If you are not a US citizen and want to study in the US, you will need to get a student visa. Applying for a US student visa can take a long time, so you should start getting ready at least three to five months before the start of your course. To get a visa to study in the US, there are usually a few steps to take. These steps are different for each US embassy or consulate, so it’s important to check the website of the embassy or consulate where you want to apply for information.
When applying for a US student visa, most would-be students will have to go through five steps:
- Apply to a US school that is approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) and get accepted (six to twelve months before starting school in the US);
- Pay the fee for SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System);
- Fill out an application for a US student visa and include one or more recent photos;
- Pay the fee for getting a visa;
- Set up a visa interview and go to it.
Step by Step How to Get a Visa to Study in the US
1. Apply to a school that SEVP has approved.
As an international student, you should make sure to choose a school and program that have been approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program of the US government (SEVP).
Accreditation is important because it makes sure that other universities, professional groups, employers, and government ministries around the world will recognize your degree. Only schools that are approved by SEVP can enroll students in SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) and give you the papers you need to apply for a US student visa. Use the Study in the States website to find schools that have been approved by the government.
Unlike some other countries, the US does not have a central application system for universities. If you want to go to more than one school, you will need to apply to each one separately. You’ll have to meet each school’s admissions requirements and usually show proof that you have enough money to pay for college.
Once you have been accepted to a school, the school will put you in the SEVIS system and send you a Form I-20 or Form DS-2019 if you are eligible for a F or M visa or a Form I-20 or Form DS-2019 if you are eligible for a J visa.
The SEVP is in charge of F and M visas for international students. The Department of State (DoS) is in charge of Exchange Visitor Programs and J visas for international students. SEVP and DoS both use SEVIS to keep track of institutions, exchange student programs, and international students.
2. Pay the fee for SEVIS
Before you can apply for a US visa, you must pay the SEVIS fee at least three days in advance. You can pay the fee by filling out a form online or on paper. Both can be found on the SEVP website for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Make sure to enter the necessary information exactly as it appears on your I-20 or DS-2019 form.
At the time this was written, the I-901 fee was $200 for people with F/M visas and $180 for people with J student visas. Those with a J visa who work as camp counselors, au pairs, or who work or travel during the summer pay $35 instead. The website tells you how to pay with a debit or credit card, a check, an international money order, or Western Union Quick Pay. After you’ve paid the fee, you can go back to the website to see how your payment went if you want to. The fee can also be paid by a third party, like your sponsor. If someone else pays the fee for you, you should get a receipt from that person.
After making a payment, you can go to the website and print a payment confirmation at any time. At your US student visa interview, you’ll need to show proof that you paid the fee. You may also need to show the confirmation to the customs officer at your chosen US Port of Entry if you change your non-immigrant status or apply for any other US immigration benefits.
3. Complete a US student visa application
Once you have your SEVIS form and have paid the SEVIS fee, you can make an appointment to apply for a US student visa at a US consulate or embassy in your country. No matter when your program starts, it’s best to apply as soon as possible because the time it takes to get a visa can vary. You can get your visa up to 120 days before you plan to come to the US.
From this main page, you can go to the website for your country to find out everything you need to know about applying for a US student visa. If your country is not on the list, you may still be able to use the website for the US embassy to find the US embassy or consulate in your country.
Online visa application: DS-160
In every case, you’ll need to fill out the DS-160 online visa application form. You’ll need to choose the location where you want to apply and make sure you have all the documents and information you need to fill out the application. After you choose a security question and answer it, you’ll be taken to the form’s pages. Your application ID will be at the top. If you have to leave the application and come back to it later, you’ll need this ID to get your form back.
The DS-160 form needs the following information about you:
- Name and birth date
- The address and number
- Passport details
- Plans for travel and people going with you
- Information about US trips in the past
- Your person to talk to in the U.S.
- Details about family, work, and school
- Information about security, your background, and your health
- SEVIS ID and the address of the school or program in the US you want to attend (as printed on I-20 or DS-2019 form)
You’ll also need to upload a recent photo of yourself in the right format, which is described in the photo requirements. If you can’t get your photo to upload, you’ll have to bring a printed photo that meets the requirements to your visa interview.
