What Is a Student Visa?

A student visa is a government-issued visa that allows international students to study in a foreign country. In the United States, students can get F1, J1, or M1 visas. The F1 and J1 visas allow students to study and work. The M1 visa only allows them to study. However, the F1 and J1 visas only guarantee employment as a teaching assistant, research assistant, or other on-campus work.

What Types of Student Visas Are There?

The United States government grants three types of student visas.

  • F1 Visa
    • The F1 visa is the most common type of student visa. It's given to students attending an academic or English language program. To maintain legal F1 visa status, students must be enrolled full-time. They can also work up to 20 hours a week. After schooling, F1 visa holders can work on optional practical training (OPT). They must also complete their studies by the expiration date on their Form I-20, or Certificate of Eligibility for Non-Immigrant Student Status.
    • F1 visa holders can not enroll in publically funded adult education classes or publically funded schools with grades kindergarten through eighth grade.
    • An F1 visa can be granted to students wishing to attend high school (grades nine through 12). This is only for a stay of 12 months. In addition, the school must indicate on the Form I-20 whether the student paid the unsubsidized cost of the education and any other fees.
  • J1 Visa
    • The J1 visa is like the F1 visa, as it allows international students to receive practical training. Most of the applicants for this visa are foreign exchange students. Employment opportunities for J1 visa holders are the same as F1 visa holders, provided they get permission for employment by an exchange visitor program sponsor. The most popular jobs these visa holders do are temp work, research, teaching, and housework/childcare.
  • M1 Visa
    • M1 visas are for students who want nonacademic or vocational schooling. Unlike with the F1 and J1 visas, M1 visa holders cannot be employed during their studies. Because of the lack of a job, M1 visa applicants must prove they have the money to pay for all tuition and living expenses during their stay.
  • F2 Visa and M2 Visa
    • If you receive an F1 or M1 visa, your spouse or children can receive an F2 or M2 visa. This is usually only for dependents. Preferably, spouses and children apply for the F2 or M2 visa at the same time as the F1 or M1 visa applicant. If they apply later, they must present a copy of the F1 visa and that visa holder's passport.

What Do I Need Before I Can Apply for a Student Visa?

Before applying for a student visa, take into account:

  • Health Insurance
    • Student visa applicants might have to show proof of medical insurance to cover any medical expenses during their studies. If you do not have medical insurance from your home country, be sure to research options in the United States.
  • Academic Eligibility
    • Applicants need to research each school's academic requirements, including GPA and test scores from the GMAT, TOEFL, LSAT, GRE, SAT, or ACT. If you're still researching school choices, consult the USA School Search.
  • Financial Stability
    • Before applying for a visa, applicants must show proof of financial support, even if they get an F1 or a J1 visa.

How Do I Apply for a Student Visa?

Once a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified college, university, or English language program accepts you, the school will send you an application for an F1 visa, or Form I-20. Exchange students that need J1 visas will get a DS-2019 Form from the U.S. government or the agency sponsoring their visit. This allows them to apply for the J1 visa. The Form I-20 comes in Form I-20A-B for academic students and Form I-20M-N for English language and vocational students. Ideally, you should begin the visa process three to five months before the start of the academic program.

How Does the Student Visa Process Work?

