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How to Get a US Student Visa: Everything You Need to Know

By Lisa Freedland

Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

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Posted: April 19th, 2022
How to Get a US Student Visa: Everything You Need to Know

Wondering how to get a student visa for study in the USA? Every year, many amazing international students are accepted to study at U.S. universities. However, an acceptance is not all that international students need in order to study in the U.S. They also need a student visa! However, the process can be a little complicated, including many steps and fees along the way. 

Luckily, we’ve compiled this helpful guide outlining everything you need to know about obtaining a US student visa. Keep reading to learn more!

Don’t miss: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool (includes opportunities for international students)

What is a US student visa?

Great question! A US student visa allows international students (i.e. those without U.S. citizenship or permanent residence) to temporarily stay in the U.S. while studying at an approved school, language program, or academic exchange program. Once you complete your course of study, your visa expires and you must leave the U.S. unless you have secured a way to extend your stay through other means. This may include obtaining a work visa or a green card, seeking asylum, partaking in military service, or a variety of other options.

To learn more about these options in detail, be sure to check out “Ways an international student can extend their stay in the U.S.A. after graduation.”

For now, let’s get into how you can apply for a visa in the first place!

What you need to apply for a US student visa

To get a student visa for enrolling in the USA, you’ll need to apply. In order to apply for a student visa, there are a few things you should have on-hand first. Here they are:

Passport

The first thing you need in order to apply for a student visa is a valid passport issued by your home country. It must be valid until at least 6 months after your graduation date. So, if your current passport expires any time before that, you must get your passport renewed before you apply for a student visa. Otherwise, you will not be issued a visa and will be unable to travel to the U.S. to study. If you sense that this might be an issue for you, we’d recommend saving yourself the potential stress and applying for or renewing your passport as soon as possible.

For more information on how to apply for or renew your passport, we’d recommend checking your country’s government website.

Passport-style photograph

If you like self portraits, you’re in for some good news! The application for a US student visa requires individuals to submit a recent (taken within the past 6 months) passport-style photograph of themselves. For instructions on how you should take and upload this photo, we recommend checking out these photo requirements. Further, if you want some guidelines for how your photo should look, the U.S. Department of State provides a few examples of acceptable and unacceptable photos. As a last note, glasses are not allowed in visa photos as of 2016. 

Money

The last thing you’ll need to obtain your US student visa is a decent sum of money to pay the related fees. While we’ll provide more context for the fees later, here are their costs:

  • I-901 SEVIS fee: Required for all applicants but costs vary based on visa type
      • $350 for F-1/M-1 students
      • $220 for J-1 students
      • $35 for those entering short-term J-1 programs
  • Visa application fee: $160 for all applicants
  • Visa issuance fee (if required): Only required for applicants from certain countries
    • Check out the Department of State’s U.S. visas page to find out whether you’ll be required to pay a visa issuance fee

And that’s it! If you have all of the above and are ready to learn how to obtain your visa, keep on reading.

Step-by-step outline to obtaining a US student visa

It’s finally time to obtain your US student visa! Let’s get started.

1. Identify the type of student visa you need

Your first step in the visa process is to identify the type of student visa you’ll need. There are three types: F-1, M-1, and J-1. While you’ll most likely need the F-1 visa if you’re planning on studying full-time in the U.S. as an undergraduate or graduate student, we’ll go over them all to make things easier. So, let’s get into it!

F-1 Visa

The F-1 visa is for those planning on attending university, high school, or a language program in the U.S. It has a grace period of 60 days, allowing you to stay in the U.S. up to 60 days after your graduation before departing.

M-1 Visa

The M-1 visa is for non-academic or career-oriented study in the U.S. This includes culinary programs, medical training programs, makeup/beautician training, and a variety of other vocational types of study. As these programs tend to be shorter than those included under the F-1 visa, the grace period is only 30 days (meaning that students with an M-1 visa can stay in the U.S. up to 30 days after graduation before they must depart).

J-1 Visa

Last, but certainly not least, is the J-1 visa! This visa type is for exchange students, including study abroad students, interns, scholars, and even au pairs. Like the M-1 visa, the J-1 visa has a grace period of only 30 days.

And that’s that! We hope this has helped you figure out which type of visa you’ll need. If you still aren’t quite sure, we recommend checking out these handy “student visa” and “exchange visitor visa” pages.

2. Apply and gain acceptance to an SEVP-approved school

If you’re reading this article, it’s very possible that you’ve already applied to U.S. universities or programs by now. If so, feel free to skip to the next step. But if not, now’s the time to apply! 

