If you want to study in the United States, whether at an elementary, middle, or high school, college, university, or seminary, an F-1 student visa might allow you to do just that. Every year, approximately 600,000 people come to the United States on student visas. Fortunately, the number of people who can receive these visas is unlimited.
(To see the U.S. law authorizing the F-1 visa, go to the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) at I.N.A § 101(a)(15)(F), as well as the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) at 8 C.F.R. § 214(f).)
The F-1 visa is specifically for academic students. If you're interested in a vocational program instead (such as cooking or technical courses), look into the M-1 visa. And keep in mind that not everyone planning to study in the U.S. needs an F-1 student visa. If you come as a tourist (on a B-2 visa or the visa waiver program) and want to take a class or two for recreational reasons (less than 18 hours a week), that's okay. Doing so will not violate your B-2 visitor visa status.
Similarly, if you have a spouse or parent in the United States with an A, E, G, H, J, L, or NATO visa or status, or if you're working for a U.S. employer in H status, you can attend school so long as it does not interfere with the other terms of your visa or nonimmigrant status. (For more information on other nonimmigrant visa options, check out Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visas: Who Qualifies?)
Here are some of the pluses, minuses, and other crucial things to know about the F-1 student visa:
How do you qualify for an F-1 student visa? First, you must get accepted by a school—and not just any school, but one that is (with a few exceptions) accredited and approved by the U.S. government. (Don't worry, most reputable schools are approved, and you can easily check on this.)
You must also have enough money to study full-time without working. You must be planning to be a bona fide student (that is, not just using the visa as a way to get into the U.S.). And, you must pursue a full course of study (as opposed to being a part-time student). Your intended school program must lead to an objective such as a degree, diploma, or certificate.
In addition, you must be able to speak, read, and write English well enough to understand the course work. As an alternative, the school can offer special tutoring or instruction in your native language to help you become able to study in English. Or, you can come to the U.S. for the specific purpose of studying English, either on an F-1 visa (if the program is a full-time course of study, or lasts longer than one year) or for short programs, on a B-2, tourist visa.
Finally, you must prove that you intend to return to your home country when your program of study is over.
You will need to prove all of the above to the satisfaction of the U.S. government, as part of the standard application process. And be warned, the government has several preset ideas about who might be committing fraud when submitting an F-1 application, such as students who are much older than the norm.
Warning: Are you hoping to study a subject that could have international security implications? If so, and if you're from a country that's on the U.S. government's list of supporters of terrorism, you might not be allowed a student visa. For example, studying biochemistry, nuclear physics, or missile telemetry could make it more difficult for some applicants to get an F-1 visa.
If you think you might qualify for an F-1 visa and would like to apply, your most important task is to find a U.S. school to accept you for admission. At every government-approved school, there is a person on staff called the designated school official (DSO) or something similar. The DSO is recognized by USCIS and the U.S. State Department as having primary responsibility for dealing with foreign students. That person will help guide you through the rest of the process.
To educate yourself more about the student visa, including what to expect during the application process, see U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo). Or, you might want to consult an immigration attorney for a personal analysis. Look in particular for an attorney with expertise in student visas (even immigration law has subspecialties within it).