Most schools will be in touch with admitted international students in early summer to begin gathering information for their visa.(GETTY IMAGES)
Making the decision to pursue undergraduate or graduate studies in the United States is the first of many steps toward becoming an international student. Once students have secured admission to a U.S. university, they will need to obtain a student visa.
Such a visa allows a student to enter and remain in the country for a set period of time for their studies. The types of student visas include:
F-1 visa: For students pursuing studies at an accredited college or university.
J-1 visa: For students taking part in an exchange program such as at a high school or university.
M-1 visa: For students studying or training for non-academic reasons.
Ideally, students seeking an F-1 visa should start gathering the relevant information well before applying to colleges, says Adam Nguyen, founder of Ivy Link, an education and admissions advisory firm.
“That means students should research the specific colleges to which they will be applying and take note of each school’s policies for international students. They aren’t all the same,” says Nguyen. “We recommend that students start at least a year before applications are due.”
Before applying, make sure your chosen colleges are certified by the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which is a requirement for getting a visa.
Getting a head start can help make the visa process go smoothly. Here is what international students need to know:
When the Visa Process Begins
“If you are an international student who has been accepted into a U.S. university, the visa process will start just after you graduate high school and your enrollment into your chosen college has been finalized,” says Leelila Strogov, CEO of AtomicMind, an education and admissions consulting company.
Most schools will be in touch with admitted international students in early summer to begin gathering information for their visa.
“Be sure that you are responsive to their emails and get them the requested information in a timely manner, or your visa documents could be delayed,” says Strogov.
How to Apply for a U.S. Student Visa
After you’ve confirmed your acceptance to an SEVP-certified U.S. university, the university will begin the visa process by registering you into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which is a web-based system that the Department of Homeland Security uses to keep track of F-1 visa students who come to the U.S. for higher education.
Students must pay a fee of $350 to be registered into the SEVIS system. This is in addition to other visa application and insurance fees.
“The total cost for an F-1 visa can vary widely depending on the institution a student has been accepted to, and the country they are currently living in. That said, most students should be prepared to spend several hundred dollars, and most likely more,” says Nguyen.
Students will then get an I-20 form from their designated school official, or DSO, at the institution they plan on attending. This form must be presented to the consular officer when you attend your visa interview, Strogov says.
Students must complete the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (Form DS-160), including uploading a photo, and print out the confirmation page to bring to their interview.
“Read the instructions provided by your new school and the consulate, and always use your full legal name, as presented on your passport,” says Karen Edwards, dean of international student affairs at Grinnell College in Iowa, where 19% of the student body is made up of international students.
Edwards says students who have additional questions should contact their DSO, a regional EducationUSA advisor or reach out directly to their consulate.
Students should schedule an appointment for an interview at the U.S. Embassy or nearest consulate office in the country where they live. Wait times for interview appointments can vary, so students are encouraged to apply for their visa as early as possible.
“Procrastination is not conducive to the pursuit of a student visa,” says Edwards.
For students who are unable to secure a visa appointment prior to the start of their school year, Edwards recommends still scheduling the earliest possible appointment, after which, depending on the consulate, students can try to pursue an earlier emergency appointment.
“Most U.S. institutions will not allow a late arrival, so working in collaboration with your designated school official is very important,” says Edwards.
Students should prepare for their visa interview by gathering the required support documents. These include a passport that will be valid for a minimum of six months into the future, all three pages of your I-20, the I-901 SEVIS fee receipt, your DS-160 confirmation page and evidence that you can finance your education, says Edwards.
“As a reminder, F-1 status requires non-immigrant intent, so you should also consider how you might respond to questions from the visa officer,” says Edwards. She says the interview is students’ opportunity to confirm their intention to study in the U.S. and return home after graduation.
“The more you know about your intended school and why you want to study here, the better you will do,” says Edwards.
Strogov says new student F-1 visas can be issued up to 365 days in advance of the course of study start date, but students will not be allowed to enter the U.S. on their visa more than 30 days before school starts.
“U.S. universities usually begin classes the first week of September, so you should be able to arrive on campus in early August using your new visa,” says Strogov.