If a foreign national is interested in studying in the U.S., he or she will need an F-1 student visa.
U.S. immigration law allows for the admission as nonimmigrants those wishing to enter the U.S. to participate in a “full-time course of study.”
The most important requirement to obtain an F-1 visa is the demonstration of non-immigrant intent (i.e. the student intends to enter the U.S. only for the temporary purpose of attending school).
This means that the student must maintain a home abroad that they have no intention of abandoning.
The student must demonstrate that he or she possesses the financial resources to allow him or her to study without the need to engage in unauthorized employment.
Most students are able to get approved for a stay equal to the duration of their studies in the U.S. and, generally, can study in any pre-approved institution.
Also, foreign students in grades 9-12 at public schools must reimburse the school for the cost of the education. Foreign students in public high schools are limited to 12 months of study.
How to apply
Find a School
A prospective student must first identify a school that is qualified to sponsor him or her for a student visa.
A school that wishes to enroll foreign students must first apply for permission with the USCIS.
Schools must demonstrate that they are legitimate educational institutions and appoint a Designated School Official (DSO) who will sign all necessary forms.
Note that the Student & Exchange Visitor Information Systems (SEVIS) (administered by the US Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) has imposed a number of changes in the process by which it determines the eligibility of a school to participate in the F-1 visa process.
Obtain an I-20 Form
Students wishing to enter the U.S. on an F-1 visa must first receive a Form I-20 issued by the school that provides information about the school and the student.
Before the school can issue an I-20 the following conditions must be met:
- The student must have made a written application to the school;
- The school must have received the student’s academic record and evidence of financial support;
- The student must meet the school’s qualifications for admission, including any English language proficiency requirement, payment of tuition; and
- The student must have been accepted by the school.
The student will receive a paper copy of the I-20, but under SEVIS, schools no longer maintain their own paper copies. Instead, schools will input the required information into SEVIS, making it available to the USCIS.
Apply for the F-1 visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate
After the school issues the I-20, it sends it to the student abroad. The student then applies for a visa at his or her nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
To apply for the visa the student must present to the U.S. consular officer his or her I-20, passport, evidence of payment of the non-immigrant visa fee, Form DS-156 Application for a Non-Immigrant Visa, Form DS-157 Supplemental Non-Immigrant Visa Application (applicable only to males between the ages of 16-65), Form DS-158 Contact Information and Work History for Non-Immigrant Visa Applicant, and evidence of financial support.
Entering the U.S.
Once the student receives the visa, he or she may make an application for admission at any U.S. port of entry.
The student must present his or her passport, visa, evidence of support and the form I-20.
If admission is granted, the USCIS will keep one copy of the I-20 and return the second to the student.
The student is issued an I-94 Arrival/Departure Record that contains a unique control number that is noted on the I-20 and is ready to begin his or her full-time course of study.
Because of bars on admission created in 1996, it is critical that student maintains his or her while in the U.S.
Here is a list of what a visiting student must do in order to maintain status:
- Keep a valid passport (unless exempt from the passport requirement);
- Attend the school that is sponsoring you;
- Attend school on a full-time basis (a full-time course of study);
- Leave the U.S. by the completion date shown on the I-20, or request a program extension from the school;
- Apply for all educational level changes (i.e from a bachelor’s program to a master’s program) with a designated student officer;
- Work no more than 20 hours per week (with USCIS authorization) while school is in session;
- Do not work off campus without USCIS authorization; and
- Report changes in residence to the school, SEVIS, and the USCIS within 10 days.
“Full-time course of study” is defined in USCIS regulations as follows:
- Postgraduate or postdoctoral study at a college, university, conservatory or religious seminary;
- Undergraduate study at a college or university consisting of at least 12 credit hours per term, except in cases where to finish the program the student does not need to take 12 hours in the last term;
- Study at a postsecondary institution that awards associate or comparable degrees, and whose credits are accepted by at least three other institutions of higher learning;
- Study in a language, liberal arts, fine arts, or other nonvocational training program. This study must consist of 18 hours of attendance per week, 22 hours if laboratory work constitutes the dominant part of the course of study; and
- Study in a high school, providing the foreign student attends the minimum class hours per week required for graduation.
Under the SEVIS program, an F-1 student will be allowed to reduce his or her course load because of academic difficulties only once and must resume a full course load at the start of the next full academic term.
In the case of illness or another medical condition that prevents the student from pursuing a full course load, the student may receive permission to take a reduced course load for an aggregate total of 12 months, which will not include any reductions based on academic difficulties.
Academic difficulties and illness are the only reasons a student will be authorized to take less than a full course load.