How to Get a Student Visa
The United States offers abundant resources for academic and vocational learning. Significant demand exists for international students to come to America to study and obtain educational degrees. In the 2019-2020 school year alone, around 1.1 million international students were enrolled in U.S. academic and vocational institutions.
Foreign nationals who wish to study in the United States must usually obtain student visas. While getting a student visa is not very complicated, you must apply and be accepted for a program of study, submit various documents and forms, and pay certain fees before obtaining your student visa. This article explains the different types of student visas and the process for obtaining a student visa in the United States.
What is a Student Visa?
The United States allows foreign nationals to attend certain schools and training facilities in the United States by obtaining a student visa. Three types of student visas granted in the United States are F visas, J visas, and M visas.
An Academic Student visa, also known as an F1 visa, authorizes foreign nationals to enroll in most universities and colleges in the United States. An F1 visa allows non-American citizens to enroll full-time to study in the United States at SEVP-approved school academic program. Accredited programs can include language training programs, private elementary schools, high schools, conservatories, seminaries, colleges, and universities.
The “exchange visitor visa,” also known as the J-1 visa, is offered to participants who have enrolled in an educational or cultural work program (including college and university students, scholars, visiting professors, teachers, and au pairs). Regular degree-seeking students are eligible for the J-1 visa if over fifty percent of their funding comes from sources other than personal funds.
A Vocation Student visa, also known as an M-1 visa, authorizes foreign nationals to obtain vocational or other non-academic programs in the United States other than language training programs.
Two additional types of student visas in the United States include F-3 or M-3 visas to Canadian and Mexican nationals who commute to the United States for part-time or full-time studies at certain academic and vocational institutions.
Who is Eligible to Get a Student Visa?
Only persons who meet certain requirements are eligible to apply for a student visa to study in the United States. To apply for a student visa, you must:
- Obtain admission into a SEVP-accepted institution (see more on this below).
- Be enrolled full-time as a student. Part-time enrollment is usually not allowed.
- Demonstrate that you have strong ties to your home country and intend to return there after obtaining your degree. The United States government wants to know that foreign nationals intend to return to their home countries after their studies end. You must submit documents to show this. Having weak ties to your home country may result in the denial of your visa application.
- Show proof you can afford to pay the costs of living and studying in the United States. The U.S. government wants to ensure you can afford to live in the United States while enrolled in school. You must submit Form I-20 to prove this and various financial documents (see more on this below) to prove you can cover expenses while in the United States.
- Demonstrate that you’re proficient in English. You must show that you understand and speak English well enough to attend an academic program in the United States. Applicants can show this by taking standardized tests such as the TOEFL and the IELTS.
What Are the Benefits of Having a Student Visa?
Studying in the United States offers numerous benefits to international students. The first and most important is that you are allowed to study and obtain a degree at some of the world’s best academic institutions.
Other benefits of having a student visa include:
- Improving your English language skills
- Obtaining international experience
- Traveling throughout the United States during your visa period
- Bringing your spouse or children with you if they obtain an F-2 or J-2 visa
- Making friends from all over the world
- Creating a strong support network of international students
- Transferring to another school or switching academic programs while in the U.S.
- Obtaining part-time employment at the school where you are studying
- Obtaining off-campus part-time work if it’s financially necessary or gives you practical training
Each of these benefits can have a profound impact on one’s life. If you are interested in studying in the United States, our lawyers here at Jackson, Landrith & Kulesz, PC can help you obtain your student visa.
What Academic Programs in the United States Allow Student Visas?
Academic programs that obtain a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) certification may issue student visas. The SEVP program authorizes institutions to issue Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, to prospective students after admitting them to study in the United States. Prospective students must submit Form I-20 when applying for student visas.
Institutions that qualify for SEVP certification are not limited to colleges and universities and may also include private elementary schools, high schools, seminaries, conservatories, and other academic and vocational institutions. To obtain SEVP certification, an institution must submit Form I-17, Petition for Approval of School for Attendance by Nonimmigrant Student, and other documents.
You can search for SEVP-certified institutions here.
What Are the Steps to Take to Get a Student Visa?
