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Student visas: F-1, J-1, and M-1

interstride logo by Interstride
August 31, 2023

For international students, studying in the US is made possible primarily through three non-immigrant, student visa types: the F-1, J-1, and M-1 visas. Before planning to study in the US, it’s important to understand the differences between these three visas, and understand which visa you will most likely qualify for based on your academic and post-graduation goals.

F-1 visa for full-time international students

The F-1 visa status is by far the most common choice for international students to study in the US. The F-1 visa is intended for students pursuing full-time academic curriculum or an English language program, at an accredited college, university, or academic institution.

  • Flexibility of changing study – F-1 international students can change their major when pursuing an undergraduate degree at a school or university in the US. International students should always ensure that any changes in major are reflected on their SEVIS I-20 form.
  • Work options – During their first academic year, international students on the F-1 visa can participate in on-campus work. After their first academic year, F-1 students can then participate in off-campus work through the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT) programs. Students studying certain STEM degrees may also qualify for the OPT STEM extension after they graduate. All employment under an F-1 visa, must be related to the student’s area of study.

J-1 visa for short-term exchange students

The J-1 visa is typically intended for international students participating in short-term academic exchanges and programs, as well as cultural exchange programs. Students participating in the Fulbright program, PhD students doing summer research in the US, or students participating in a type of semester school exchange program, might be the types of students on a J-1 visa.

In order to be eligible for a J-1 visa, international students must be sponsored by a program approved by the US Department of State and have a solid financial support system for the duration of their time in the US.

  • Flexibility of changing study – J-1 visa holders can transfer programs only if they have obtained a new program sponsor. That sponsor must be through a program that falls under one of the 15 programs mentioned below.
  • Work options – Under J-1 visas, students can work under “Academic Training,” where they receive training or practical experience related to their field of study. Academic training can be unpaid or paid, and can be full-time or part-time, so long as permission is granted by the program sponsor. Each role or program under a J-1 visa may have different eligibility requirements for international students. There are 15 types of approved roles and/or programs eligible under the J-1 visa. For students, the most applicable roles or programs would be:
  • College or University Student
  • Secondary School Student
  • Research Scholar
  • Short-Term Scholar
  • Specialist
  • Teacher
  • Trainee
  • Intern

M-1 visa for vocational students

The M-1 visa is a visa intended for international students who wish to attend a non-academic or vocational program. These can be technical courses, flight school, cosmetology school, and culinary programs.

  • Flexibility of changing study – It is generally not permissible for M-1 visa holders to change study. There is an exception that allows M-1 students under certain circumstances to transfer to another school, only within the first six months of arrival into the US.
  • Work options – While on an M-1 visa, international students can only participate in practical training (PT). Practical training allows students to receive on-the-job training that would not otherwise be available to them in their home country. M-1 students can participate in practical training after they complete their training or vocational program.

Comparing the F-1, J-1, M-1 visas

In general, students do not choose their visa status, rather they are granted based on your program.  It can feel nerve wracking to have to choose the right program and visa status. There is much to consider when evaluating your future and the differences between the F-1, J-1, and M-1 visas:

  • Academic program: Do you want to pursue a degree program (F-1), a cultural exchange program (J-1), or a vocational training program (M-1)? Once you have the answer to that question, choosing a visa based on your intended academic program should be fairly straightforward.
  • Job opportunities: Your need for employment during or after your studies can also influence the best visa status for you.
  • Post-graduation plans: What do you hope to do after you graduate? Return home to your country? Stay and work in the US? Different visas offer different paths.
F-1Full-time Academic Studies
  • Be enrolled full-time student in an academic degree program at an accredited college or university.
  • Maintain a residence in your home country, or outside of the US, and demonstrate ties to said residence.
J-1Cultural ExchangeIn order to be eligible for an J-1 visa, international students must:

  • Receive the majority of their financial support (51%+) from the educational program they wish to participate in.
  • Be sponsored by an educational or nonprofit institution.
  • Be proficient in English, or be enrolled in English proficiency courses.
  • Be enrolled full-time student in a cultural exchange program.
M-1Vocational or Non Academic ProgramsIn order to be eligible for an M-1 visa, international students must:

  • Be enrolled full-time student in a vocational or non-academic program.
  • Be proficient in English, or be enrolled in English proficiency courses.
  • Be able to sufficiently support yourself financially for the entirety of your stay.
  • Maintain a residence in your home country, or outside of the US.
  • Be participating in a program approved by SEVP.

Final thoughts

Understanding the differences between the F-1, J-1, and M-1 visas is important for international students. Most international students pursue the F-1 visa due to its flexibility and connection to post graduation visa options. Ultimately, the best student visa for you, comes down to your academic and post-graduation plans as an international student.