If you want to pursue academic 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), and the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) at 8 C.F.R. § 214(f).)
This article will discuss:
- who is best suited to obtaining an F-1 visa (or not)
- key features of an F-1 visa
- how to determine your eligibility for one, and
- how to apply, whether you are currently in the United States or abroad.
Who Shouldn't Apply for an F-1 Academic Student Visa
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.
Also keep in mind that not everyone planning to study in the U.S. needs an F-1 student visa. If you come to the United States as a tourist (on a B-2 visa or the Visa Waiver Program) and want to take a class or two for recreational reasons (fewer 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 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 temporary visa options, check out Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visas: Who Qualifies?)
Key Features of the F-1 Student Visa
Here are some of the pluses, minuses, and other crucial things to know about the F-1 student visa:
- After you've been accepted by a U.S. school, the application process is reasonably fast and simple.
- You are expected to come to the United States as a full-time, in-person academic or language student enrolled in a program leading to a degree or certificate. (Online study is normally limited to one class or three credits per term, per 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(6)(i)(G)., though modifications were made at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to allow more online study, particularly for returning students).
- If you're planning to attend an elementary school or adult education program, it cannot be one that's publicly funded. You can attend a public secondary school, but only if you prepay the full cost of the program, up to a maximum of one year.
- After you're enrolled, you will be able to transfer from one school to another or switch academic programs by notifying U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
- You may, without special permission, work part-time at an on-campus job. Also, you can apply for special permission to work off campus if you can show an urgent economic need or if the job provides practical training for the field in which you're studying.
- During your time on a student visa, you're allowed to travel in and out of the United States.
- You can apply for visas for your relatives (spouse and children) to accompany you to the United States, but they may not take jobs here.
Details of F-1 Visa Eligibility Rules
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, having received "SEVP" or Student and Exchange Visitor Program certification to accept foreign students. (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.
- 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, visitor visa.
- 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. 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 can make it more difficult to get an F-1 visa.
How Long Will It Take to Get an F-1 Visa Processed?
Applying for an F-1 or M-1 student visa for study in the U.S. is not normally a lengthy process. Nevertheless, you will need to figure out two calendaring issues:
- the admission schedule for the schools to which you plan to apply (normally you'd want to start contacting schools at least a year before you plan to start your studies), and
- the typical processing schedule for the U.S. government agency through which you will obtain your visa (either an overseas consulate or USCIS within the U.S.).
Your school will likely provide you with helpful information and support during the visa application process, but ultimately it will be up to you to deal with the U.S. government in applying for a U.S. student visa.
School's Role in Supporting Your F-1 Visa Application
Once you have been accepted by a U.S. school, college, or university, 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). It will send you a copy of the form, most likely electronically. Then you'll need to print it out and sign it.
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 you through the rest of the process, which is briefly described below.
Next Step If You're Overseas: Contact Your Local U.S. Consulate to Apply for F-1 Student Visa
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 might have smaller consulates, which you can check into via the State Department's website at http://www.usembassy.gov/.
In some countries, you can to go straight to the U.S. 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.
F-1 Visa Application Forms and Documents to Present to U.S. Consulate
Here is what you will need to get ready (in addition to the SEVIS Form I-20 from your school) for your consular 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 academic credentials, such as transcripts and diplomas from schools you have attended and scores from standardized tests such as the TOEFL, SAT, GRE, or GMAT.
- 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 (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 F-1 student visa, you will most likely need to attend a personal interview at a U.S. consulate. The consular interviewer will go over 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 F-1 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. You might also need to see What to Do If Your Student Visa Is Denied.
Next Step If You're in the U.S.: Submit an Application to Change Immigration Status to F-1 Student
If you are living in the United States with a valid immigration status, you don't need to return home to obtain permission to study in the United States. Learn how to apply by reading Filling Out USCIS Form I-539 to Change Visa Status to Student (F-1 or M-1). Keep in mind, however, that USCIS cannot issue actual visas, which are required for U.S. entry. Thus if you travel while in student status, you will need to visit a U.S. consulate in your home country (in most cases) before returning, so as to obtain a visa stamp. This should be no problem given your previous USCIS approval, but it's an important step to allow your reentry.
For More Information
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).