Many international students give up their dreams of obtaining a U.S. student visa and studying at an American university simply because they don’t understand the application process. While it is true that the process of obtaining any nonimmigrant visa is shrouded in bureaucratic red tape and confusion, the F-1 student visa is actually one of the most straight-forward programs in the U.S. immigration system.
Let’s start with the basics, what is a nonimmigrant? A nonimmigrant is simply anyone who has been admitted to the U.S. temporarily for a specific purpose. So the first thing you must understand is that your intention in coming to the U.S. must be temporary and for the specific purpose of pursuing full time academic (or vocational) studies.
There are two U.S. student visa programs, the F-1 Visa and the M-1 Visa. The F1 visa is designed for international students wishing to attend universities, colleges, seminaries, conservatories, and high schools. The M-1 Visa is for vocational studies, for example, in a trade such as mechanics.
Applying Outside the United States
The first thing you need to do is to locate a USCIS-approved school. Many American universities, colleges and other academic institutions are well acquainted with the F-1 visa process, but it is important to ask them upfront if they are an approved school and if they are currently accepting international students. You don’t want to waste your time and money pursuing a school that is not approved.
Assuming you meet the admissions requirements of an approved program, the school will issue you a Certificate of Eligibility. In most cases you will then need to obtain a visa by bringing your Certificate of Eligibility to your nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate to get your F-1 or M-1 student visa. Remember, nonimmigrant visas are temporary and for a particular purpose so you must demonstrate that it is your intention to return home at the conclusion of your studies and, of course, that it is your intention to actually attend the school and pursue your studies. With is in mind, be prepared to demonstrate that you have the necessary financial resources required for your tuition fees and stay in the United States.
When you finally arrive in the United States, an immigration inspector will enter an admission number on your portion of the Eligibility Certificate which you’ll need to retain for your records. Also, the inspector will staple into your passport a card, Form I-94, as evidence of your lawful entry into the U.S. As with the eligibility certificate(s) you‘ll need to keep this in a safe place.
Applying Within the United States
If you are already lawfully in the United States you may also apply for an F-1 or M-1 student visa. The process is essentially the same as described above though you will not likely need to leave the United States. However, you will need to demonstrate that you can pay for your studies and stay and that it is your intention to return home at the conclusion of your studies.
You should also know that if you came to the U.S. with a nonimmigrant visa, for example, a tourist visa, you may need to demonstrate that you did not have a preconceived plan to apply for a student visa once you arrived in the United States since this might be construed as being contrary to the purpose of your visa. That being said, it’s OK if you decide to look into obtaining a student visa after you’ve entered the United States with another class of nonimmigrant visa, but be ready to show that this was not your initial intention.
Bringing Family Members to the United States
You may bring your spouse and children with you to the United States. They are eligible for a derivative class of visa known as an F-2. If you are applying at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate your eligible family members should appear with you. Be sure to bring documentation of their relationship to you such marriage and birth certificates.
You and your eligible family members may stay in the United States for as long as you maintain full-time student status in an approved school and make acceptable progress toward completing your studies or degree. You may also be able to stay an additional year after the completion of your studies if you wish to pursue some practical training—plus sixty days to prepare for your departure.
Let’s say you obtain a U.S. student visa but now wish to change schools, what can you do? Well, the good news is you can change schools, but you must be a full-time student in good academic standing, that is to say you cannot change schools just because you’re failing your courses. You’ll need to get a new Certificate of Eligibility from the new school and notify your current school of your intention to transfer to the new school. You must complete your portion of the Certificate and give it to your new designated school official (DSO) within 15 days of transferring.
Now that you know the rules, it’s easy to apply for a U.S. Student Visa!