Each year, many international students apply to US schools in order to study full-time in the US. But to attend school in the States, you need more than just good grades — you need a US student visa. Unfortunately, the process for obtaining a visa can be complicated, which is why we're here to help.
In this guide, we'll go over the basics of visas and how to get a student visa to the US. We'll also give you a handful of tips and resources you can use to ensure your visa application process proceeds smoothly.
What Is a US Student Visa? Do You Need One?
In order to legally attend school in the US, all international applicants — that is, those without US citizenship or permanent residence — must first obtain a US student visa. This international student visa allows you to reside temporarily in the US in order to attend an approved school, language program, or academic exchange program.
Your student visa ends once you complete your program. At that time, you must depart the US. (However, you may later return to the US as a tourist or on another visa, such as a work visa.)
There are three types of US student visas:
- F-1 visa: This visa is for high school or college/university (including language program) study in the US, applying to both undergraduate and graduate students.
- M-1 visa: This visa is for nonacademic or vocational study in the US. Such programs are usually short term and career focused. For example, you could attend a culinary school or a medical training program.
- J-1 visa: This visa is for exchange visitors, including study abroad students, scholars, interns, and au pairs.
Generally speaking, international students who wish to study full-time in an undergraduate or graduate program will need an F-1 visa. By contrast, if you're interested in studying abroad for only a semester or two at a US institution (and want to receive credits that go toward your home institution), you'll need to apply for a J-1 visa.
When Should You Apply for a US Student Visa?
You may only apply for a student visa after you’ve applied for and been accepted to an SEVP-approved school. (SEVP stands for the Student Exchange and Visitor Program. All US schools that enroll F-1 and/or M-1 students must be certified by this program.) Once you’ve secured admission to the school you wish to attend, you can begin the visa application process.
Note that you must receive your visa before your program start date. While you can receive your US student visa up to 120 days before your program start date, you may not travel to the US on this visa until 30 days before your start date.
US Student Visa Application Checklist
Before we explain how to apply for a student visa, let’s briefly go over the specific items you should have in order.
Every international student must possess a valid passport issued by his or her home country. This passport must also be valid until at least six months beyond the end date of your program in the US. So any passport that will expire during your stay in the US or shortly after your program ends may not be used. Rather, you'll need to apply for a new passport and use that one instead.
Passport procedures and costs vary by country. Check your country's government website for details on obtaining or renewing a passport.
#2: Passport-Style Photograph
As part of your application, you must submit a recent (within the past six months) passport-style photograph. This will be your visa photograph, which you will later upload and submit with your online visa application.
The US visas website offers specific instructions on how to take and upload a visa photograph, as well as examples of acceptable and unacceptable photographs. Be aware that as of November 2016, glasses are no longer allowed in visa photographs.
Finally, you’ll need to have a decent sum of money on hand so that you can pay the various visa-related fees. We’ll discuss in more detail what these fees are and how to pay them later. But as a brief overview, here are the required fees for a US student visa:
- I-901 SEVIS fee: This fee is 350 USD for F-1/M-1 students and 220 USD for J-1 students (or 35 USD for those entering short-term J-1 programs). All applicants must pay this fee.
- Visa application fee: This fee is 160 USD. All applicants must pay this fee.
- Visa issuance fee (if required): This fee is only required for applicants of certain nationalities. You can see whether you are required to pay a visa issuance fee by going to the US visas website.
How to Get a Student Visa: 10-Step Guide
Now that you understand the basic items you’ll need to have ready, let’s walk through how to apply for a student visa, one step at a time.
NOTE: The application process for an F-1 visa is identical to that for an M-1 visa and similar to that for a J-1 visa. As a result, the visa process described below may be used for all three types of US student visas. If you have any questions about your visa type or how to apply for one, consult the US visas website.
Step 1: Apply and Get Accepted to a US School
The first step is to apply (and eventually gain admission) to a US school. Most full-time undergraduate and graduate programs in the US require applications to be submitted by December or January each year. Schools typically send out admission notifications around March and April.
As I mentioned previously, the schools you apply to must be approved by SEVP. To find an SEVP-approved school or to confirm that the schools you've chosen are in fact certified by SEVP, use the SEVP school search tool.
