If you want to study in the U.S.--at an American elementary, middle, or high school; a college or university; or a seminary--an F-1 student visa may 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.
(Note: To see the U.S. law authorizing the F-1 visa, see the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) at I.N.A section 101(a)(15)(F), as well as the regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) at 8 C.F.R. section 214(f).)
The F-1 visa is specifically for academic students. If you're interested in a vocational program instead, 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 tourist 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 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 (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.
: Hoping to study a subject that may 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 may 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 the staff called the designated school official (DSO). 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. Nolo's Lawyer Directory can help you find an attorney who fits your needs and who has taken the Nolo pledge promising respectful service. Look in particular for an attorney with expertise in student visas (even immigration law has subspecialties within it).