Passport to Student Visas

Director of International Services, University of Cincinnati

No one ever said the student visa application process was easy, but it’s well within your grasp—thousands of international students complete it successfully every year. With the step-by-step, detailed guide below, you can make it that much simpler.

Before you apply for a student visa, you should understand the process and rules governing this important document. Many visa applications fail because the stu-dent did not know the rules or was otherwise unprepared. The following narrative will help you in your quest  for a successful visa application.

Upon receipt of a Certificate of Eligibility (Form I-20 or DS-2019) to study in the United States, prospective students will need to make an appointment with the American consulate or embassy with jurisdiction over their place of permanent residence. Although students may apply at any U.S. consular office abroad, it may be more difficult to qualify for the visa outside your country of permanent residence.

Primary education-related nonimmigrant visas

There are three visa classifications for which students can potentially qualify. It’s important to know which visa applies to your situation.

  1. The F-1 Student Visa is for students attending colleges, universities, seminaries, conservatories, aca-demic high schools, or other aca-demic or language institutions. The certificate of eligibility for F-1 student visas is an I-20 form.
  2. The J-1 Student Visa is for students engaged in educational and cul-tural exchanges. J-1 students are typically funded by international agencies or the student’s home government. The certificate of eligibility for J-1 student visas is a DS-2019 form. In cases where support is being provided by an international agency (Fulbright, LASPAU, etc.) the agency, not the school, will issue the DS-2019.
  3. The M-1 Student Visa is for students studying in vocational or trade schools (technical colleges). The certificate of eligibility needed for this visa is also the I-20 form.

Financial certification and I-20/DS-2019 issuance

Once admitted to an institution of higher education in the United States, it will be necessary for you to obtain a form I-20 or DS-2019 from the admitting institution. In order to obtain an I-20/DS-2019 you must prove fi-
nancial solvency (i.e., the ability to pay) for your program of study. At the time the institution sends the letter of admission, you should receive documents (typically prepared by the school’s international services office) that explain the amount of support you need to document and how to document the support. Some institutions may require these documents as part of the application process itself. Every institution will have a different process, but most, at a minimum, will have an Estimated Annual Expense Sheet and Financial Certification Form. Fees and required support often vary based on the level and institution of study. The key is demonstrating a financial plan for your program of study that is reasonable and supported with affidavits of support, sources of income, and liquid assets.

Furthermore, the Federal Code of Regulations, the reverse side of the I-20/DS-2019, and the Foreign Affairs Manual all specify that nonimmigrants must be fully financed at all times while in the United States—not for just the first year or only during the school term. The financial certi-fication process is not about getting you into the country; it is about getting you through a program of study, successfully, to the end.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee

Once financial support has been documented and an I-20/DS-2019 has been issued, a $200 fee has to be paid by students who use Form I-20 to gain initial (operative word: initial!) F-1 or M-1 status. The fee is $180 for most J-1 exchange visitors (DS-2019).

The SEVIS fee collection form has been designated as Form I-901. There are three general fee payment

  1. Payment in U.S. dollars by credit card over the Internet
  2. Payment in U.S. dollars by check or bank draft, drawn on a U.S. bank
  3. Payment by Western Union

You should use the credit card option whenever possible (students from Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria can not use the credit card option).

A student who paid an initial SEVIS fee when seeking an F-1, J-1, or M-1 visa in a particular program category but whose visa application was denied by the embassy or consulate may reapply for a visa in the same category within 12 months following the initial notice of visa denial, without having to repay the SEVIS fee. (Because citizens of Canada and Bermuda are exempt from the requirement to have a visa, the SEVIS fee payment must be verified before the visa-exempt individual is initially admitted to the United States in F-1, J-1, or M-1 status.)

Visa application forms

Once the I-20/DS-2019 is issued and the SEVIS fee is paid, it’s time to apply for your student visa. Nonimmigrant visa applicants must apply to the appropriate U.S. consulate/embassy by using the DS-160: Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application. You can access the online DS-160 at the Consular Electronic Application Center website. Paper applications are no longer accepted.

Consular interview

All students will have an in-person interview with a consular officer at the U.S. consulate/embassy. The consular officer will take a very legalistic view. In the United States, it is considered important to be impersonal when administering laws. This is considered rude or improper in many countries, but not in the United States, where the ideal is to apply laws equally to all regardless of status or sex. It may seem strange to you, but do not try to negotiate or discuss personal matters. The consular officer who makes the decision on your visa application is required to think of you as someone who plans to come to the United States permanently, and you must prove that you intend to return to your country after completing studies. U.S. law very clearly states that student visas may be given only to persons who intend to remain in the country temporarily. This rule is the #1 reason for denials of student visa applications.

