Once you’ve been accepted by a U.S. college, you still need to secure a student visa in order to legally enter the country. While this isn’t usually difficult, it can be a long, drawn-out process. The best way to speed up the process is to make sure that you have all the required documents.
There are basically three types of student visas in the U.S. The F-1 visa is the one most commonly used by college students in programs that take 4 years or longer. The M-1 visa is designed for students who are attending a trade or professional school, usually for 2 years or less. The J-1 visa is for exchange students, who often study in the U.S. for just one term or one year. You’re probably interested in an F-1 visa.
You apply for a student visa at the U.S. Embassy or consulate in your home country. The same rules apply to both. Just for convenience, let’s assume that in your country it’s an embassy. Apply early! It can take a long time to get an interview for a student visa. As soon as you have been accepted by a college, begin the process.
The visa process starts after you are accepted by a U.S. college. Once you are accepted, the college will send you all the paperwork showing that you are going to become a student. They will also send an I-20 form, which is your application for a student visa. Your name is also entered into a nation-wide government database called SERVIS that is designed to track international students.
SEVIS is the Student and Exchange Visitor Information system. It helps schools and the federal government monitor students on F-1, M-1, and J-1 visas, as well as their dependents. When you are accepted into a college program as an international student, your information is entered into SEVIS. The SEVIS generates an I-20 form, which allows you to apply for a student visa. You will also have to pay a special SEVIS fee to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. You can pay the fee on a website, through Western Union, or by mail.
Be sure to apply for your student visa as soon as you receive the I-20 form. If you wait until June to apply for your visa, you may not receive it by September. Special security procedures in place since 2001 mean it takes longer than ever to get a student visa. Sometimes the embassy officer is required to get special clearances, depending on your nationality and the subject you are studying.
If your husband, wife or children will accompany you to the U.S., they will need F-2 visas. They can apply for the F-2 visas when you apply for your F-1 visa. Or, they can apply for F-2 visas after you are in the U.S., studying.
If you’re between the ages of 13 and 79, you’ll probably be required to interview at the embassy. Usually, you’ll be fingerprinted at the interview. They’ll only check two fingers and it’s done by computer, so there’s no messy ink. You will almost always have to interview at the U.S. embassy in your own country, in order to receive your first student visa. Check the embassy website or call the embassy to find out what the requirements are in your country. Pay special attention to the list of documents required, which is on every embassy website.
The main purpose of the visa interview is to assure the embassy official that you don’t intend to stay in the U.S. illegally after your education is finished. This procedure is quite strict. The official has to assume that you are trying to stay in the U.S. permanently. You need to convince him or her that you will return to your own country once your education is completed. The best way to do this is to show that you have strong ties to family, friends and the community in your own country.
Plan ahead for your visa interview. Check the embassy website, and make sure you bring all the required paperwork with you. In addition to your I-20 form, bring your current school records and all information from your U.S. college. The most common reason that visas are denied is because there is missing paperwork. If you’re not sure whether a document will be needed, bring it with you. This is a situation where the old saying, “better safe than sorry” applies.
At a minimum, you’ll need to provide transcripts and diplomas from the schools you’ve attended, as well as the I-20 and other documents from your U.S. college. You’ll also need to provide copies of your test scores. You’ll need to show that you, or your sponsor, have enough money to cover your tuition and living expenses during your college years. If your sponsor (usually a parent) is employed, you’ll need to show income tax documents and bankbooks or statements. Copies of these documents are not acceptable. If you, your spouse or your sponsor owns a business, bring the business registration, licenses and tax documents, as well as business bankbooks or bank statements. Check the embassy website – it lists everything that you need to bring.
Even if you apply early, you cannot receive your visa until 120 days before you start school, under U.S. law. If you are scheduled to register on September 1, your student visa cannot be issued before June 1. The student visa allows you to enter the U.S. up to 30 days prior to the day school starts. In this example, you couldn’t enter the U.S. until August 2.
If you need or want to come to the U.S. more than 30 days before classes start, you must qualify for a visitor’s visa. The visitor’s visa will show that you have a student visa and intend to study in the U.S. Still before classes start, you must complete a Form I-539, to change your status from a visitor to a student. There is an additional fee of $140 for the change of status, and you may not begin studies until it is approved.