J-1 students will most likely apply for exchange programs through their home institutions. You may also look for designated sponsor organizations online at the official J-1 visa website.
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Step 2: Receive Form I-20 or DS-2019 From Your School
Once admitted to a school, you'll receive one of two forms: F-1 and M-1 students will receive Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status), and J-1 students will receive Form DS-2019 (Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status).
Your school will mail the appropriate form to you. On your form will be your SEVIS ID, your school’s address, and other critical information concerning your program. You will need this form for your visa interview (we explain the interview process more in step 8) and to pay certain fees (which we discuss next in step 3).
Step 3: Pay the I-901 SEVIS Fee
Once you receive your I-20 or DS-2019 form from your school, go online and pay the I-901 SEVIS fee. Once again, this fee is 350 USD for F-1/M-1 students and 220 USD for J-1 students. (Those participating in short-term J-1 visa programs will pay only 35 USD.)
Most students (except those from Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, or Nigeria) can pay this fee online by credit card. Note that the I-901 SEVIS fee is separate from your visa application fee (which we explain more in step 7).
Once you've paid this fee, print out your confirmation page, as you’ll need to bring it to your visa interview.
Step 4: Find Your Nearest US Embassy or Consulate
You must apply for your international student visa through your nearest US embassy or consulate (ideally, in the city or region in which you live). You can search for US embassies and consulates online through the US Department of State.
Be aware that US student visa processes may differ slightly depending on the embassy through which you apply. This means that at some embassies, you may need to submit additional documentation with your visa application. For more details on what you'll need to submit, go to your embassy’s official website or contact your embassy directly.
The US Embassy in London. (CGP Grey/Flickr, resized from original)
Step 5: Complete Form DS-160 Online
Next, complete the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, also known as Form DS-160. To successfully fill out this form, be sure you have the following items on hand:
- Your passport
- A visa photograph (to upload)
- Form I-20 or DS-2019 (remember, which form you receive depends on whether you are an F-1/M-1 or J-1 student)
In addition, you may need to supply:
- A travel itinerary (if you’ve already made travel plans to the US)
- The dates of your last five visits to the US (if applicable) and/or evidence of your international travel history within the past five years
- A resume or CV
- Additional information depending on your purpose for travel
On this application, you will also select the US embassy at which you intend to interview for your visa.
Note that you must fill out the entire form in English, except when asked to input your full name in your native alphabet. Translations are available on the form for those who have difficulty understanding the English instructions. If you have any additional questions about how to fill out this form, go to the official DS-160 FAQ page.
Once you've completed this form and submitted it online, print out your confirmation page to bring to your visa interview.
Step 6: Schedule Your Visa Interview
After you've submitted Form DS-160, contact your nearest US embassy or consulate (ideally, the one you input on your online application) to schedule your visa interview.
Wait times for interviews vary depending on the embassy. Go to the US visas website to see the wait times for your embassy.
Step 7: Pay Your Visa Application Fee
Next, pay the 160 USD application fee. This fee is the same price regardless of your country of origin and where you apply.
Note that when you pay this fee will vary depending on your embassy. Although many embassies require applicants to pay the application fee before their interviews, not all do. Your embassy should instruct you as to when and how you'll need to pay your visa application fee. If your embassy requires you to pay this fee before your interview, be sure to bring your receipt as proof of payment to your interview.
Step 8: Attend Your Visa Interview
The last big step in the visa process is the interview. This interview will be the deciding factor as to whether you will receive a US student visa or not.
Before attending your interview, gather the following items and information:
- Your passport
- One copy of your visa photograph (this may be required by certain embassies, particularly if you were unable to upload your visa photograph to your online visa application)
- Your printed DS-160 confirmation page
- Your printed I-901 SEVIS fee confirmation page
- Your visa application fee payment receipt (this is only required if you paid the application fee before your interview)
- Form I-20 for F-1/M-1 students, or Form DS-2019 for J-1 students (make sure to bring the original form — not a copy!)
