F-1 Visa USA: Visa for International Students

For full time students studying at an academic institution such as a school, college, or university.

F-1 Visa

This article will provide the details of the F-1 visa, its requirements, application process, and what you can and cannot do if you have this visa.

What is the F-1 student visa?

The F-1 is a student visa for non-U.S nationals to attend educational institutions in the U.S. It covers levels from elementary school to university and graduate school, including other degrees. If one of these institutions accepts you, then you apply for the F-1 visa.

Nationals who are part of the Visa Waiver Program cannot start their education in the U.S without an F-1 visa. However, if you get accepted in a non-credit bearing course in the U.S, they could apply for the B visa or go through the Visa Waiver Program without needing to get an F-1 visa.

The F-1 visa does not have a cap, meaning that all students who manage to fulfill the requirements and have a successful application will get the visa. With the F-1 visa you can live and study in the U.S, get a driver’s license, open a bank account, travel in and out of the U.S anytime, as well as work under certain conditions and restrictions. You can also transfer schools if you get accepted to an institution which you like better.

This type of visa F-1 however, is given to those who can prove that they have strong ties to their home country and intend to return. The F-1 visa is given by the reason that the person will go to the U.S and increase their skills and knowledge so as to develop their own home country.

F-1 Student Visa Requirements

To get this visa you must meet some specific F-1 visa requirements, such as:

Get an admission offer from an SEVP accepted institution

The Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has a list of schools, universities, and other institutions which meet the conditions and accept international students. To qualify to even apply for an F-1 visa, a student must first apply and get an admission offer from such an SEVP accepted school.

It is recommended that before applying to your preferred schools or universities, you should first check the SEVP and see if those institutions are listed there. If yes, you can proceed to send them any documents that they require to make an admission decision. If not, you should not apply since you will not get the F-1 visa even if you are accepted into the school.

To find a list of school and universities which qualify under the SEVP, visit the Education USA website and the Study in the States page of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Have strong ties to your home country

If you don’t prove and submit documents that you have strong ties to your home country and intend to go home after your educational program ends, it will be more difficult to get an F-1 visa.

Prove financial eligibility

The J-1 visa holders have sponsors who pay for their stay in the U.S, while the F-1 students should prove that they have sufficient funds in their bank accounts to cover the expenses of studying and living in the U.S. This does not mean that F-1 students are not eligible for scholarships. In fact, you are encouraged to apply for scholarship funds and organizations to lower your financial burden.

Be proficient in English

International students must prove that they can speak and understand English at a level which enables them to enroll in an academic program. Students can prove their language proficiency by taking standardized English proficiency tests such as the TOEFL or the IELTS.

F-1 Visa Application

To apply for the F-1 visa, there are several steps you need to take. The steps depicted here are usually the norm for applying for an F-1 visa; however, depending on the U.S Embassy and the location you are applying from, there might be differences. Keep in mind that after you are admitted into the institution  of your choice, you can apply for the visa 120 days before you are scheduled to start your program. You cannot apply any earlier, but applying later might cause you a delay due to processing times. So as soon as the 120 day countdown begins, make sure you submit your application.

Get your admissions documents from the SEVP institution

After you apply and are accepted into the school you want to attend, they will have to complete some procedures so that you can apply for the F-1 visa. The most important document you need to have is Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. Without this form, you will not be able to apply for an F-1 student visa and attend your interview.

Apply online through the DS-160 form

After you get your Form I-20, you can start the usual application process. This includes filing the DS-160 form online with the necessary information about your visa status.

Pay the application fee

The application fee for the F-1 student visa is $160. You must pay this fee and get the receipt, which you will need later for your interview documents. You might have to pay additional fees based on your country of origin and the U.S Embassy you are applying from.

Pay the SEVIS I-901 fee

When you are admitted by the SEVP institution, your school immediately registers you in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). To have full registration, there is a SEVIS I-901 fee. For the F-1 visa, this fee is $200.

Schedule your visa interview

After filing the DS-160 form and paying the fees, you will need to schedule your interview. The interview is a mandatory step before you get your  visa. Try to schedule it as early as possible, since there might be delays due to the heavy workload of the U.S Embassy. When you schedule it, you will receive an interview appointment letter which you will need later on in the application process.

