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After you have been accepted to your dream course, you will need to get a US student visa so you can study in the country.
Each year, tens of thousands of international students from all around the world head to the US for further education. The country has some of the most well-known educational institutions in the world and most have excellent student cultures too.
When it comes to securing your study visa, the requirements and paperwork can seem overwhelming at first glance. But completing a visa application is straightforward once you break down each step.
In this guide, we explain what a visa is, the different types and how to apply before you head to the US to begin your course.
What is a US student visa
A student visa is a document given by the US Government to authorise foreign national students to study in the country. Therefore, any international student heading to the country for education must get a visa to legally enter.
Being prepared with your visa application is essential so you can focus on getting ready for your move abroad. As a result, you must start your visa application process at least 3–5 months before your intended departure date. By starting early, you will have some time to sort out any issues if they occur.
What visa do I need to study?
Currently, you have three different visa options when moving to the US for higher education. What visa you need depends on various factors, like your eligibility criteria and the length of your course.
Below, we provide a guide to the different types of US visas available. However, your eligibility criteria can vary depending on your course and where you study. Therefore, if you are unsure what visa you need, double-check with your university.
F1 student visa
If you study for more than 18 hours per week, you need an F1 student visa. All regular undergraduate and postgraduate degrees will fall under this category.
But, if you want to bring along your spouse or your children you need to apply for a separate F2 visa for them. Your dependents can only accompany you and cannot work in the US if you have an F2 visa.
J1 exchange visitor visa
If you are going to do a short vocational course with a duration of no more than 10 months, you need to apply for a J1 Exchange Visitor Visa.
In this case, your dependents can travel with you while holding a J2 visa and they can work in the USA after receiving prior permission from the authorities.
M1 student visa
If you are going to study a non-academic or a vocational course you need to get an M1 student visa. The visa will be time-stamped, and it is valid only for the duration of your course.
How much does a visa cost?
The average cost of a student visa includes both the SEVIS fee and the visa processing charges.
These charges change slightly based on the type of visa you are applying for.
- The SEVIS Fee for an F1 Student Visa is $350, and the visa application fee is $160.
- The SEVIS Fee for a J1 Exchange Visitor visa is $220, and the visa application fee is $160.
- The SEVIS Fee for an M1 Student Visa is $350, and the visa application fee is $160.
How to apply for a US visa
Once you decide which visa you need for your US course, you can begin the application process. Remember that it is better to start this process sooner rather than later so you can focus on your studies rather than rush a visa application.
Here, we share a step-by-step guide on how to start and then complete your US visa application in full.
Firstly, you must register in SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System). Ideally, you will do this as soon as you’ve been accepted by your university and received your I-20 form. Also, you’ll have to pay a fee (SEVIS I-901) and you must keep the receipt for later as you’ll need it later in the application.
2. Application Form
Second, you must head to the US Department of State Consular Electronic Application Centre and fill out the application form (DS-160).
Here, you will provide personal details and documented proof of your identity. For instance, you will give your passport details, travel plans, previous entry to the US, work & education background, and criminal and medical background.
Also, you will need your SEVIS ID (as included in your university-issued I-20 form). Once you have finished this step, print out the confirmation page.
3. Pay Processing Charge
To proceed, you will need to pay your visa processing charges online through NEFT or at Axis/Citibank offices. Get the payment confirmation receipts and keep them once finished. You’ll be instructed how to do this during your application.
4. Biometrics and book interview
Then, book an appointment at your nearest embassy for your biometrics and visa interview. Call your embassy or book online to do this. You’ll have to reference your receipt number for the above payment.
Attend the visa interview and bring all the necessary documentation detailed in the checklist below. Also, bring your receipts from any transactions made during your application.
After providing the paperwork, you will take part in a short interview with a government official. The interview takes place so the official can find out why you want to go to the US and check if you are a genuine student.
In the interview, the official is likely to ask questions about why you’ve chosen your university, your academic background and personal information.
6. Provide passport
Lastly, you give your passport to be checked and verified. You must make sure your passport is in date and valid when you hand it over. Having an out-of-date passport can slow your visa application.
Then, you will wait for 3-5 weeks while the checks are complete and you will be contacted when you can collect your passport.
Overall, there are quite a few documents for you to collect before applying for your student visa. The exact documents that you need may change slightly depending on the specific visa you’re applying for and your situation.
However, in most cases, you will need the following documents during your visa application:
- A passport that is valid for at least 6 months beyond your planned stay in the USA. If your passport is due to expire, you’ll have to apply for a new one.
- University I-20 form. This is a standard document that certifies that you’ve been accepted into a full-time university course in the US.
- A print out of the visa application form you filled out online (DS-160).
- Visa interview appointment letter. Once you complete the DS160 form, you’ll be directed to book an appointment at your nearest US consulate.
- Original mark sheets, certificates and transcripts, which provide evidence of all your relevant high school grades.
- Original English language assessment test certificate or scorecard. Accepted certification can come from GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, IELTS and Duolingo.
- Bank statements for the last 3 years, to prove that you have enough money to support your stay in the US. If a parent/guardian is supporting you through your education, you can provide a copy of their bank statements too. If you think you’ll need financial support, check out our article How to apply for a scholarship to study abroad.
Once your visa application is complete and approved, you can enter the country only 30 days before your course date. However, if you need to arrive early you can receive your visa even 120 days in advance.