Make sure you answer all of the questions completely and correctly, or you may have to reschedule your visa interview. If you have questions while filling out the application form, you might find answers on the travel.state.gov website.
Once you’ve filled out the visa application form, you’ll need to click the “Sign Application” button at the end of the DS-160 to electronically sign it. After you upload your application, you’ll get a confirmation page with a barcode, a barcode number, and your application ID number. You’ll need to print this page and bring it to your visa interview. You don’t have to print out the whole form.
4. Pay the fee for getting a visa
The fee for applying for a visa is also called the “MRV fee” or “Machine Readable Visa Fee.” Make sure to read the instructions for how to pay the fee on the website of your embassy or consulate, as the methods may vary. In general, though, there are three ways to pay the non-refundable, non-transferable visa application fee:
In person at a bank that is approved
- By phone (you’ll get a confirmation number for the fee)
- Online (you’ll need to print out your receipt)
If you come across the phrase “visa issuance fee based on reciprocity” while doing research, don’t worry. This does not apply to F1, F2, M1, M2, J1, and J2 visa applicants.
When you go to your visa interview, you will be asked to show the MRV fee receipt. Some people who want a J visa won’t have to pay application processing fees if they are taking part in a program run by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) or a federally funded educational and cultural exchange program with a serial number that starts with G-1, G-2, G-3, or G-7.
5. Set up and go to an interview for a US student visa
Set up and go to a visa interview. This is the last step in getting a US student visa. You can do this online or over the phone by calling the US embassy or consulate that is closest to you. In either case, you should pay the MRV fee first because you may need to give your MRV fee number.
You can’t finish the process of getting a visa until you meet with a consular officer for an interview. Don’t worry if you need to schedule your interview at a different US embassy or consulate than the one you used to apply for your visa. Any US embassy or consulate can use the barcode on your DS-160 to find out more about you. But keep in mind that it may be hard to get a visa if you apply somewhere other than where you live permanently. Wait times for visa interviews depend on where you live, the time of year, and what kind of visa you need.
Things to bring to the visa interview
Check the website of the embassy or consulate where you will apply to make sure you have all the documents you need for your interview. These papers might have:
Passport that is good for at least six months after you leave the US. If your passport has more than one name on it, each person who needs a visa must fill out their own application. You might also need to bring all of your passports, both new and old.
- Signed SEVIS Form I-20 or DS-2019 (including separate forms for spouse and children)
- Form DS-7002 (for J-1 Trainee and Intern visa applicants only)
SEVIS fee receipt
- DS-160 application confirmation page with application ID number and barcode
- Payment receipt for the MRV fee
- Printed copy of letter setting up visa interview
- 1-2 photos in the format described in the requirements for photos. Should be printed on paper that is good for photos.
You should also have the following papers ready to show:
- Transcripts and diplomas from schools you’ve been to before
- Scores from standardized tests, like the TOEFL, LSAT, GRE, GMAT, etc., that the school wants you to take.
Proof that you or your sponsor, like your parents or the government, have enough money to pay for your tuition, travel, and living costs while you are in the US.
You can also bring a written list of all your past jobs and schools for the interviewer to look over.
- Those who want a derivative visa will have to do:
- A copy of the marriage and/or birth certificate to show that you are related
- A copy of the main applicant’s visa (F-1, M-1, or J-1) or official documentation from the USCIS that confirms the main applicant’s status.
- A copy of the page in the main applicants’ passports that lists their personal information.
Going to the interview for the visa
It’s important to be on time for your visa interview. Those who are late may have to come back another day. Most of the time, applicants will only be let into the US embassy or consulate if they have an appointment. There are a few exceptions, like a parent for a child under 18, a translator, or a helper for a disabled person. You’ll need to call your chosen embassy or consulate and tell them the name of the parent, translator, or helper who will be traveling with you.
