How to Get an F-1 Student Visa
by James Allen on December 7, 2015
The United States requires full-time students to apply for a student visa. The most common ones are the J-1 and F-1 student visas, but the F-1 student visa is preferable. High school students on J-1 visas are limited to one year in the U.S., but F-1 visas are not limited (see this great article explaining how long a J-1 visa lasts, and this useful comparison chart on F-1 vs. J-1).
So, how exactly can you get your F-1 student visa? There are six main steps:
1. Apply to an SEVP certified school; if accepted, you will get an I-20 form
2. After you receive the I-20 form, you must pay the $200 SEVIS fee online
3. After paying the fee, complete the online visa application (form DS-160)
4. Pay the $160 visa fee online, in person at a bank, or over the phone
5. Schedule a visa appointment at the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate
6. Gather all of the required documents and attend your visa appointment
Now, let’s look at each one of these steps in greater detail.
In order to receive a student visa, you must first be accepted by an accredited school that is SEVP certified (SEVP stands for Student Exchange Visitor Program). This is because in order for schools to accept international students with F-1 visas, they must be approved by the U.S. government.
Every school that Passport Scholars works with is SEVP Certified. To find a school, visit our school search page or the school search page on the Study in the States website. After you have applied and are accepted, the school will issue you an I-20 Form. Be aware that in some cases, schools will require that you send the entire tuition amount before they send you your I-20 form. If your visa request is denied, the school will issue you a full refund.
The I-20 form, as explained here, is a “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status” and will let your visa interviewer know that you have already been accepted by an approved school in the United States. If you applied to multiple schools, you will receive multiple I-20 forms—one from each school. Be sure to keep your original I-20 safe and make several copies! You will need the I-20 again when you enter the U.S. and for applying for other government documents like a driver’s license (learn more here).
Once you have received your I-20 from the school you wish to attend, you must pay the I-901 Sevis Fee.
Use the information on your I-20 form to pay the I-901 SEVIS fee. You can watch a video tutorial or read written instructions on exactly how to pay the fee. Once you are ready to pay, visit fmjfee.com to make your payment online.
You can use several payment methods including a debit or credit card, check, international money order, and through Western Union Quick Pay. Once you have paid the fee you, can return to the website to check on your payment status. Another person can also pay the fee for you (e.g. if you have a sponsor).
Be sure to print out and save the SEVIS fee payment confirmation and make several copies! You will need to bring this receipt of payment with you to your visa interview. If someone else is paying the fee on your behalf, they must send you the receipt.
Applying for your visa early is very important! F-1 visas can be issued up to 120 days (4 months) before the date your classes begin. Because it can take up to 3 months for your visa to be issued, you should not waste time in applying for your visa. You can apply for your visa by completing form DS-160 online at ceac.state.gov/GenNIV. Follow all of the on-screen instructions and be ready to provide the following information:
Once you are finished filling out all of the questions, you will have to electronically sign the application by clicking the “Sign Application” button at the end. After your application is submitted, you will see a confirmation page with a barcode, barcode number and your application ID number. Make sure to print this information out because you will need to take with you to your visa interview appointment. Your finished visa application will look something like this.
Important Tip: Be sure to answer all the questions truthfully and accurately. Errors can cause delays and prevent you from getting your visa. Also, make sure the photo you upload meets the visa photo requirements outlined by the U.S. State Department.
It is best to pay the visa fee, also called the Machine Readable Visa (MRV) Fee, before you attend your visa appointment as this is required be some Embassies and Consulates. There are several different options for paying the $160 visa fee, and they vary by country. In general, you have three different options to pay your visa.
To find out exactly how to pay your visa fee online, create an account on either the Official U.S. Department of State Visa Appointment Service or the USA Travel Docs website. Follow the instructions until you arrive at the payment page. Print out the DS-160 confirmation page, the deposit slip, and the visa interview appointment confirmation page. You can give these documents to a bank teller at any of the approved banks in your country. In some cases, you can even pay the fee at an ATM. You can find out which banks are approved on the Visa Appointment Service website, USA Travel Docs website, or on the website of your local U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Be sure to keep the receipt you are given! You will need to present this at your visa interview.
Over the phone:
As mentioned above, the first step is to create an account on either the Official U.S. Department of State Visa Appointment Service or the USA Travel Docs website. Follow the instructions until you arrive at the payment page. Call the appropriate number and follow the automated instructions to pay with your credit or debit card. You will be given a payment confirmation number. Be sure to write this number down and keep it safe! You will need to present this confirmation number at your visa interview.
Paying online is perhaps the easiest way to pay your visa fee. The first step is to create an account on either the Official U.S. Department of State Visa Appointment Service or the USA Travel Docs website. Follow the instructions until you arrive at the payment page. You can pay with an electronic bank transfer or with your credit or debit card. After you have paid the fee, you should be given a confirmation page/receipt. Make sure to print this receipt and keep it safe! You will need to present this information when you go to your visa interview.