  • Receiving and Filling Out Forms
    • After acceptance into a school, you will receive a Form I-20 or DS-2019 Form from the Designated School Officer (DSO). This means the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) authorizes you to enroll in the school. You will need to pay the I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement website. This adds you to the SEVIS database and gives you an ID number.
    • Read the form carefully before signing, and make sure your name on the form is exactly as it is on your passport. Spell the school name correctly to avoid delays.
    • Once you send in the Form I-20 or DS-2019, it can take several weeks or months to hear back. This is due to security clearances. Some students might also have to undergo additional screening before visa approval.
  • Schedule an Interview
    • Student visas can be issued up to 120 days before the date listed on the Form I-20. An M1 visa is issued any time before the date on the DS-2019 Form. This is why it's important to schedule an interview as early as possible.
    • Every U.S. Embassy has different rules about how to schedule an interview, so go to the embassy's website for instructions. The embassy can also tell you the wait time for your visa or interview.
    • Make sure you're on time or early for your interview. Late arrivals might have to reschedule the interview.
    • In most cases, only the applicant will be allowed into the embassy or consulate. Exceptions include translators, parents for children under 18, and assistants for disabled persons. If you are bringing one of these individuals, contact the embassy or consulate and tell them names of the people accompanying you.
    • The interview is for a visa officer to determine if you're eligible for a student visa and which one.
    • Questions asked include:
      • Academic background
      • Ties to your home country
      • English language abilities
      • Your accepting school
      • Your financial resources
      • Plans after finishing your studies
  • Fill Out the DS-160 Form
    • After scheduling an interview, fill out a non-immigrant visa application, or DS-160 Form. The spelling of your name on this form must match your passport. This form can be filled out online, and you must upload a photograph of yourself. If you cannot provide a photo online, print a 2X2 photo and bring it to the interview. Other required details on the DS-160 Form include:
      • Date of birth
      • Address
      • Phone number
      • Previous U.S. travel
      • Point of contact in the U.S.
      • Family, work, and education details
      • SEVIS ID
      • Address of school or program
      • Travel plans and companions
      • Electronic signature
  • Prepare for the Interview
    • The sooner you apply for your interview, the more time you will have to prepare, as you will know the interview date. The recommended time is three months before you come to the United States. This gives you extra time if there are delays at the embassy or a chance to appeal if your visa is denied. Once you are well-prepared, you should be able to give complete and quick answers to the questions. This should include your goals, both academically and professionally.
    • Prepare to explain why an education in the United States is better than one in your home country.
    • State your education plans, including specifics of your field of study.
    • Don't memorize a speech, give vague answers, or glorify the U.S. over your home country.
    • Explain why you chose the specific school and how it benefits your education.
    • State where you will live during your studies. Acceptable answers are a dormitory, host family, or apartment.
    • If you plan on learning English and then continuing on to a university, explain each step of the process.
    • Bring letters of recommendation from your teachers in your home country.
    • If necessary, explain any poor grades you received and the circumstances surrounding them. Grades are an important factor in your acceptance. A letter from a school director, teacher, or your accepting U.S. school helps explain your good prospects for success.
    • Dress professionally. First impressions with the officer are important. This person only has a few minutes to meet you and conduct the interview, so you want to start on the right foot.
    • Always tell the truth.
    • Answer precisely and quickly.
    • If you wish to return to your home country after learning English, bring a note from a professor in your home country that supports your study plans.

After your interview, the visa officer will tell you if your application needs more administrative processing. This means you might have to wait longer for approval. Wait times vary, so there's no sure way to know how long processing will take. The visa officer will also tell you when you'll get your passport back. This is usually done by pick-up or a courier service. In certain countries, the courier service will provide a tracking number for your passport.

International student visas receive priority over other visas, but you should still apply early. Embassies and consulates can issue M1 and F1 visas within 120 days of your program start date. If you apply before this period, the embassy holds your visa until then. However, you cannot enter the U.S. more than 30 days before the start of your program. If you wish to enter the country before that time, you must obtain a visitor visa. This does not apply to students continuing their education. They can enter as long as they have any type of valid visa.

Applicants under age 13 or over age 80 typically are exempt from the interview process. Applicants between 14 and 79 require an interview.

What Documentation Do I Need for the Visa Interview?

  • Form I-20
  • SEVIS I-901 receipt of payment
  • Machine Readable Visa (MRV) receipt
  • J1 visa applicants might need to pay and provide proof of additional fees if participating in a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program. These programs have a serial number starting with G-1, G-2, G-3, or G-7.
  • Proof of funds to pay for living, tuition, and travel for one year or the duration of the stay, whichever is less
  • Accommodation information
  • Transcripts and diplomas
  • A signed passport that's valid at least six months from the entry date
  • Form DS-7002 for J1 trainee and intern visa applicants
  • List of previous employers and schools if required
  • Copy of marriage certificate or birth certificate

Some embassies might also require a DS-156, DS-157A, or DS-158A. Visa officers will take ink-free, digital fingerprints at your interview.

How Do I Fund or Prove Financial Support for a Visa?

Funding is always a concern for M1 visa holders, as they cannot work while in the United States. Rules are strict about employment or income while in the country, so make sure you acquire enough money before arriving. Applicants must have evidence of current financial resources. Future potential earnings do not qualify. Make sure you've planned for enough money, short-term and long-term, before applying for an M1 visa.

During your interview, you might be asked to explain how you will pay for schooling and living expenses. Financial support from family members, employers, or sponsors are the most common answers. If your family is paying for your schooling, you must provide proof of how your family earns a living. This includes a letter from your parents' employers, a statement of earnings, and length of employment.

A large bank account balance isn't always enough proof of financial support. So bring a statement from the bank that shows average daily balance and how long the account has been open to the interview.

Contradictory answers or lack of evidence of financial support might cause delays or denial of a student visa.

How Often Does a Student Visa Get Denied?

Although visa officers approve most student visas, sometimes the request is denied. The most frequent reason for denial is an applicant's failure to prove an "Intent to Return." This means the visa officer doesn't believe the applicant will return to his or her home country after studies, as outlined in Section 214b.

To determine your intent to return, the visa officer asks you questions about connections in your home country and your plans upon your return. You might also have to prove that you can pay for your education for at least one year and any subsequent years.

What If My Student Visa Gets Denied?

