What Is an F1 Visa?

An F1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa for people who intend to study in the United States. If you are not a U.S. citizen yet you plan to enroll in full-time study at one of the following academic institutions, you need an F1 visa:

  • Private Elementary School
  • Public or Private Secondary School
  • College or University
  • Language Training Program
  • Seminary or Conservatory

F1 Visa: What Is It?

Also known as a student visa, an F1 visa is for international students who want to take advantage of educational programs and academic institutions in the United States. The U.S. Department of State issues these visas, which allow qualified students to enroll in full-time study and participate in limited work opportunities.

Why Is an F1 Visa Important?

This type of visa is important because it grants official permission for holders to stay in the United States for long periods and enroll in educational programs of their choice. This type of visa also allows holders to stay in the U.S. for up to two months after completing their educational program.

For some visa holders, an F1 visa is also the first step toward a career in the United States. In some cases, you might be eligible to get an H1B visa or even a green card after finishing your program.

Reasons to Consider Not Applying for an F1 Visa

  • You are eligible for a J1 visa. In some cases, getting a J1 visa is a better choice for students. This type of visa is designed for work-and-study exchange visitor programs. If you will receive more than half of your program-related funding from a scholarship, a corporate sponsor, your university, or even your home country, a J1 visa could be a better fit.
  • Your dependents need employment authorization. With an F1 visa, you might be able to live in the U.S. with your dependents, but they will not be eligible for employment. Apply for a J1 visa if your dependents plan to study full-time or seek employment authorization.
  • You want to apply for Academic Training (AT). Only a J1 visa allows holders authorization for AT, or off-campus work during or after academic studies.
  • You need an M1 visa. An M1 visa is designed for vocational or other non-academic study. M1 visa holders can only stay in the United States for up to one month after finishing their studies.

Reasons to Consider Applying for an F1 Visa

  • You need to stay in the U.S. for several years. Without an F1 visa, you're allowed to stay in the United States for just 30 to 90 days. With this visa, however, you can typically stay for the length of your program. Upon arriving in the country, you will receive an I-94 card that shows the length of your stay and your F1 visa status.
  • You want to gain work experience while you study. An F1 visa often allows holders to engage in a Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or an Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, both of which allow you to work in your field of study. The former grants off-campus work authorization during your studies, and the latter grants work authorization for up to 12 months after you've completed the program. Some OPT participants can get a 17-month extension, especially if they have STEM degrees.
  • You don't want the restrictions that come with a J1 visa. A J1 visa often includes a two-year home country physical presence requirement, which also applies to dependents with J2 visas. After studying for at least six months, J1 visa holders must wait at least 12 months to return to the United States as research scholars or postdoctoral researchers. Both of these restrictions might affect your plans to return to the U.S. for other studies or work after your original visa expires.

Deadlines

You can apply for an F1 visa up to 120 days before the I-20 start date. Once you receive F1 visa approval, you can travel to the United States up to 30 days before the I-20 starts.

Common Mistakes

  • You don't intend to study full-time. F1 visa holders must enroll in a program that requires a minimum of 18 hours of study per week.
  • You don't have enough financial support. An F1 visa requires holders to prove that they have enough funds to support themselves through the first year of the program.
  • Your academic institution is not SEVP-certified: Any academic institution that sponsors international students must be approved by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). This program aids the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in monitoring academic programs and F1 and other visa holders.
  • Overstaying your visa. If you stay beyond your allowed time, you will violate U.S. immigration laws. This might cause you to become ineligible for future visas or even for future visits to the United States.
  • Not carrying proper paperwork when you enter the country. You should always have your I-20 form, your I-94, a valid visa with your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) ID number, a valid passport, and financial documentation when you arrive in the United States. Otherwise, you might be denied entry, even if you have an F1 visa.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is SEVIS? 

This digital database keeps current records on F1 holders and their dependents. Academic institutions use this system to transmit information about non-immigrant students and other event notifications throughout a visa holder's stay in the U.S. 

  • Can I attend a public high school on an F1 visa? 

With an F1 visa, you can attend a public high school for up to one year. You must also pay the unsubsidized cost of the education.

  • Can I transfer to another program? 

You can transfer to a different school or program as long as you file the correct paperwork. You will need to transfer your SEVIS record and get an I-20 form from the new school within 15 days of the transfer.

  • Can I work during my program? 

An F1 visa grants you some employment authorization. You can typically work on campus part-time, or you might be eligible to work through a CPT or OPT program.

