This article gives the "nuts and bolts" of putting together a student visa application from overseas. The application requirements are nearly identical for F-1 (academic) and M-1 (vocational) visa applicants, so we address both here.
Warning: The coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic has created major barriers at every stage of the student visa application process. Even after the situation normalizes, expect delays or procedural changes to what's described below.
You will start the process by getting admitted to a school in the United States. Then you'll fill out and assemble more paperwork and take or send it all to a nearby U.S. embassy or consulate for a decision. Once your application has been approved, the consular officer will stamp a visa into your passport and you will be ready for travel to the United States.
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.
If applying to academic programs, start contacting schools at least a year before you plan to start your studies. Vocational programs typically take less time to gain admission to.
Foreign students are allowed to attend U.S. private schools at any level, as well as public colleges and universities. However, you are not allowed to attend public elementary or middle schools (kindergarten through 8th grade) at all, and can attend only one year of a U.S. public high school (9th through 12th grade); and you'll have to pay for that year.
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.
You may apply for a visa up to 120 days prior to the program start date on your Form I-20.
You will be applying for your student visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Start by locating the nearest one. Your country's capital city probably has at least one 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.
Here is what you will need to ready (in addition to your Form I-20) for your visa application and interview:
As the final step in obtaining an F-1 or M-1 student visa, you will most likely need to attend a personal interview at a U.S. consulate.
However, as of late 2021, U.S. consular officers are authorized to waive the visa interview requirement for F and M visa applicants who were previously issued any type of U.S. visa, had never been refused a visa, and have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility; as well as first-time F, M, and academic J visa applicants who are citizens or nationals of a country that participates in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), so long as they have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility. You'll need to request this waiver, however; it's not automatic.
If you attend an in-person interview, 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 a student visa. You might also need to pay a visa issuance fee at this point.
For more information on this part of the process, see The Day of Your Consular Interview.