Even if your visa gets denied, you can appeal the ruling. This requires additional documentation such as:

  • Proof of employment
  • Ownership of a home
  • Ownership of a business
  • A fax from your school to the embassy or consulate explaining your qualifications
    • Address faxes to the Chief of Non-immigrant Visas for your particular embassy or consulate.

What Are SEVP and SEVIS?

  • SEVP
    • The Student Exchange and Visitor Program helps the Department of Homeland Security monitor F1, M1, and J1 visa holders.
    • SEVP certification from a university or college is important, as it shows that it is accepted by other institutions of higher learning.
    • SEVP manages F1 and J1 visas, while the Department of Homeland Security manages M1 visas.
    • The Student Exchange and Visitor Information System is a database with information about each student visa holder. Consular and visa officers use this system to verify student visa status and your Form I-20.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the application fees?

The visa application fee is also known as a Machine Readable Visa Fee, or MRV fee. For F1 and M1 student visas, it's $200. For J1 visas, it's $180.

You can pay this fee online with an internationally accepted credit card, check, Western Union, debit card, or international money order. A third-party can also pay on your behalf. Pay the fee at least three days before your interview. Print the receipt of payment, and bring it to your interview. You will also pay a $160 visa application fee at the embassy, consulate, or accredited bank in your country.There also might be a visa issuance reciprocity fee for certain applicants. This doesn't usually apply to F1, M1, or J1 visa applicants.

  • If I get a student visa, am I guaranteed entry to the United States?

A student visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) allows entry on a case-by-case basis. CBP also determines how long you can stay in the country, regardless of what's stated on the visa. Because entry isn't guaranteed, consider booking refundable plane tickets.

If your passport expires during your visa, keep the old passport with the visa page. This allows you to travel freely in the U.S. when you obtain a new passport. Student visa holders should also review other entry requirements regarding agricultural goods, food, and prohibited products, as outlined on the Department of Homeland Security website and the CBP website.

  • Do I need any other documents?

When you arrive at a port of entry, a CBP officer will give you a Form I-94, or Record of Arrival-Departure. This document is printed on a white card and states the length of the permitted stay. Keep this document with your student visa. Other necessary documentation includes:

  • A DSO signed Form I-20
  • A valid passport
  • Financial documentation
  • The student visa
  • A valid SEVIS ID number
  • Name of the school you're attending
  • A 24-hour emergency contact number for your school
  • For M1 applicants, a letter from your home university stating you will return after completing studies in the U.S.
  • How many student visas are issued?

In 2015, 644,201 F1 visas were issued. Currently, there are 1.2 million students on either F1 or M1 visas.

  • How do I know which student visa I need?

Choosing the right student visa is complicated. To figure out which student visa works for you, visit www.usembassy.gov, select your country, and review the non-immigrant visa section.

  • Where can I get more information?

If you need more help outside of the embassy website, contact or visit the nearest Department of State-affiliated EducationUSA office. Employees at these offices can discuss the fees and interview process with you.

  • Do I have to be fluent in English?

English fluency is not necessary for a student visa. Interpreters are available for students that do not speak the same language as an interviewer. Thousands of students come to the country every year just to improve their language.

  • How long does it take to receive a visa?

Once your visa is granted, it takes only a few days to receive it in the mail.

  • How can I check the status of my application?

The U.S. Department of State (DOS) has an online tool to check the status of non-immigrant visa applications.

  • After visa approval, when can I enter the U.S.?

Once your visa is approved, you can only enter the U.S. 30 days or less from the start of your studies. If you want to travel to the U.S. more than 30 days before, you must get a visitor visa. You must also state your intent of study to the CBP officer and fill out a Form I-519, also called the Application for Change of Non-immigrant Status. There's also a fee. You cannot start your studies until the Form I-519 is filed and accepted. Students can travel in and out of the country freely during their visa.

  • What happens if I stay past the Arrival-Departure date on my Form I-94?

If you stay beyond the date on your I-94, you are in violation of U.S. immigration laws. This might make you subject to deportation.

  • What if I need a student visa renewal?

If your student visa lapses, you must apply for a new one the same way you applied for the first one. Students that take more than five months off must also reapply for a student visa.

  • Can I take a class without a student visa?

Foreigners on tourist or visitor visas can take classes that are less than 18 hours a week.

  • Where do most student visa holders go to school?

California and New York are the most popular states for student visa holders. New York University (NYU) has more than 15,000 international students.

  • Can any visa holders attend public elementary or secondary school?

Holders of M2, L2, J2, F2, H4, A, E, and G are eligible to attend these schools.

Filing for a student visa can be confusing. If you're having trouble figuring out which visa to apply for or you need advice or help, check out UpCounsel's online forum to post your job for an experienced attorneys that specialize in immigration law.