from the U.S. government for M-1 students. You must be coming to the U.S. as a bona fide student pursuing a full course of study. That means you must attend at least 18 hours per week, if the courses consist mostly of classroom study; or if the courses mostly laboratory work, 22 hours per week. Your intended school program must lead to a vocational objective, such as a diploma or certificate.

You must also already be accepted by the school of your choice and have enough money to study full-time without working. The U.S. consulate deciding on your visa will ask you to prove that you have enough cash on hand to cover all your expenses for up to a year.

You must be able to speak, read, and write English well enough to understand the course work (and, as a practical matter, the consular officer who interviews you for the visa, who will be informally testing your English ability). Alternatively, the school can offer special tutoring or instruction in your native language to help overcome any linguistic barriers.

In addition to proving you have the necessary background and financial capacity to pursue your studies, you must prove that you intend to return to your home country when your program is over. This is the same requirement for almost all nonimmigrant (temporary) visas (except a few that allow "dual intent"). If you are going to look for a way to take up permanent residence in the U.S. when your visa runs out, you are legally ineligible for an M-1 visa.

How Do I Gain Admission Into a Program I Can Attend on an M-1 Visa?

Again, you cannot start the visa application process until you have been admitted to a school that has received U.S.-government approval ("SEVP" or Student and Exchange Visitor Program certification) to accept foreign students. Once you have been accepted, and indicated that you will attend (usually by paying a deposit), the school will prepare a Form I-20 Certificate of Eligibility using its online Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and send a copy of the form to you.

Take good care of this form, because you'll be submitting it as part of your visa application. Immigration officials will want to see the hard copy, despite the fact that they will verify the information using the online SEVIS system. The school should not charge you any money for issuing the I-20.

How Do I Prepare the Application Forms and Documents for an M-1 Vocational Study Visa?

Here is what you will need to ready (in addition to your Form I-20) for your visa application and interview:

  • State Department Form DS-160, which you will fill out online.
  • A passport valid for travel to the United States and with an expiration date at least six months beyond your intended period of stay in the United States.
  • One two-inch-by-two-inch photograph, U.S. passport-style.
  • A receipt to show that you have paid the visa application fee as well as a "reciprocity fee" if one is charged in your country (it applies only in countries that charge U.S. students a fee to get a visa). See the Student Visa page of the State Department website for details.
  • A receipt to show that you have paid the SEVIS I-901 fee.
  • Proof that you have any required credentials, such as transcripts and diplomas from schools or programs you have attended.
  • Financial evidence showing that you have sufficient funds to cover your tuition and living expenses (including a spouse and children's expenses, if they're coming with you) during your intended period of U.S. study. It's important that you be able to cover these expenses without you, your spouse, or your children having to work in the United States. Examples of likely evidence include copies of bank statements or stock certificates showing family funds; a list of your total cash assets; an employer letter or related evidence that family members who will support you from your home country are employed; evidence that you or your family members possess assets that can be readily converted to cash; a filled-out Form I-134 (a form that's issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or USCIS) for purposes of showing family support); and notifications of any scholarships, fellowships, assistant-ships, grants or loans from your school, government, or private sources.
  • Documents showing that you will return to your home country at the end of your U.S. stay, such as a copy of your home title or rental agreement, a sworn affidavit from your parents listing all the family members who live in your home country; a statement of why you, too, are likely to return (especially if there is a family business or property); evidence that you are leaving a spouse and children behind, such as copies of marriage and birth certificates; documentation of an existing business or employment that you will return to, documentation of your career potential in your home country, documentation of any monetary bonds that you paid to government scholarship funders in order to guarantee your return, and/or a prepaid, round-trip plane ticket to and from the United States.

Attending Your Visa Interview at a U.S. Consulate

As the final step in obtaining an M-1 student visa, you will most likely need to attend a personal interview at a U.S. consulate. Expect to have the consular interviewer review the contents of your application and ask you about both your plans while in the U.S. and your intention to return home afterwards. The officer will also be double-checking that your English is good enough for U.S. study. If all goes well, you will be granted an M-1 student visa. You might also need to pay a visa issuance fee at this point.

Your country's capital city probably has at least one U.S. embassy, and other major cities may have smaller consulates via the State Department's website at http://www.usembassy.gov/.

In some countries, you can to go straight to the consulate, present your application and paperwork, and receive a visa within a day. In others, the decision can take several weeks, or applications might need to be mailed in. Check with your local U.S. consulate via telephone or their website regarding its procedures.

For more information on this part of the process, see The Day of Your Consular Interview.

How Would I Qualify to Extend My M-1 Stay in the U.S.?

If your vocational program will extend beyond the date indicated on your I-20 and I-94, you can apply for an extension of your permitted stay, by submitting:
  • USCIS Form I-539.
  • Filing fee (see the USCIS web page for Form I-539 to get the latest). Send a check or money order payable to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; or fill out Form G-1450, Authorization for Credit Card Transactions, to pay by credit card. Do not send cash.
  • Form I-94 (available online); and those of your dependent family members, if applicable).
  • Copy of SEVIS Form I-20.
  • Documentation showing that you will be able to pay for your studies and your, as well as any family member's, stay in the U.S. until the end of your vocational program.
Submit all this per the instructions on the I-539 page of the USCIS website.

How Can I Qualify for Brief Employment After Completing My M-1 Studies?

After successfully completing your M-1 studies, you can be approved for a period of paid (or unpaid) practical training, up to six months. USCIS calculates the number of months based on how long you have been studying: You will get one month of work permission for every four months of full-time study.

Make sure you'll be applying at the right time. You can't apply for post-completion practical training earlier than 60 days before the end of your studies; but you can't apply later than 30 days after the end of your studies. Then, you'll need to pull together or prepare the items described below. The forms are available for free download from the USCIS website.

  • SEVIS Form I-20 ID, endorsed by your designated student officer (DSO).
  • USCIS Form I-539, Application to Change/Extend Nonimmigrant Status.
  • USCIS Form I-765.
  • Two photos (passport-style). Print your name in pencil on the back of the photos.
  • Fees for Forms I-765 and I-539 (per the USCIS instructions with these forms). Send a check or money order, payable to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; or fill out Form G-1450, Authorization for Credit Card Transactions, to pay by credit card. Do not send cash.

Submit all this per the instructions on the I-539 page of the USCIS website. Once USCIS approves your application, you will receive a plastic work permit card with your photo on it and an expiration date. This will be good for a maximum of six months. You are not allowed to work until you receive this card.

How Can I Arrange to Take a Vacation in the U.S. Following Completion of My M-1 Studies?

If you like, you can ask to stay longer than your grace period allows, in order to be a tourist in the United States. Do so by applying for what is called a "Change of Status" to tourist, or visitor status. First, see A B-2 Visa for Visiting the U.S. as a Tourist: Do You Qualify?

To apply, you must fill out Form I-539, per the instructions provided, and submit it to USCIS before the end of your grace period. When approved, you will receive a new Form I-94 showing the date by which you must leave the United States.

Because you are changing immigration status, not receiving an actual visa, this will be good for the length of your stay only. If you leave and need to return to the United States, even before the expiration of your permitted stay, you will need to visit a U.S. consulate, show them the evidence of your new status that you got from USCIS, and reapply for an entry visa. In most cases, U.S. immigration authorities allow B-2 visitor stays of no more than six months, although technically the legal maximum is one year.

Do I Need an Attorney's Help?

Most people are able to apply for M-1 visas without an attorney, or with the help of the foreign student advisers at the school where they'll be studying. Nevertheless, if you have questions or run into problems with the U.S. immigration system, hiring an attorney can be a great help.

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