Everything You Need to Know About Student Visas

If you want to attend a university in the United States, you need a student visa. So what's the student visa process like? Read on to find out.

If you want to attend a university in the United States, you need a student visa. So what's the student visa process like? Read on to find out.

Definitely, I was nervous about the interview,” says Angela Qu. “I heard from friends that even with an offer of admission from a school, you could still get rejected for a visa.” Andrew Wu, on the other hand, was not particularly concerned. He had traveled to many countries when he was younger and was comfortable with different types of people. And his English was quite good, so he wasn’t worried about his ability to communicate during the visa interview. Angela and Andrew are both from China, and they wanted to come to the United States for university. But, even though they were accepted to their schools, as non-citizens they had to take an extra step before arriving for the first day of classes: getting a student visa.

A walk through the visa application process

To be eligible to study at a college or university in the United States, foreign students must have a passport valid for travel to the United States, for at least six months after the time you will be in the United States. Then you must find, apply to, and be accepted by an accredited school here. Once accepted, the next step is to apply for a student visa, known as an F-1 visa, from the US government. This gives students permission to come to the United States to study. The F-1 visa is specifically for students who plan to get a degree at a college or university in the United States. It’s the most common type of student visa. (It’s possible to visit the United States on a visitor B visa and take a short, recreational class. But you can’t take any courses that give credit toward a degree on a B visa.)

Being accepted by a US university is the first step. The school will then send you official documentation that allows you to apply for a student visa. That includes an acceptance letter and an I-20 form: Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status—for Academic and Language Students. Once you get that information, the next step is to apply online for your visa. This includes filling out a form DS-160 (Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application), submitting a photo, and paying a non-refundable application fee. When you apply, you choose a specific US embassy or consulate to submit the form to, usually the one nearest to your home. The application forms and interviews are all in English. You are not allowed to complete the forms in another language, other than giving your full name in your native alphabet.

The next step is to schedule an appointment at the nearest US embassy or consulate for an interview. This is usually the same place as the embassy or consulate you applied to. However, if necessary, it’s possible to go for your interview at a different consulate or embassy, though it may be difficult to qualify for a visa if you’re applying outside the country of your permanent residence. To get an appointment at another location, you just need the barcode from the confirmation page of your DS-160 form when making the interview appointment.

Related: COVID–19's Impact on Student Visas and Scholarships

Students’ visa interview stories

Angela is a recent college graduate with a degree in Communications. She transferred to Michigan State University as a sophomore. Andrew was a graduate student studying Management at Northeastern University in Boston. And Silvia Chan studied at Northeastern University in the Finance and Accounting program. All three students live in China, and all three had different experiences visiting the embassy to get their visas.

Silvia had to apply for her visa twice. They denied her visa the first time she applied, after her interview at the US embassy in Hong Kong. She was confused by a question, and her answer caused the interviewer to think that she wanted to immigrate to the United States permanently. “I mistakenly told them I was going to live with my mom, when I meant to say I’d be living in a homestay in the US,” she says. “And once the interviewer thinks you are really immigrating, they are going to reject you.” (The US government is looking to confirm that a student wants to study abroad and then return home.) The interviewers are generally trying to discover three key pieces of information when interviewing students for their F-1 visa:

  1. Why the student chose a particular university and academic discipline/major
  2. The student’s intentions regarding studying in the United States and returning to their home country
  3. The student’s financial ability to live and study in the United States (without looking for off-campus employment)

Though Andrew wasn’t nervous before his interview, many of his friends were. The interviews are conducted in English, and he said some of his friends were worried about their English skills. Because they were nervous, their interviews didn’t go well, and some of them didn’t get a visa. But that isn’t the end of the story if that happens; like Silvia you can simply schedule another interview to try again. There is a lot of security to go through to get into the embassy, and it can feel intimidating for some students. It can also take a long time to get through. “Be on time,” says Silvia. “Get there 30–60 minutes early. There is a line and the process takes time, especially if you didn’t pay the fee online and have to pay it at the embassy.” In addition, students are not allowed to bring mobile phones, computers, or other electronic devices with them into the building for the interview. In some embassies, students cannot bring in liquids and may even have to turn in their identification before they are allowed to enter. If you’re 18 or older, you’re also not allowed to bring your parents inside with you.

