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How to get a US student visa

interstride logo by Interstride
January 28, 2023

Any foreign national looking to study at a college or university in the US will need a student visa. Figuring out how to get a US student visa when applying for college as an international student can be confusing. This blog covers everything you need to know about applying for a student visa and how to ensure your best chances of visa approval.

What is a student visa?

A student visa is a temporary visa that allows foreign nationals to live and study in the US at an accredited higher education institution. Temporary visas are not intended to allow permanent
immigration to the US International students who wish to remain in the US after graduation will have to obtain another visa such as an H-1B work visa or a green card.

There are three types of student visas US-bound foreign nationals can apply for. The type of program and school you are applying for determines which student visa you will need.

  • F-1 visa: This is the most common type of student visa. The F-1 visa is for undergraduate and graduate-level international students studying full-time at an accredited US college or university or for those studying English at an English language institute.
  • J-1 visa: This visa is for international students participating in short-term study programs such as an exchange program or study abroad program for one semester in the US. J-1 visas can also be for full-time students who are funded by their home country government.
  • M-1 visa: This less common option is for vocational or other non-academic studies in the US. The M-1 mainly applies to career-focused training programs such as culinary school or a vocational program.

What are student visa requirements for the US?

The specific requirements for a US student visa vary depending on the visa and your home country, but here are the general requirements:

  • Be enrolled in a qualifying academic, language, or training program
  • Show English language proficiency (unless you are enrolling in an English language program)
  • Prove that you or your family have the financial means to support you during your time in the US
  • Remain enrolled full-time throughout the length of the program
  • Demonstrate that you intend to depart the US after your studies conclude

For an F-1 and M-1 visa, the school you are attending must have a Student and Exchange Visitors Program (SEVP) certification from the Department of Homeland Security. You must also continue to have a residence abroad. This proves that you intend to return home after your temporary visa expires.

For a J-1 visa, you will need to have medical insurance throughout your time in the US. Contact your host program for more information about the minimum insurance requirements. Lastly, some J-1 visa students may have to return to their home country and live there for at least two years after graduation before they can return to the US on certain temporary visas or on a green card. Fortunately, there are several ways to waive this home country physical presence requirement.

What does a student visa allow you to do?

A student visa allows living and studying in the US full-time for a designated amount of time. Depending on what country you’re from, you may have to renew your student visa each year that you are in school. To retain legal status as a temporary student, you must enroll full-time each semester and maintain a GPA of at least 2.0 for undergraduates and 3.0 for graduate students.

Regardless of what type of student visa you are on, you can travel freely around the US when you are not in class. You can also travel back to your home country for summer breaks and holidays but must first obtain travel authorization from your F/M/J student advisor.

Studying and working on an F-1 visa

Generally, F-1 students are expected to take in-person classes, but they are permitted to take one online class each semester as part of their full-time course load.

While the primary intent of a student visa is to study, part-time work may also be available. The work options for F-1 students include:

OPT can be used before or after graduation as long as you do not exceed the time limits listed above. For example, if you use six months of OPT while you are still in school, then you will only have six months of OPT work authorization to use after graduation. This means you may have to leave the US sooner if you cannot acquire another visa. CPT authorization is determined by your school and more specifically, your program. Do note that if you work full-time for 12 months under CPT, you will not be eligible for OPT.

Studying and working on a J-1 visa

J-1 students must maintain a full-time course load of in-person classes each semester. They can only take online classes in addition to the full course load and only with prior approval. J-1 students are also permitted to work part-time on-campus while studying, as long as they obtain the necessary work authorization. While J-1 students aren’t eligible for OPT or CPT programs, they may obtain “Academic Training” where they can work in a position related to their field of study for up to 18 months (or the period of the degree program, whichever is shorter) during or after their academic program (STEM students and Ph.D.’s can sometimes be authorized for more than 18 months).

Can I bring my spouse and children with me to the US?