While the majority of application deadlines for U.S. undergraduate and graduate programs occur in December or January, some have earlier deadlines for those applying Early Action or Early Decision. No matter when you apply or to which institutions, though, they must be approved by SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Program). To find SEVP-approved institutions or confirm whether or not your prospective universities are SEVP-approved, use this helpful school search tool. Or, check out this list of SEVP certified schools. Either way, be sure to confirm that you’re applying to SEVP-approved schools. Such institutions are the only ones that can enroll students in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and provide the documents necessary to apply for a student visa. 

If you’re still in the process of applying and want some help, consider checking out these articles:

For those wanting a J-1 visa, on the other hand, exchange programs can be applied to through one’s home institution. Alternatively, students can look for designated sponsor organizations on the official J-1 visa website.

After acceptance

Once you’re accepted by a SEVP-approved institution or program, you will be enrolled into the SEVIS system and be sent one of two documents from your school. While those needing the F-1 or M-1 visa will receive the I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status), students needing the J-1 visa will be sent the DS-2019 (Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status). 

Your form will contain information such as your SEVIS ID, school address, and other important information about your course of study. Be sure to keep this form safe as you will need it for both your visa interview and to pay specific visa-related fees.

3. Pay the I-901 SEVIS fee

With the I-20 or DS-2019 in hand, you should then go online and pay the I-901 SEVIS fee. The cost for this fee will vary on the type of visa you’re getting. It costs $350 for those in need of an F-1 or M-1 visa, and $220 if you’re in pursuit of a typical J-1 visa. On the other hand, if you’re participating in a short-term J-1 visa program, you’ll only need to pay $35. The majority of students will be able to pay this fee online using a credit card. Others will be able to pay through check or international money order.

If you need a little help, “Paying the I-901 SEVIS fee” provides more information on how and what you need to pay the fee. Just bear in mind that this fee is not the visa application fee. 

Once paid, be sure to print out your confirmation page. You’ll need to bring this to your visa interview later on. Down the line, you might also be asked to show this confirmation to the customs officer at your US port of entry if your immigrant status ever changes.

Related: Should I pay college tuition with a credit card?

4. Complete a US student visa application

After having paid the SEVIS fee, it’s finally time to apply (for a visa application)! To do this you must make an appointment with a US consulate or embassy in your country. As visa processing times vary, we would recommend doing this as soon as possible to make sure you receive your application on time. If you’re not quite sure where to find a US embassy or consulate in your country, access this “U.S. embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions” search tool to find one near you. Once you find a local embassy or consulate, we recommend checking what documentation you might need to submit with your visa application. This information can typically be found on your embassy’s official website or by contacting them directly.

Online visa application: DS-160 

No matter where or when you apply for a visa application at your local consulate or embassy, you’ll also need to complete the DS-160 form online. Once you start the application, you’ll need to enter the location you’re applying from and confirm that you have all the necessary documentation on-hand. This includes:

  • Your passport
  • A passport-style photograph (to upload)
  • Form I-20 or DS-2019 (whichever one you received)

While filling out your application, you may also be asked to provide:

  • Personal information (name, date of birth, etc.)
  • Your travel itinerary for the U.S.
  • The dates of your last five visits to the U.S. (if applicable) and/or evidence of your international travel history from the past five years
  • A resume or CV
  • Information regarding the purpose of your travel
  • Your point of contact in the U.S.
  • Family, work, and educational history
  • Background and medical health information
  • SEVIS ID and address of the U.S. institution you’re enrolling in 

Last, but certainly not least, you will also be asked to select the US embassy at which you plan to have your visa interview.

Filling out the application form

As you must fill out the application entirely in English (besides your name in your native language), take the time to answer the questions as accurately as possible. Translations are also available on the form for those who may need help. If you need further help or have specific questions about the form, check out DS-160: Frequently asked questions.

When you’re finished filling out everything, you’ll be asked to electronically sign your DS-160 by clicking the “Sign application” button that appears at the end. The application will then be uploaded and you will be sent a confirmation page which should be printed out and brought to your visa application interview. This page will contain a barcode, barcode number, and your application ID number.

5. Pay the visa application fee

The next step in the process is to pay your visa application fee, or MRV (Machine Readable Visa) fee. Regardless of where you’re from, this one costs $160 USD. The only exceptions to this are for some J-1 visa applicants who are exempted from this fee if participating in certain federally-funded programs. These include US Agency for International Development (USAID) programs or other educational or cultural projects with program serial numbers beginning with G-1, G-2, G-3, or G-7.