  • Does an F1 visa allow my spouse or children to travel with me? 

No, an F1 visa only applies to a single holder. However, your spouse or children under 21 may apply for an F2 visa. Spouses on an F2 visa do not have employment authorization, but children on an F2 visa can enroll in either primary or secondary school programs. Parents of an F1 visa holder are not allowed to apply for derivative visas.

  • Can I travel outside of the U.S.? 

An F1 visa allows you to travel back to your home country or other countries, as long as you return to the United States within five months.

  • Can I stay in the U.S. after my academic program ends? 

An F1 visa allows you to stay in the U.S. for up to two months after you've completed your program. If you are accepted into the OPT program, you receive permission to stay in the United States for an additional 12 months or more. An F1 visa prohibits you from remaining in the U.S. with the intention of abandoning your home country, though.

  • Can I apply for another visa after my F1 visa expires? 

You might be eligible to transfer from an F1 visa to an H1B visa or even get a green card. To get an H1B visa, which allows for full-time or part-time employment for up to three years, you must find a sponsor. Your visa status depends on your job, and it will end if and when your employment does.

  • Do I need an attorney to apply for an F1 visa?

An attorney isn't required, but professional help can prove invaluable. This is especially true if your application or situation is complicated.

  • Can I appeal an F1 visa denial? 

The State Department typically denies F1 visas based on fraud, misrepresentation, insufficient documentation, or criminal activity. You might be able to appeal a visa denial, though it is in your best interest to hire an attorney for professional advice.

Steps to Apply for an F1 Visa

  1. Receive an I-20 form. After applying to an SEVP-approved school, the administrators will enter you in SEVIS. This will generate an I-20 record for you.
  2. Pay the SEVIS fee. The fee is currently $200.
  3. File the DS-160 Nonimmigrant Visa Application Form. Double check it for accuracy before submitting, and don't hesitate to contact an attorney for help.
  4. Pay the F1 visa fee. The fee is currently $160.
  5. Make an appointment at your local U.S. Embassy or Consulate. This appointment includes an interview and is required for applicants between the ages of 14 and 79. Be ready to answer questions about your choice of academic institution and your reasons for wanting to study in the United States. Bring these items with you: 
    • Appointment Confirmation Page
    • DS-160 Confirmation Page
    • DS-157 Form for Men Aged 16 to 45
    • I-20 Certificate of Eligibility Form
    • Letter of Admission From Your Academic Institution
    • Financial Documents: To prove that you have enough money to pay for living expenses during your academic program, you should share tax returns from the past three years, along with pay stubs, employment contracts, bank statements, and scholarship letters.
    • Supporting Educational Documents: You will need documents that show your TOEFL, SAT, GRE, GMAT, or LSAT test scores; your grade-point average; and any academic diploma or certificate you've already earned. You will also need details about the academic program you want to enroll in and your housing plans.
    • Documents Showing Ties to Your Home Country: This might include an employment contract set to begin after your academic program, proof of property ownership, or proof of strong family ties in your home country.
    • Proof of Health Insurance: You must get health insurance before your stay in the U.S.
    • Passport: This must be valid for an additional six months from the time you plan to enter the U.S.
    • Photographs: Send two copies of a color photo taken against a white background and sized so your head measures between 1 and 1.375 inches.
    • Fingerprints: This visa application requires applicants to be fingerprinted. You might need to complete this step at a Visa Application Center or at a separate appointment.

6. Maintain your F1 visa status. Once your visa has been approved, maintain your status by staying enrolled full-time and getting passing grades. If you are not able to complete your program by the end of your visa term, talk with your international adviser about a program extension.

7. Apply to change your visa status. After completing your academic program, you should make plans to leave the United States within 60 days, enroll in another full-time program under a new I-20 form, or apply for one of the following statuses:

  • H1B Visa: Find an employer who will sponsor this visa for you. In some cases, you might need to cover the $1,130 cost of expedited processing yourself. This visa type requires employers to prove they are paying an H1B visa applicant at least 95 percent of the standard wage; they abide by limits of the percentage of the total workforce that can have H1B visas; and they haven't displaced U.S. workers by hiring H1B visa holders.
  • Green Card: To become a legal permanent U.S. resident, you typically need sponsorship from your employer. Applying for a green card through Labor Certification can take up to three years. Because an H1B visa lasts only three years, you should begin your green card application as soon as possible upon receiving employer sponsorship.

If you need help with an F1 visa, you can post your job or concern on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Stripe, and Twilio.