You must have a definite academic or professional objective. You must know what you are going to study and where it will lead. Be ready to say what you want to study and what kind of career it will prepare you for in your home country. Be prepared to explain why it is better for you to study in the United States than at home. In addition, you must be definite in your choice of school. If you do not seem certain that you want to attend the school whose I-20 or DS-2019 you are presenting, you will not get a visa.

U.S. government officials rely on documents over spoken statements. When possible, have papers to show your connections to your home country. If your family owns property, take the deeds. If you have a brother or sis-ter who studied in the United States and then returned home, take a copy of your brother’s or sister’s diploma and a statement from an employer showing that they have returned home. If your family owns a business, take letters from a bank describing the business to the visa interview with you.

In most cases the visa interview is extremely short. You will typically have just two or three minutes to convince a consular officer of the merits of your visa application. This interview often takes place in a loud crowded room, with a glass partition separating the consular officer from you. The atmosphere may be distracting and disorienting, it may be difficult to hear, and will likely be rushed. Understanding and being prepared for these conditions in advance can help you be more comfortable with the situation.

The consular official can ask any number of questions, ranging from general topics to very specific questions about sponsors, educational or career goals, and family members. Here is a list of questions you should be ready to answer.

General questions

  • Why did you choose the United States above Australia, Canada, or the United Kingdom?
  • What do you know about America and U.S. education?
  • How can you prove that you are going to come back home after completing your degree?
  • Have you ever been to the United States?
  • Do you know anyone at this university?
  • What will you do if your visa is rejected?
  • Will you come home during summer for visits?

College or university questions

  • Why this specific school?
  • Which schools did you apply to?
  • Why did you apply to these universities?
  • Which colleges/universities accepted you?
  • What is your undergraduate GPA/percentage?
  • How long will you study in the United States?
  • How did you learn about this college/university?
  • What professors will you work with (for graduate students)?
  • When and where did you get your bachelor’s degree (for graduate students)?
  • Do you plan to get a Ph.D. after the M.S. degree or an M.S. after the B.S. (for graduate students)?

Bank and finance questions

  • Who is sponsoring you?
  • What does your father do?
  • What is your father’s annual income? How long has he been working for his current employer?
  • What is your college/university’s yearly expense?
  • Have you obtained any loans for your education?
  • Your bank statements show that a large amount of money has recently been deposited. How do you explain that?
  • Does your sponsor expect you to pay him/her back?

Family questions

  • How many brothers and sisters do you have?
  • Do you have a brother/sister or any other relative already at this university?
  • Do you have any other relatives in the United States?
  • Where did your siblings/parents complete their studies?
  • Where do your parents live?

Work-related questions

  • What do you hope to do with your degree in your home country?
  • Is there a lot of demand for these kinds of professions in your home country?

Security clearances

Visa applicants whose fields of study or country of origin appear on the Department of State Technology Alert List will be checked against databases maintained by the FBI. This security procedure will delay the issuance of the visa substantially. The Technology Alert List consists of a Critical Fields list as well as a Department of State list of designated State Sponsors of Terrorism.

Associations with the Critical Fields List may impact the visa application and security screening processes; it includes the following: conventional munitions; nuclear technology; rocket systems and unmanned air vehicle subsystems; navigation, avionics, and flight control usable in rocket systems and unmanned air vehicles; chemical, biotechnology, and biomedical engineering; remote sensing, imaging, and reconnaissance; advanced computer/microelectronic technology; materials technology; information security; laser and directed energy systems; sensors; marine technology; robotics; and urban planning. State Sponsors of Terrorism currently include Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.

Arrival in the United States

Look at the date entered in item five (5) of the I-20 form for reporting to the school. You must apply for the visa in time to reach the school no later than that date. There is no time limit on how soon you can
apply for the student visa (although the visa cannot be granted more than 120 days prior to the start date on your I-20 or DS-2019). The sooner you apply the better. Consu-lar offices get extremely busy during the late summer months (June, July, August). However, you will not be allowed to enter the United States more than 30 days prior to the start date on your Certificate of Eligibility.

The basic rules outlined above should help you successfully obtain a student visa, whether you are coming to United States to study for an undergraduate, graduate, or professional degree; coming for other short-term programs or exchanges; or whether you will study at a private or public institution. Remember that there are people who are trained and happy to help you along the way. Study in the United States is within your reach.

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