Something that does vary by embassy is when you’ll be expected to pay this fee. While most embassies require individuals to pay this fee before their visa interview, others do not. Luckily, your embassy should instruct you on when and how you should pay this fee. So, if you’re not quite sure, there’s no need to worry. Just bear in mind that if you’re required to pay the fee before your interview you must bring your receipt to the interview with you.

6. Schedule and attend a US visa interview

We’re onto the final step (for most people): arranging and attending a visa interview! This interview can be scheduled either online or on the phone with your local US embassy or consulate. If your embassy expects you to pay the MRV fee before your interview, we would highly recommend you do so before giving them a call to schedule your interview. This is because they may ask for your MRV fee number, which you will only receive after having paid the MRV fee. 

Your visa interview must take place at a US embassy or consulate. If you happen to schedule it at a different location than you initially put on your visa application, that is completely fine. The barcode on your DS-160 can be used to retrieve your information from any US embassy or consulate, so there’s no need to worry. 

After you schedule your interview, be sure to arrive at your chosen interview location (i.e. embassy or consulate) on time, dressed appropriately. 

Here’s what you must bring with you:

  • Your passport (valid for at least 6 months after your graduation date from your chosen U.S. institution or program)
  • Signed SEVIS I-20 or DS-2019 form (including individual forms for your spouse and/or children)
  • Form DS-7002 (for J-1 Trainee and Intern visa applicants)
  • I-901 SEVIS fee receipt or confirmation page
  • DS-160 application confirmation page with barcode and application ID number
  • MRV fee payment confirmation or receipt
    • Only required if you paid the fee before your interview
  • Printed copy of your visa interview appointment letter
  • 1-2 copies of your visa passport-style photograph
    • These should be printed on photo quality paper

Depending on your embassy, these may also be required:

  • Diplomas/degrees from your former high schools or universities
  • Official transcripts from universities you’ve attended
  • Standardized test scores (if required by your U.S. institution)
  • Proof of sufficient funds to cover your tuition and living expenses while in the U.S.
  • Proof of your intent to depart the U.S. after you graduate from your U.S. institution

And that should be it! We just recommend checking to see if your specific embassy requires anything else before you go. With that said, let’s get into the actual interview process.

The visa interview process

Although it’s important to be on time for any interview, this is especially true for student visa interviews. Those who arrive late may be asked to reschedule, delaying your interview and ultimately delaying how long it takes to receive your visa.

Upon arriving at the embassy, typically only those with a scheduled appointment will be allowed inside. Exceptions may be made for the parents of minors, translators, and assistants for those with disabilities. If you anticipate that you’ll need someone to accompany you inside the embassy for any such reason, make sure to give your embassy the name of your accompanier ahead of time.

Inside the embassy

Once you’re inside the embassy, you’ll likely go through a security checkpoint and have your fingerprints taken, ink-free! You’ll then sit down with your interviewer, a consular officer, who will ask you a variety of questions to determine whether you qualify for a student visa. Such questions may regard your ties to your home country, your English proficiency, your academic history, the U.S. program or institution you’ve been admitted to, and proof that you can sufficiently fund yourself while in the U.S. 

You may also be asked what you plan to do after finishing your studies in the U.S. If so, it’s important to state that you do not intend to remain in the U.S. after your program. This is because you do not want it to seem as if you will breach your “grace period” and stay longer than your visa permits. Of course, though, it is always okay to return to the U.S. for travel or with another visa (or green card) in hand!

How and when your visa will be issued

If your interview goes well, your embassy will inform you how and when they will return your passport with your new visa. Typically, it will either be available for pick-up or delivered to you by courier. Either way, it means you’ll be receiving your visa (relatively) soon. Congratulations!

If you’re receiving either a F-1 or M-1 visa, keep in mind that it can only be issued up to 120 days in advance of your start date at your U.S. institution or program. However, you will not be allowed to enter the U.S. until 30 days before your start date unless you obtain a visitor visa. Keep in mind this 30 day limitation does not apply to students returning to the U.S. to resume their studies – they may leave and return to the U.S. anytime so long as they have a valid visa. J-1 visas can be issued at any time.

7. Pay the visa issuance fee (if required)

Some students may be required to pay a visa issuance fee after being approved for a U.S. student visa. Whether one is required to pay this fee depends on their home country’s reciprocity agreement with the U.S. To find out whether or not you’re expected to pay the visa issuance fee, check out “Fees and reciprocity tables.”

8. Receive your visa!

After completing all the above steps and receiving approval from a US embassy or consulate, you’ll finally receive your student visa! You will either be expected to pick it up or it will be mailed directly to you, but you will be informed of this ahead of time. To find out approximately how long you’ll have to wait before receiving your visa, check out these “Visa appointment wait times.”