The process for obtaining a student visa involves various steps. First, you must apply to a SEVP-certified institution to attend school there. Once the institution accepts your application to attend school there, the institution is required to go through certain procedures so you can apply for your student visa. You will need to obtain a Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status) from the school. Form I-20 is required to attend the F1 visa interview. Once you receive Form 1-20, you can then start the F1 application process as follows:
- Apply online for the F1 visa by filling out the DS-160 form
- Pay the application fee
- Pay the fee for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) 1-901 Form
- Schedule the F1 visa interview
- Submit the application file with all required documents for the F1 visa
- Attend the F1 visa interview (interviews are conducted at the S. Embassy or Consulate in your home country)
- Wait for approval of your student visa
It may take a few weeks to several months to obtain your student visa. You should apply for your student visa at least three months before starting your studies in the United States to allow ample time to receive your student visa.
If your visa application is declined, you may apply again. However, you must start over with the application process. You may apply up to three times a year for a student visa.
How Long Does a Student Visa Last?
It depends on the type of visa you have and how long you plan to be in the United States for your studies. For an F-1 or J-1 visa, you can usually only stay in the United States for 60 days after you graduate. For an M-1 visa, you typically must leave within one year of entering the United States.
When the U.S. government approves you for a student visa, you will receive an I-94 form, which provides the expiration date for your visa. For an F-1 visa, the I-94 form will usually state that your visa is good for the “Duration of Status,” which means until you complete your studies, plus the 60-day grace period.
You may be able to stay longer by applying for Optional Practical Training (OPT) employment authorization, which allows you to remain in the United States to work for up to 12 months (or 24 months if your major is a STEM field) after your student visa expires, as long as your job is related to your major area of study. You must file this request with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). You may also file a general request to extend your stay through USCIS.
Please note that there is usually a 2-year resident requirement with a J visa. You must go back to your home country for at least 2 years before you can come back to live, study, or work in the U.S. with another type of visa.
What Are the Costs of Getting a Student Visa?
When a SEVP-certified institution admits you, the institution registers you with the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). To obtain registration in SEVIS, you’re required to pay a SEVIS I-901 fee of $350 for an F1 student visa.
The consulate application fee for obtaining an F1 student visa is $160. You need to retain the receipt once you pay the application fee because you’ll be required to submit this as part of your documentation during an F1 visa interview.
What Documents are Required to Get a Student Visa?
You’ll need the following documents when applying for a student visa:
- A valid passport
- Form DS-160 (for non-immigrant visa applications)
- Two photographs of yourself that meet the U.S. Visa Photo Requirements
- Proof of Health Insurance (if the institution you’re attending requires it)
- Documents Showing Your Previous Education and Current Qualifications. These documents may include:
- Scores from standardized tests
- Acceptance letters from academic institutions
- Degree diplomas
- Form I-20. As noted, you must fill out Form I-20 to show you can afford to live and study in the United States. You may have to submit the following financial documents along with Form I-20:
- Bank statements and tax records for the past three years
- Employment pay stubs
- Proof of any financial scholarships you’ve received
- Evidence of any approved loans if you’re paying for your costs with a loan
- Form I-134 (Affidavit of Support) is someone in the United States is sponsoring you
Can I Work in the U.S. with a Student Visa?
In general, neither F, J, or M visas allow students to work while they are in the U.S. except for special circumstances. Spouses on a derivative F-2 visa also cannot work while in the U.S. F-1 students can work at their university on campus “incident to status,” and does not require prior authorization from USCIS. This work is limited to 20 hours per week while school is in session, but can be full-time during official school breaks.
Every F-1 student can apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) employment to work outside of the university in a field related to your major area of study for one year (or two years if your major is in a STEM field). Most OPT jobs are given after graduation. If you do more than one degree, you can apply for more than one OPT job, but only one OPT job/year is allowed per degree level. For example, you can do one year of OPT for your Bachelor’s degree and one year of OPT for your master’s degree, but if you do a second master’s degree, you cannot take another master’s degree level OPT job/year.
Our legal team here at Jackson, Landrith & Kulesz have years of experience helping our clients obtain student visas when seeking to study in the United States.
Contact us today for a consultation to learn how we can help you.