Submit the file with documents

Before you go to attend your interview, you should prepare a file with documents, which includes the following:

  • Your passport
  • The DS-160 confirmation page
  • Receipts which prove you have paid all fees
  • One photograph
  • Your interview appointment letter
  • The original I-20 form and a copy
  • Documents which prove your previous education and current qualifications:
    • Original transcripts
    • Standardized test scores (TOEFL, IELTS, GRE, GMAT, etc.)
    • Acceptance letters from the educational institution which accepted you
    • Previous degree diplomas
  • Your Form I-20 states the amount of funds you need to finance your education and living in the U.S. You must submit documents which prove you have that amount readily available. This can be done by submitting various documents, such as:
    • Bank statements for the last 3 years
    • Tax records for the last 3 years
    • Pay stubs of previous employment
    • If you have received a scholarship, you also need to submit proof of it
    • Paying a semester’s or a year’s worth of tuition is also a good idea, but not mandatory
    • If you are supported or sponsored by someone else in the U.S, you will need to submit Form I-134, Affidavit of Support and bank statements for the last three years of that person.
    • If you are funding your U.S education through a loan, you must also show proof of the approved loan

Attend the visa interview

When you go to attend the visa interview, the questions will mostly revolve around your reasons for going to the U.S and the institution you are going to. The interviewer will try to assess whether you intend to return to your home country after you complete your degree.

When your visa is approved, it might be for the full time that you will be in school in the U.S, or for less. If your degree program is 2 years and you only get the visa for 1 year, you should then later apply to renew it.

If you are renewing your visa you should follow the same procedure. You might be able to waive the interview on the reason that you have already done it once and your intent is to continue your education for the remaining years to get your degree.

If your visa is approved, you are allowed to depart for the U.S 30 days before your program begins. You cannot enter the U.S any earlier than that.

Visa F-1 Processing Time

The F-1 visa processing time is much shorter than other visas. The processing of this type of visa actually happens before your interview. The interview is the last step for the U.S Embassy to assess whether they should give you an F-1 visa or not.

In most cases, you will get the response on this visa immediately after the interview. At the end of the visa interview, the interviewer might congratulate you for getting the visa, or will provide you with a document letting you know the reason for denial.

There are, however, cases where the response and processing of the F-1 visa takes a few days, so you should be patient if that happens.

F-1 Student Visa Validity

The validity of your F-1 visa is for as long as it is stated on your I-20 form and I-94 form which is given to you when you enter the U.S. After your visa expires, you have a 60 day grace period to prepare your departure to your home country. If your visa doesn’t cover the whole time that you will be in school in the U.S, you will have to apply for renewal or extensions. The extensions are approved only if you can prove you will be completing your degree in the U.S and you intend to return as soon as it is over.

If you, for example find a job that requires a different type of visa, other than F-1, then you are also eligible to change status. You just need to work through the instructions of U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and your employer or other petitioner.

Even though you have proved that you have strong ties to your home country, if you want to apply for a Green Card, you are allowed to do so on an F-1 visa. It is a complicated procedure, though. You must either self petition as a person with extraordinary abilities, get married in the U.S or prove that you will invest $500,000 in the U.S economy.

If these are not feasible for you, but you still want to remain in the U.S, the easiest way is to change status into a different type of visa such as an H-1B visa and have your employer sponsor you.

Working as an F-1 Student

As an F-1 student, you may work for short periods of time, since your visa is a student and not a work visa. You are allowed to work part time on campus while school is in session and full time during breaks. If you want to work outside of campus, you have two options.

Curriculum Practical Training (CPT)

This means that the educational institution you are attending requires you to work as part of the curriculum. You have to complete the practical training in order to graduate. This training or practical work must be in your field of study and must be approved by your Designated School Official (DSO).

You are allowed to begin your CPT after 9 months enrollment in your degree. There is no limit on how long the CPT can last, but if it is for more than 12 months, you will not be allowed to apply for post-graduate Optional Practical Training (OPT)

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

The OPT program is designed for international students to get experience in the U.S. You can start your OPT before or after graduation, but the maximum amount you can work is 12 months. Your work must be related to your field of study. If you are in a STEM related subject, you can file for an OPT extension of another 24 months.

You can start your OPT if you and your Designated School Official (DSO) file for an Employment Authorization Docment (EAD). This is done by filling Form I-765. If you are successful during your OPT, your employer could agree to sponsor you for an H-1B visa from which you can also apply for a Green Card.