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How to Acquire a US Student Visa

Pursuing an education can be viewed as a lifelong journey of discovery and growth. Often, when setting out on a journey, travelers must first determine where they’re going, what they intend to do when they reach their destination, and how long they plan to stay. If you, like hundreds of thousands of individuals from around the world, decide to make study in the United States part of your journey, keeping these three basic questions of travel in mind will help you better understand and prepare for the conditions of US immigration policy that must be met to reach your destination.

The US institution that accepts you will ask you to provide evidence that you have enough funding to support your stay in the US. This funding may come from a variety of sources, such as your own savings, parents or relatives, government or private sponsors, scholarships or program assistantships, and be documented a number of ways—bank statements, affidavits of support, etc. Your institution needs this information to issue the form necessary for you to take the first step in obtaining permission from the US government to study in the US.

The type of program you plan to pursue determines the kind of document your institution will issue to enable you to apply for the visa necessary to enter the US for study. Literally a sticker put in your passport, the visa is issued by the US Department of State at US Embassies and Consulates around the world. If you plan to engage in academic study at an accredited US school or study English at an English language institute, you’ll receive an I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status) necessary to obtain an F-1 visa; if you will be participating in some sort of exchange program, you will be issued a DS-2019 (Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status) required for a J-1 visa; and if your program involves more than 18 hours per week of nonacademic study or vocational training, you’ll be issued a Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (M-1) Student Status) needed for an M-1 visa. More detailed information on the visa application procedures described below may be found on the Student & Exchange Visitors’ page of the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs website.

Once you have received your I-20 or DS-2019, make sure all the information on it is correct and then you should immediately begin the visa application process outlined here to ensure you receive your visa well before your program starts. Consular processing times can vary greatly depending on the time of year, your intended program of study, and/or the location where you apply. Even though the US consulate cannot issue a visa more than 120 days before your program’s start date, you should still apply as soon as you can to allow as much time as possible for any clearances you may need to go through. It is best to apply for the visa at the US consulate or embassy nearest your permanent residence. Visit the US Department of State’s website to locate the consulate nearest you and find out how to schedule the interview required of all first-time applicants. Check here for an estimate of current visa processing times at the consulate or embassy where you intend to apply.

Prior to your consular interview, you will need to do and/or gather the following:

  • Pay the I-901 SEVIS fee. Visit the Student & Exchange Visitor Program’s website to make the payment appropriate for your program and save the I-797 receipt. Dependents (your spouse or child) do not have to pay this fee. SEVIS stands for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System used to generate your I-20 or DS-2019 and keep record of your immigration status while a student or exchange visitor in the US.

  • Complete and sign the electronic “e-form” Nonimmigrant Visa Application Form DS-156 along with Form DS-158. Males 16-45 years old, and all applicants ages 16 and over from Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria must also submit Form DS-157. The US Embassy in New Delhi, and the US Consulates in Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai, as well as in many cities in other countries, now require the online Nonimmigrant Visa Application DS-160, which replaces the DS-156, 157, and 158, and is expected to be implemented by all US Consulates worldwide by the end of 2010. Click here for links to all the above forms and to see whether you should file the DS-160.

  • Pay the MRV (Machine-Readable Visa) application fee and visa issuance fee, if applicable (consult the Visa Reciprocity Table for this, and save the receipt(s). All visa applicants, including dependents, must pay this.

  • One 2x2-inch passport style photograph.

  • A passport valid at least six months beyond your anticipated stay in the US.

  • The I-20 or DS-2019 issued by the program you plan to attend and signed by you. An exchange visitor pursuing a trainee or intern program will also have to submit Form DS-7002 (Training/Internship Placement Plan (T/IPP)) issued by your program’s sponsor.

In addition to the items required above, you should be prepared to provide the following at your interview:

  • Transcripts and diplomas from all previous institutions attended;

  • Letter of admission from the US institution or sponsor that issued your I-20 or DS-2019;

  • Scores from standardized tests required by your US institution, such as TOEFL, SAT, GRE, GMAT, etc.;

  • Evidence that you or your sponsor(s) have funding adequate to cover the tuition and living expenses associated with your study;

  • Evidence of strong ties to your home and your intent to return there after study;

  • If you plan to bring dependents with you, proof of their relationship to you, such as marriage or birth certificates;

  • At some point in the visa application process, often when you go for your interview, a digital fingerprint scan will be taken.

The interview itself, which typically is conducted in English unless you plan to take classes conducted in your native language in the US, usually lasts 3-5 minutes and consists of a conversation, not just a review of your application and supporting documents. You must quickly and clearly demonstrate to the consular officer that you are serious in your intentions to study, have enough funding to support your stay in the US, possess the English proficiency needed for your program, and plan to return home afterwards. Because you are applying for a nonimmigrant visa, you must convince the officer that study in the US is an important part of your ultimate career plan to return to your home country. Besides making sure the documents you present to the officer consistently support your application, it is important that you relax during your interview and give truthful answers to any questions asked. Planning ahead and knowing your answers to those basic questions of travel—where you’re going, what you intend to do there, how long you plan to stay—will assist the consular officer in helping you reach your final destination.

Should you be granted a visa, check to make sure all the information on it is correct. You will be able to use the visa to seek entry to the US no sooner than 30 days before the program start date listed on your I-20 or DS-2019, so you may make your travel plans accordingly. If your visa application is denied, be sure to get the reason for the denial in writing and contact the office that issued your I-20 or DS-2019 immediately. Please note that while citizens and some legal residents of Canada do not need a visa to study in the US, they must pay the I-901 SEVIS fee and produce its receipt and the documents described above to demonstrate intent to study when arriving at the US port of entry no more than 30 days prior to the program start date.

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