Important Tip: Regardless of how you pay the visa fee, you must keep proof of payment. Be sure to make several copies and bring these with you to your visa interview appointment.
It is mandatory to attend an interview in order to get your F-1 student visa, even if you are only of high school age. Because of this, you should schedule your interview appointment as soon as possible. As I mentioned earlier, F-1 visas can be issued up to 120 days (4 months) before the date your classes begin. It can take up to 3 months for your visa to be issued, so do not waste time in scheduling your appointment!
You can schedule your visa interview appointment online or by calling the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. To find the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate, visit usembassy.gov.
To schedule your appointment online, you can use the Official U.S. Department of State Visa Appointment Service if you live in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, or Africa. If you do not live in those regions, you can use the USA Travel Docs site.
Important tip: Visa appointment and processing wait times vary by location, season, and visa category. You can use the Wait Times Calculator to get up-to-date wait times from the U.S. State Department.
This is the final step for obtaining your visa! Make sure to be on time for your visa interview! If you arrive late, you may be told to reschedule for another day. If you are a student under 18 years of age and/or have a disability, your parents or legal guardians can accompany you to your interview. Otherwise, you will be the only person allowed inside.
You should now have all of the necessary documents for your visa interview. Bring all of the items in the list below to your interview:
For a more in-depth look at the documents you should bring, visit this page. The following documents can also help you in your interview:
Let me explain a bit more about the financial support documents. Because you are studying on an F-1 visa instead of a J-1 visa, you are not going to come to the United States with a government-sponsored exchange program. You and your family are entirely responsible for all of your costs of tuition, travel, and living expenses. Your interviewer will want to make sure that you have sufficient funds to support you while you are in the United States.
If someone else is funding your studies (e.g. your parents), have them provide you with 6 months worth of bank statements to bring to your interview. If you have applied for a loan to fund your studies and have been approved, bring the approval letter.
If someone besides your parents will help fund your studies (e.g. aunts or uncles, friends, or your employer), they will need to give you 6 months of their bank statements as well. If they are not U.S. citizens, they must submit a notarized letter guaranteeing that they will pay for your tuition and living expenses. If they are U.S. citizens or have been living legally in the U.S., instead of writing a letter they must complete, sign, and mail Form I-134 to you (faxed or emailed copies will most likely be rejected). You must then bring this with you to your interview. Nolo.com and AllLaw.com have great advice on how to properly fill out Form I-134.
If you are unsure of any of the requirements for your visa interview, contact your local U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Always be on the safe side and bring more than what you may think you need. For more details, visit the Student Visa page on the State Department website.
To find the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate, visit usembassy.gov.
Important Tip: There is no guarantee that you will be issued a visa, so do not make final travel plans or buy plane tickets until you have received your visa.
As mentioned above, there is no guarantee that you will be given a visa, so wait until after you have received it to buy your plane tickets. Once the visa has been issued to you, you are officially ready to finalize your travel plans!
However, there is one more important step before you can enter the United States. Having a visa only allows you to travel to a U.S. port of entry and “knock” on the “door” to request permission to enter. Once you land inside any U.S. airport or port of entry, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official will be the final person to determine whether or not you are allowed to enter the United States.
Because of this, you should always keep your identification and travel-related documents with you at all times. You will need to present some or perhaps all of these documents to an official upon request:
Once the officer attending you grants you permission to enter the U.S., they will give you an I-94 form. If you are given an electronic I-94, all you will receive is an admission stamp in your passport. If your I-94 is in paper form, you will receive a physical piece of paper. If you are given a paper form, do not lose it! If you go back home for vacation or travel anywhere outside the United States, you will have to present this to a DHS or CBP officer as you depart the U.S. However, if you only received a stamp, you do not have to do anything.
Keep in mind that you cannot arrive more than 30 days before the date your classes begin (this date should be written on your I-20 form). If you try to enter the U.S. too early, you will most likely be denied entrance. Once your course of study has completed, you can remain in the U.S. for an additional 60 days before you have to leave.
Be aware that even though you are not a United States citizen, you still have rights! I highly recommend that you read the Nonimmigrant Rights, Protections and Resources page created by the U.S. State Department. You can also download and print this PDF brochure which contains the same information.
Congratulations! You now know all of the steps to getting your visa and entering the United States of America.
As I mentioned earlier, even if you have all of the necessary documents, you are not guaranteed to receive a visa. One of the most common reasons F-1 student visas are denied is because the student did not convince the interviewer that he or she plans to return home after the studies are finished. Don’t make this mistake!
You should explain to the interviewer how you will miss your family and your home and what you plan to do in your home country after you finish studying in the United States.
For more reasons why your student visa request may be denied, read this helpful article on AllLaw.com.
We provide visa advice and assistance to all of our students, along with support letters to help them in their interviews. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us. I wish you all the best as you apply for your F-1 student visa!
Do you have questions, comments, or concerns? Get in touch or voice your opinion on social media!