No matter which type of student visa you have, you can bring your spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 with you to the US. However, what they are allowed to do in the US depends on which visa you are on. For a J-1 visa holder, spouses can apply for work authorization and/or study in the US full-time as long as you and they maintain legal visa status. They will each receive a J-2 visa.

Unfortunately, spouses and dependents of an F-1 or M-1 visa holder cannot legally work in the US. They can only study part-time at an accredited university (for F-2 visas) or a vocational school (for M-2 visas). If your spouse wants to work or study full-time, they will have to apply for a separate visa.

How to apply for a US student visa

Here’s an overview of the steps of applying for a student visa in the US:

  • Apply and enroll at a SEVP-approved school.
  • Register for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and pay the I-901 fee.
  • Review form I-20 (for F-1 and M-1 visas) or form DS-2019 (for J-1 visas)to ensure all information is accurate. Your university will provide this form.
  • Complete the online visa application (form DS-160) and pay the application fee.
  • Gather all necessary documents including your passport, application confirmation page, and application fee payment receipt.
  • Complete a visa interview with a consular officer at the US Embassy or Consulate in your home country.

The DS-2019 or I-20 document will be provided by your school after you enroll. After you receive the form, you can pay the SEVIS fee and complete your online visa application. You will need to submit a qualifying photo of yourself with the application. Make sure to print the confirmation page to bring to your visa interview.

There may be a wait time for visa interviews depending on the location, time of year, and type of visa. To ensure your visa is approved before your first semester begins, schedule your visa interview appointment as early as possible. However, F-1 and M-1 visas can only be issued up to 120 days before the start date of the academic program.

While you are waiting for your scheduled interview, make sure you have collected all required documents. Additional documents that may be requested include:

  • Birth certificate
  • High school transcripts
  • University acceptance letter
  • Standardized test scores
  • Financial documentation showing how you will pay for educational, living, and travel costs.

During your interview, the officer will ask questions about your academic program, how you plan to financially support yourself during the program, and your intentions after graduation. They will also do a digital fingerprint scan and review your required documents. The entire interview will likely only last a couple of minutes. Lastly, pay any remaining fees, and you’re ready to travel to the US!

Common mistakes that lead to student visa denial

Getting accepted into an approved US university does not mean your student visa request will automatically be approved. There are many reasons why student visas are rejected. For example, your visa may be rejected if you do not intend to attend school full-time. For undergraduate students in the US, full-time means at least 12 credits per semester. For graduate students, you only need nine credits per semester to be considered full-time.

Here are some common mistakes that cause student visa rejection:

  • Having incomplete or accurately completed forms
  • Not having enough money to support yourself for at least one academic year
  • Passport expiring less than six months before the end of your academic program
  • Implying that you plan to stay in the US after graduation
  • Being late to the visa interview
  • Forgetting to bring necessary documents to the interview such as receipts of fees paid

What do I do if my student visa is rejected?

If your student visa is rejected, you will need to reapply. However, make sure you understand why your first application was rejected before reapplying. Ask the official who interviewed you to give you a written explanation for the visa denial. Understanding the reason(s) for the denial will help you correct any mistakes and increase your chances of approval the second time. You should discuss the denial with your school and possibly, with a US immigration attorney, prior to re-applying.

If you think there is a possibility that your visa will not be approved in time, notify the admissions office and ask for an extension. They are often willing to be flexible if you communicate in advance.

Set yourself up for success as an international student

Getting a US student visa requires acceptance to an approved university or academic program and an interview with a government official. It’s important to begin preparing early by completing all the necessary forms and collecting other pertinent documents needed to gain visa approval. Procrastinating could cause your visa application to be denied. Once you understand how to get a student visa, it becomes easier to navigate the process and ensure that your visa will be approved and you will be able to smoothly enter the US.

Visit Interstride’s blog for more resources on visas, other immigration pathways, and higher education in the US. Interstride helps prospective and current international students by providing guidance on how to succeed at a university in the US.