Once you get into the room for the interview, there may be many other people there with you, and you’ll probably have to wait in line. In the US embassy in Hong Kong, for example, as in many embassies, the interviews are conducted at a large counter, a bit like at a bank. Several one-on-one interviews may be happening at the same time. “They call your number, you hand them your papers, and they just start asking questions,” says Silvia. “If you speak loudly, others can hear,” she says. “And Chinese people really care about not looking awkward in public. So that is one reason people are afraid and nervous about speaking English and about the interview.”  Luckily, a lot of embassies will tell you almost immediately after your interview if you are approved, so you leave knowing the outcome. However, a small number of visas may require additional processing, which usually takes no longer than 60 days.

After you arrive in the United States

Visas can be issued as early as 120 days before the first day of classes. However, students are not allowed to enter the United States more than 30 days before the start date. Andrew got his visa about two months after applying. The F-1 visa allows a student to enter the United States. Once they’re here, they must maintain status as a student. “There are certain rules to follow,” says Patty Croom, Associate Director for International Admissions at Michigan State University. “Students are limited to working only on campus during the school year. They may only work off campus with pre-authorization and under certain conditions, such as internships. And they must be full-time students, with a certain number of credits. The school has to report to the government which students showed up and enrolled each semester.” 

International students should work closely with their university to maintain their status, adhere to the appropriate regulations, and make sure they’re following the rules for their program. For example, some students have an opportunity to stay in the States for a year after completing a degree to do field work, depending on the subject they studied. Or some students are allowed to do optional practical training. Some visas are now even issued for five years to cover the full length of study. If you do need to renew your student visa, it’s fairly easy as long as you maintain your status as a student—but you should still give yourself plenty of time to complete the process.

When Angela applied for a visa renewal from her home in China one summer, she almost didn’t get it in time; it arrived the day before her flight to the United States. If she missed her flight, it would have cost her thousands of dollars to reschedule. The embassy processing her renewal was overwhelmed with visa applications and it took longer than expected. “Make sure to apply for your visa as soon as possible,” she says. “Normally you will get it in time, but you should plan that something could go wrong.” “Students express the most anxiety about not being able to qualify for a student visa,” says Croom. “But most students do get it. It’s a doable process, and the government has worked to make sure that students don’t have to wait too long to get their visa.”

Andrew’s advice for students is to remember there is effort involved. “You need a lot of documentation,” he says. “Pay attention to the details. If you know someone who has already studied abroad and has experience, ask him or her for help. They can share their experience and help you through the process.” Silvia’s advice to students applying for an F-1 visa for the first time is to relax when it comes to the interview process. “Just be confident,” she says. “Even if you think your English isn’t good enough. The embassy staff is there for you. And if you don’t understand a question, ask the interviewer to explain it to you.” Angela was really nervous when she went in for her interview. It was a busy day with a lot of people there, and not everyone in the embassy was nice to her—except the man who interviewed her. “He was very nice,” she says. “He could see I was nervous. He asked a few questions, then told me congratulations—I was getting my visa. I smiled a big smile. And he smiled a big smile back.”

Related: Application Timeline for International Students

What do you need to get a student visa?

Documentation you will definitely need:

  • Passport, valid for at least six months past the time you will be staying in the United States
  • Barcode from the confirmation page of form DS-160 (your nonimmigrant visa application)
  • Receipt for payment of application fee
  • Photo (to upload while filling out the DS-160 form)
  • Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant F-1 Student Status—for Academic and Language Students from the school where you will be studying)

You may also need (depending on which embassy or consulate you go to):

  • Evidence that you are academically ready, such as transcripts, diplomas, degrees from schools you attended, or standardized test scores required by the US university
  • Evidence of your intent to depart the United States when you get your degreeEvidence of how you will pay your education, living, and travel costs

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