Getting a U.S. Visa for a Short, Recreational or Part-Time Study Course

A tourist visa might be more appropriate than a student visa if you don't want to pursue full-time study.

If you are hoping to take a few classes in the United States, the first type of visa you are likely to look into is a student visa. But you will quickly discover that the F-1 visa is for academic students entering a full-time program, usually at a college or university that has received U.S. government certification through the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). The lesser-known M-1 visa, for vocational students, also requires full-time study at an approved program.

But what if your plans are for more casual or fun study? For example, a few weeks of cooking, yoga or art classes? Or perhaps you just want to take a short or part-time academic course and spend the rest of your time traveling in the United States. A U.S. visitor visa, with the designation "B-2," might actually work for this. (See 22 C.F.R. § 41.31.)

When a B-2 Visa Might Work for a Short Study Trip

A B-2 tourist visa can be preferable to applying for an F-1 or M-1 student visa, particularly if your intention is simply to take a short class. For one thing, the application process will be shorter and simpler.

The main criteria to consider in deciding which visa you qualify for is whether or not your planned course of study lasts 18 hours or more a week. If so, you will need a student visa. If it will be for less than 18 hours a week, you might qualify for a tourist visa.

Talk to the school or program you will be attending, which should have information about the past experience of foreign students attending their school. If that doesn't get you the answers you need, talk to your local U.S. consulate.

Meeting the B-2 Eligibility Criteria

If you decide the most likely strategy is for you to enter the U.S. as a tourist, you will need to fit the normal eligibility criteria for a tourist visa, described in A B-2 Visa for Visiting the U.S. as a Tourist: Do You Qualify?.

That means when you apply, you will have to show that your trip is for the purpose of pleasure and that you do not plan to stay in the United States permanently. The maximum stay you will be allowed is ordinarily six months, but if your course lasts longer, you might be allowed up to one year. You can ask for permission to stay longer than six months when you are being admitted at the port of entry (a U.S. airport or border facility, most likely).

Receiving and Using Your B-2 Visa

When you get your visitor visa, the U.S. consulate should put a special notation in it regarding your study plans: "Study incidental to visit: I-20 not required." Examine your visa when you get it, and request such a notation if it's not there. This notation will avoid confusion at the border and in the United States, by showing that you aren't misusing a visa meant primarily for tourists. (The "I-20" is a form that academic and vocational students must receive from their school before applying for their visa.)

If the U.S. consulate doesn't put this notation in your visa, this shouldn't stop you from entering the United States. When you get to the airport, border, or other port of entry, however, be very sure to state that the main purpose of your trip is to be a tourist. You can mention the classes later, but if you start out by saying, "I'm here to study," the border patrol officials will quiz you on why you didn't get a student visa.

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