What if you are denied a visa?

Although it is rare, you can potentially be denied a student visa. The good news is that this is largely preventable if you follow all the steps mentioned above. To help you avoid this worst possible situation, here are some issues that may make one ineligible for a US student visa:

  • Not providing proof of sufficient funds. Although it is not necessary for you to have the money to cover your entire stay in the U.S., individuals are expected to be able to cover at least one full academic year at the time of applying. This is said to be one of the main reasons students are denied a visa.
  • Not providing proof of intent to leave after graduating from their U.S. institution or program. The U.S. government wants to ensure that students will not, either intentionally or unintentionally, overstay their visa. If you plan on returning to the U.S. at any point after your studies, you should also be sure not to breach your “grace period” as this will unfortunately make you ineligible for a visa in the future. 
  • You did not pass the security/background check. If the US embassy has conducted a background or security check on you and found evidence of crimes committed, this may have rendered you ineligible for a visa.
  • You did not bring the required items to your interview. Failure to bring required documents and other items to your visa interview may result in your visa application getting denied.
  • You did not show up to your interview. If you are late or do not show up to your interview, your visa application may be denied.
  • You applied for a visa too late. Applying for a visa too close to the start date for your course of study in the U.S. will likely make you ineligible for a student visa. This is because it means your visa will likely not be available to you until after your program start date. For this reason, we recommend getting the visa process started as soon as you’ve decided where to attend.

Other possibilities

While these are some of the main reasons why student visas are denied, there may be others that have not been mentioned. However, your embassy or consulate will always tell you why that choice was made. However, you will not be able to get your fee money back or get your application re-evaluated. This means that you’ll have to go through the entire process all over again if your visa is denied.

Luckily, visa rejections are not common. Further, if you follow all the steps we’ve outlined above, you should have no problem getting your visa approved!

Using your visa

Before we send you off, we have some last tips on using your visa. 

First, we would recommend holding off on buying plane tickets until you have obtained your visa. This is due to the small chance that your application could be denied, rendering your tickets useless as you will not be allowed to enter the country. 

Further, bear in mind that a visa alone does not allow you to enter the U.S. It simply allows you to travel to a port of entry and request permission to enter the country from a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official.

As you’ll need to request permission to enter the U.S., we recommend keeping these documents with you while traveling (ideally in your hand or carry-on luggage):

  • Passport
  • SEVIS Form I-20 or DS-2019
  • Evidence of sufficient funds/financial resources to cover living expenses
  • Proof of student status 
    • May include transcripts, tuition receipts, etc.
  • Name and contact information of your Designated School Official (DSO)
    • Should include a 24-hour emergency phone number
  • If you’re an exchange student: A letter from your home institution declaring your intent to return to your home university at some later date

That’s all! As a last note, just remember to have your SEVIS Form I-20 or DS-2019 with you any time you want to enter the U.S. Even if you take a temporary vacation outside the U.S., you will need this form to re-enter the country. 

And with that, we’re finished! We wish you the best with your studies, and we’re glad to have you here!

Frequently asked questions 

How long does it take to get a US student visa?

As waiting times for a visa appointment vary widely by country, there is no single answer to how long it will take to get a US student visa. This is further complicated by the COVID-19 crisis, meaning that your visa could either be issued in a few days or a few months. Thus, we would highly recommend checking out these average visa appointment waiting times for the embassy or consulate near you. No matter where you live, though, your visa can be issued up to a maximum of 120 days in advance of the start date for your course of study.

Who can sponsor a student visa in the USA?

Great question! When applying for a US student visa, you must prove that you have sufficient funds to afford tuition and living expenses. If you cannot do this on your own, you can always get help from a financial sponsor. Examples of sponsors can include grants, family members, government organizations, and private companies. Students are typically allowed to have more than one financial sponsor.

Can I stay in the U.S. after my studies?

Yes! You just have to do a little planning beforehand. The F-1 visa states that international students may only stay in the U.S. up to 60 days after their graduation. However, one can certainly extend their time in the U.S. by doing one of the following:

  • Optional Practical Training (OPT)
  • STEM OPT extension
  • Obtain a H-1B visa (non-immigrant visa)
  • Obtain a green card
  • Receive employer sponsorship
  • Receive parent or child sponsorship (considering that they are a U.S. citizen)
  • Marry a U.S. citizen
  • Seek asylum
  • Military service

To learn more about these options in detail, be sure to check out “Ways an international student can extend their stay in the U.S.A. after graduation.”

Keep reading… 

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