The purpose of the visa interview is for the consular officer to figure out if you are eligible for a US student visa and, if so, what kind of visa you need. Be ready to answer questions about your ties to your home country, your ability to speak English, your academic background, the program in the US to which you have been accepted, and proof that you have enough money to support yourself. You might also be asked what you want to do after you finish school.
As part of the application process, your fingerprints will be scanned without ink. This is usually done when you go to get your visa.
After your interview, the consular officer will let you know if your application needs more paperwork. If it does, you may have to wait longer to get your visa. Wait times will be different from country to country. You will also be told how and when your passport with the visa will be returned to you (usually pick-up or delivery by courier). In some countries, the courier company will send you an email with a tracking number that you can use to track the delivery of your passport.
F-1 and M-1 visas can be given out up to 120 days before your first day of school, but you can’t enter the US before 30 days before your first day. Anyone can get a J-1 visa at any time. If you want to go to the US before these 30 days are up, you need to get a visitor visa. Students coming back to school are not limited to 30 days; they can enter the US at any time as long as they have a valid visa.
Using your visa
Since you can’t be sure you’ll get a visa, don’t buy tickets or make final travel plans until you have a visa. Be aware that a valid visa does not guarantee entry into the US. It only lets you go to a US port of entry and ask for permission to enter the country. A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) tells you if you can go in.
Keep your visa-related documents in your carry-on at all times, because you’ll need to show them at the port of entry. You should carry the following documents with you:
- Form I-20 or DS-2019 from SEVIS
- Proof of having enough money
- Proof that you are a student (such as recent tuition receipts and transcripts)
- Name and contact information for your Designated School Official (DSO), as well as a number you can call 24 hours a day if you need help at the school you chose.
- If you are an exchange student, you will need a letter from your home university saying that you plan to return there.
- Every time you enter the US, you need your Form I-20/DS-2019. If you go on vacation outside of the US, you will need the SEVIS form to get back in.
Coming to the US
Before you land, you’ll need to fill out a Customs Declaration form (CF-6059) if you’re flying into the US. If you don’t understand the form, you can ask a flight attendant for help. You will also need to fill out either an online or paper Arrival/Departure Record I-94 form. The date on your visa is the last day you can use your US student visa. On your I-94 form, the CBP officer will write a separate date or “D/S” (duration of status). This is the last day you can stay in the US. Even if your visa expires while you are in the US, you can stay until this date. But if you leave the US with a visa that has expired, you will need to get a new one before you can come back and continue your studies. You can’t renew or get a new student visa in the US. You have to go to an embassy or consulate abroad.
If you get a paper I-94 form, it will have the date written on it. If you get an electronic I-94, the CBP officer will stamp your passport with an admission stamp that shows you have an electronic I-94 and write “D/S” on the stamp. This stamp serves as proof that you have an electronic I-94.
If you are given a paper I-94 form, keep it safe in your passport. When you leave the US, you will need to give it to a CBP official. If you have an electronic I-94, a CBP official will instead record your departure using the manifest information from the air or sea carrier you are traveling with.
Your SEVIS I-20/DS-2019 form tells you when to go to the office at your school that helps international students. This should be done within 30 days of the date your class starts. This could be the International Programs Office, the Office of International Services, the Office of International Education, or something similar. A Designated School Official (DSO) will confirm that you want to participate by telling the SEVIS system that you have arrived. This has to be done within 30 days, or else your record on SEVIS will be deleted and you may be in violation of your status in the US.
The DSO will also be there to help you with things like insurance. Since the US does not have a public health care system, you will almost certainly need to show proof that you have bought private health insurance to pay for medical care before you can enroll at your US school.
Leaving the United States
F-1 visa holders can stay in the US for an extra 60 days after their course is over, but M-1 and J-1 visa holders can only stay for an extra 30 days after their course is over. This is called a “grace period,” and it gives the person time to get ready to leave the US.
Every student must leave the country before the date on their I-94 stamp or form. If you don’t leave the US, you will be “out-of-status.” Being in the US without the right paperwork is against the law, and you may not be able to get a visa in the future. If you want to stay longer, you will need to get permission from USCIS. If you are a continuing student, you can renew your visa at any time as long as you are still a student and your SEVIS records are up to date.