One of the most crucial parts of traveling to a new country is obtaining the right documents, in particular the correct visa. Without the proper documents, you may be asked to leave or denied entry into your destination country. As an international student studying in the US, you have to be able to navigate the legal landscape of obtaining and maintaining the validity of various documents in order to ensure the legality of your stay. In this article, we will be going through everything about US student visas so that you will be prepared and informed about your status in the US.

Different types of visas

Depending on your education level, circumstances, and stay, you might need a specific type of visa. There are two main types of visas: nonimmigrant and immigrant. Nonimmigrant visas are given to individuals who want to visit the US for a particular purpose, such as education, business, or vacation, meanwhile only those who have successfully petitioned to reside in the US permanently can apply for an immigrant visa.

Here, we will be focusing on student visas which are a type of nonimmigrant visa:

table showing visa cateogries
Table: different visa categories and purposes for entering the US

What is the difference between an F-1 and M-1 visa?

Here are the different requirements and benefits of an F-1 and M-1 student visa:

F-1, M-1, and J-1 visa comparison
Table: comparison of F-1, M-1, and J-1 student visas

How can you get a US student visa?

Once you enroll in a school or university that has been approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), the campus’s office of international affairs will register you for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). They will send you a Form I-20 or DS-2019 that has all the information you need to pay for the I-901 SEVIS fee, which is $350. After you have successfully paid for the fee, you must print out and keep the receipt as you might need it for your visa interview. Now you can go ahead and start the application process by going to the US Department of State Consular Electronic Application Center and filling out the DS-160 application. To complete the application, you will also need a proper photo of yourself so do not forget to take a new one that meets all the requirements found here. Once you have finished filling out all the information and uploading the photo, you can go ahead and schedule a visa interview at your local US Embassy or Consulate. You might be required to pay a visa application fee before your interview, but if you aren’t then the US Embassy or Consulate may issue you a fee after your interview. After that, you must prepare the right documents for your visa interview. 

What do you need and how can you prepare for your visa interview?

Some US Embassies do not allow you to have your phone inside. All US Embassies will keep your larger electronic devices as well as your bag in a locker as they have a strict security protocol. So, you don’t want to be relying on digital documents and everything should be printed out. Here is a checklist of items that you will need for your visa interview:

Checklist of items to prepare for student visa interview

When you go to the US Embassy for your interview, remember to act appropriately and listen to all of the instructions given to you by one of the staff. The consular officer will ask for your fingerprints and ask at least some of the following questions:

  • Why are you going to the US?
  • What will you specialize in for your degree?
  • What will be your major?
  • Where did you go to school now?
  • Who is your current employer? What do you do?
  • Why are you planning to continue your education?
  • Can you not continue your education in your home country?
  • How will this study program relate to your past work or studies?
  • Who is funding your education?

You can read and prepare for your visa interview via our extended list of and advice forF-1 Visa Interview Questions! You should make sure to have your answers prepared. After the interview, the US Embassy will take your passport so that they can put your US visa on a page of your passport. You might have to pay the issuance fee during this step, if you haven’t already done so.

When and how will you get your visa?

It can take anywhere from 3 to 5 weeks for your US visa application to be processed and 2 workdays for the passport to be returned to you via an approved delivery service.

What if your visa application is denied?

If your visa application is denied then you should be informed by the consular officer why you are ineligible, if not you should ask them for the exact reasons so that you can correct the issues. Sometimes a denial occurs because you have missing documents or the Consulate has insufficient information to qualify you for a visa. If this is the case then you should submit the documents or give them the requested information. You can reapply for a new visa after 3 business days following the previous rejection. Most people are approved for a visa after the second attempt if they failed the first time. For any other cases, you should consult your school’s office of international affairs or a lawyer (sometimes the consular officer can misapply the laws).

What other documents do you need to study in the US?

When entering the US, there are a number of documents that you will need to bring with you. You can head over to our article, First Arrival in America, to find out what you will need to bring to enter the US.

What is Form I-20 and is it important?

Form I-20 is a document that your university’s office of international affairs issues to you as a “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.” It is a crucial first step in obtaining an F-1 or M-1 student visa and it will remain an essential part of your academic career in the US. You must print out your Form I-20 and keep it safe in a folder with your passport as you will need it to re-enter the US, if you leave the country.

What is a DS-2019 and is it important?

A DS-2019 is a document that is also known as the "Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status." It is assigned to J-1 students, instead of a Form I-20. This document must be printed out and kept safe in a folder with your passport as you will need it to travel in and out of the US during your program. 

What to do if your visa will expire during the school year?

If your visa expires during your time in the US, you can stay in the country as long as your student status along with I-20 or DS-2019 are still valid. However, if you are not in the US then you will need to renew it in order to get back into the country. You should definitely renew your visa as soon as possible if you know that it expires during the school year.

Renewing your visa

If you have to renew your visa, you must re-apply for another visa under the same conditions. You can follow the same instructions above.

How to extend your stay in the US

The procedure of getting a visa extension depends on the type of visa that you have. To extend an F-1 or M-1 visa, you will have to file a Form I-539 request with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). F-1 students have to file for an extension at least 45 days before their program end date, while M-1 visa holders can only apply for an extension during a specific period of time, which is at least 15 days but no more than 60 days before the program end date. Filing an extension for a J-1 student visa is definitely more complicated as the student will need to discuss the possibility of extending their stay with their assigned program officer.

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