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The Student Visa Process

If you’ve decided that American Education is right for you, the only thing standing in your way is a little bit of paperwork. Whether you’re bound for Harvard or cosmetology school, all international students studying in the United States are required to obtain a student or exchange visa. Here’s a breakdown of everything you’ll need to know about the visa process.

Types Of Visas

There are three types of student visas, each with its own slightly different set of requirements. Students attending an accredited U.S. college, university, or English language institute will need an F-1 visa or a J-1 visa. J-1 students tend to be those that are government sponsored, on exchange programs for a semester or year, or U.S. government sponsored. Students involved in non-academic pursuits at either trade or vocational institutions will need an M-1 visa. Although the stipulations of each type of visa vary slightly, all three visas require the student to maintain a full course load.

What You'll Need

The first step toward studying in the United States is to get accepted into an American institution or exchange program. Once you are accepted, you will have to provide a financial guarantee showing that you have the funds to attend the school. The school will review and verify your financial information, and then will send you a Certificate of Eligibility (form I-20 for the F-1 Student Visa or DS-2019 for the J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa). You can schedule your visa interview once you have your Certificate of Eligibility; make sure to pay the SEVIS fee and the visa application fee before your interview date.
The next step is to complete a visa application (form DS-156) and a contact information/work history statement (form DS-158); both forms are available at your local U.S. embassy or consulate office or online at http://travel.state.gov/visa/frvi/forms/forms_1342.html. In addition, the DS-157 form is required of all male applicants aged 16 to 45 and all applicants over age 16 (male or female) who are citizens of Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, or Syria.
Note: The new DS-160 online visa application will eventually replace the DS-156 and DS-158 forms. Please visit the Web site noted above for a list of locations where the DS-160 is currently available.

Additional Items

You will also need to provide the following:

  • A passport valid for at least six months after you enter the United States
  • One passport-size photograph (photo requirements are available online at http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/info/info_1287.html)
  • A receipt for the nonrefundable visa processing fee (from a specific bank in each country that is identified on the consulate Web page)
  • A SEVIS receipt (see www.ice.gov/sevis/i901/index.html)
  • Transcripts and diplomas from institutions you’ve previously attended (not always required and may need to be translated)
  • Documented proof that you or your parents will have enough money to cover tuition and living expenses for the duration of your stay
  • Documentation that you intend to return to your home country after finishing your course of study; this type of documentation can include (but isn’t limited to) proof of property or assets remaining in the home country, proof of immediate relatives in the home country, or letters from future employers

Once you’ve organized your documentation, you’ll need to make an appointment for your visa interview with your local U.S. embassy or consulate. Procedures on obtaining a visa interview vary from country to country. To get the most accurate information, consult the U.S. embassy Web site for your country at www.embassy.state.gov.

The Interview

Tracking down the documentation is the hard part. Once you’ve scheduled the interview, you will only be asked questions verifying why you’re traveling to the United States, what you intend to study, and when you intend to leave. The interview will take place at your local U.S. embassy or consulate office. Although the length of the interview will vary from office to office, interviews are typically very short, lasting no longer than 30 minutes—in fact, only two to five minutes in most cases!

When To Apply

Visas can be issued up to 120 days (four months) before the scheduled date of departure. In order to make sure that you have your visa before your first day of classes, apply as soon as possible and provide enough lead time to wait for processing, as well as an interview. If you do not receive your visa within two to three weeks of completing your interview, contact your embassy or consulate to track your application packet.

After You Arrive

You can arrive in the U.S. no earlier than 30 days before the start date on your immigration document (I-20 or DS-2019). If you will arrive later than the start date on your immigration document, you should notify the school so that your arrival date can be deferred. After you’ve received your visa and arrived in the United States, you are required to report to your institution’s international programs office to ensure that you’ve been officially registered by the school. Most international offices will provide information on when to report, but if there is no information, you should report within 15 days of the start date on the immigration document. Designed as a one-stop resource for non-native college students, the international programs office will be able to answer any questions you may have regarding immigration rules, visa or passport renewals, obtaining financial aid, or on-campus opportunities for foreign students. Please check your pre-arrival packet for your institution’s policy.

Almost There The Dos And Don’ts Of Visa Interview Success

The U.S. government takes issuing student visas very seriously, so it is important to know what t expects in a visa interview and to prepare accordingly. Because the interview process includes security precautions and some rather direct questions, it’s easy to feel somewhat intimidated. But don’t let these things scare you away; you have already completed the hard part by submitting the necessary paper work. Once you’ve scheduled your visa interview, use this article to learn the types of behavior that can increase your chances for success.


  • Arrive a few minutes early. Although you’ve spent weeks (or may be even months) gathering the required documentation, your visa interview will likely last less than five minutes.  Therefore, you’ll want to arrive at the consular office with a little time to spare in case the interviewer is running ahead of schedule.
  • Brush up on your English Language Skills.  It’s ok if you’re not 100 percent fluent right away-in part, that’s why you’re coming to the United States-but as you near the visa interview, it’s a great idea to get a refresher on the basics. Remember that you will be expected to complete course work entirely in English (listening, speaking, writing and presenting), so visa officers want to be sure that your skill levels are where they need to be-unless you will be taking ESL.
  • Demonstrate academic seriousness. During your interview, be sure to emphasize the importance of a U.S. education in your future goals. Your visa application is more likely to be rejected if you express indifference, or worse, non-academic desires such as vacationing or immigrating to the United States.
  • Prepare to be fingerprinted. Everyone who receives a student visa must submit to electronic fingerprinting, which is usually done at the interview site.
  • Know the most commonly asked questions. As discussed, the visa interview can be somewhat stressful, but only if you are not prepared for it. None of the visa interview questions are meant to trick you or deter you from entering the United States, and as long as you are calm and honest, they should not be difficult to answer.


  • Bring unnecessary items to the interview. Since it is likely that you will be ushered through a security checkpoint or x-ray device upon your arrival at the consular office, make sure that you are not carrying prohibited items. Weapons and sharp objects are obviously not permitted, but other items, such as office bags or briefcases, electronics, mobile phones, and cigarettes, can also trigger alerts.
  • Be dishonest, confrontational, or uncooperative. Visa officers have access to some of the most comprehensive database systems in the world and they are charged with the regulating the flow of traffic onto America’s campuses. It is unwise to conceal information at any stage of the visa application process. It is also a bad idea to project defensiveness or irritability – such behavior can be seen as threatening and is one major reason for denying a student visa. The more forthcoming and cooperative you are, the better your overall chance of success will be.
  • Submit incomplete forms. If there are portions of any form that you don’t understand, get the answers you need by contacting an embassy or consular representative. Review each form carefully to ensure that your application is not rejected due to a misplaced or skipped piece of information.
  • Appear financially unstable. A person’s financial situation can say a lot about their motives for leaving their home country. Interviewees must prove that they can afford to live and study in the United States without employment, if necessary.

The Visa interview is one of the last milestones on your way to the United States. Rest well the night before, eat a light breakfast, and do your best to remain alert and focused during your interview. U.S. Colleges and Universities welcome international students, and these measures are intended to ensure a safe and comfortable experience for both you and your host school.