Due to the complexities surrounding immigration law and the pages of paperwork that typically accompany immigration applications, it is usually advisable to consult with a licensed immigration attorney to assist you with your immigration matters. Student visas, however, are one of the few areas of immigration law that most applicants can handle without the help of an immigration attorney.
(This article assumes that you are outside the United States. If you are already in the U.S. in some other legal status, but you want to become a student in F-1 status, then technically you would not necessarily need to apply for a "visa" but instead most likely a "change of status.")
A foreigner must, in most cases, obtain a student visa in order to enter and study in the United States. Unless you plan to study in the U.S. recreationally for a short period of time, you will be a full-time academic student who must obtain a valid F-1 visa and use it to enter and study in the United States.
All foreign students whose studies will lead to a U.S. degree or certificate must have F-1 status, regardless of their length of stay.
While the complexities surrounding most immigration applications practically necessitate assistance from an immigration attorney, you have another source of professional help: F-1 student visas are obtained with assistance from staff at your school of enrollment.
To begin the process, you must first apply to and be accepted into a school that is certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). To find out whether your school or university is SEVP-certified, visit the SEVP School Search feature on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security website.
If the school or university to which you have been accepted is SEVP-certified, you will be enrolled in what's called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Again, you do not need to hire an attorney in order to do this. Instead, your school will assign you a “designated school official” (DSO), who will help you through the application process and communicate with SEVP on your behalf.
Your DSO will make sure you correctly pay the SEVIS I-901 fee. Your DSO will also give you a partially filled out Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status for Academic and Language Students), which you must fill out portions of yourself and then give to the U.S. consular officer when you attend your visa interview.
If you are married and/or have minor children, and they plan to come to the U.S. with you during your course of study (typically via an F-2 visa), each family member must fill out and present a Form I-20, but they do not have to pay the SEVIS fee. Keep in mind that F-2 visa holders are not permitted to work in the United States.
It is important for you to get to know your DSO, because he or she will help with all your student visa-related matters throughout your course of study in America. You should stay in close communication with your DSO and always talk with him or her before you do things like begin working in the U.S., take a vacation, travel outside the U.S., change your major, drop a class, and so on. Changes to your course of study or unauthorized work could negatively impact your F-1 status.
Remember, a student visa is a temporary visa, which typically does not cover you past your time as a student in the United States. While you do not need to hire an attorney to extend your F-1 visa, it is highly advisable to consult with a licensed, reputable immigration attorney should you wish to apply to change your immigration status after you finish your degree.
Keep in mind that the F-1 visa is for academic students enrolled in a U.S. school, college, or university. Foreign students wishing to study a trade or at a vocational school should apply for an M-1 visa. For more information about M-1 visas, see M-1 Vocational Student Visa to the U.S.: Do You Qualify?.
It is also important to note that certain situations may hinder or delay your ability to obtain an F-1 visa. For example, if you were found inadmissible to the United States in the past, or failed to pass a security check on the Consular Lookout and Security System, or you cannot adequately show your intent to return to your home country upon finishing your studies, these could all lead to a visa denial.
If any of these circumstances apply to you, you should consult with an immigration attorney in order to hopefully sort out any issues and avoid a delay or denial of your F-1 visa application.
For more information about whether or not your may qualify for an F-1 student visa, see F-1 Student Visa to the U.S.: Do You Qualify?.