Your particular embassy may require additional forms and documentation, such as:
- Official transcripts from colleges/universities you’ve attended
- Diplomas/degrees from high schools/colleges/universities you've attended
- Standardized test scores (if required by your US school)
- Proof of sufficient funds
- Proof of your intent to depart the US at the end of your program
You will undergo a security check and provide digital, ink-free fingerprints, usually right after you arrive at your interview.
During the interview, you will be asked a range of questions in English. These questions will mostly focus on why you want to study at the school you've selected and what you intend to do after the program finishes. It is important to clearly state that you do not intend to remain in the US once you complete your program. Websites such as International Student and Happy Schools offer extensive lists of sample questions you may be asked during your interview.
If your interview is successful, your embassy will then inform you when and how it will return your passport (with your new visa) to you. (To get your visa, you must leave your passport with your embassy.)
Step 9: Pay the Visa Issuance Fee (If Required)
Some students must pay a visa issuance fee once they have been approved for a US student visa. Whether this fee is required or not depends on your nationality and your country’s reciprocity agreement with the US. The US visas website offers a chart you can use to see whether you must pay a visa issuance fee.
Step 10: Receive Your Visa
Once you’ve completed all of the steps above and have received approval for an international student visa to the US, your embassy will return your passport to you with your new visa in it. Note that some embassies will require you to come in person to pick it up, whereas others will mail it directly back to you.
Visa processing times will vary depending on your embassy. You can get an estimate as to how long your visa will take to process by going to the US visas website.
What If You Are Denied a US Student Visa?
According to the US visas website, most applications for US visas are approved. That said, in rare cases, you may be denied an international student visa. This typically only happens when you fail to fulfill a certain requirement before or during your interview.
Here are some examples of problems likely to make you ineligible for a US student visa:
- You do not provide proof of sufficient funds. This is said to be one of the main reasons students are often denied student visas to the US. Although you aren’t necessarily expected to have enough money to last you the entire duration of your program, you should possess proof of sufficient funds (in liquid assets) for at least one academic year.
- You do not provide proof of your intent to leave the US once your program ends. The US government needs to ensure that you will not (intentionally or accidentally) overstay your visa. Therefore, you must provide adequate proof of your intent to return to your home country once you finish your program.
- You do not pass the security check. Though this may be obvious, committing certain crimes can make you ineligible for a US visa.
- You do not bring all required items to your interview. Failure to bring all required items, such as your passport, receipts, and official visa-related documents, may result in a visa rejection.
- You fail to show up to your interview. If you are late to your interview or simply fail to show up, your application for a visa may be rejected.
- You apply for a US student visa too late. Applying for your visa with too little time before your program starts will most likely make you ineligible for a student visa. This is mainly because your visa won't become available to you until after your program start date.
This list highlights some of the many reasons international students are denied US visas. If your application for a student visa is rejected, your embassy will tell you why. Unfortunately, you cannot get your money back in the case of a rejection. Moreover, embassies will not reevaluate visa applications, so if you are rejected, you must repeat the process above in order to reapply for a student visa.
In the end, visa rejections are not common. As long as you do everything you need to do and follow the steps we've given you, you should have no problem obtaining a US student visa!
3 Tips for Ensuring a Smooth Visa Application Process
You now know how to get a student visa — but how can you make sure you won't face any problems along the way? Follow our three tips below to ensure that your visa application process proceeds without hassle.
#1: Start Early
Applying for your visa with too little time before your program starts will most likely result in a visa rejection, so try to apply for a student visa as soon as you are accepted and have received Form I-20 or Form DS-2019 from your school.
If you are applying to multiple US schools, I recommend waiting to apply for a visa until you have received admission notifications from all of your schools, or until you have received an acceptance to your top-choice school. Doing this allows you to weigh your options and choose the best school for you.
#2: Don’t Buy a Plane Ticket Until You Have Your Visa
Although it’s a good idea to start the student visa application process early, it's best not to buy any plane tickets until after you've received your visa since there's no guarantee that your application will be approved.
If you purchase a plane ticket ahead of time and are then rejected for a US student visa, you will most likely not receive a full refund for your airfare. (Refund policies vary depending on the airline, but usually you cannot get a full refund if you cancel more than 24 hours after booking a flight.)
#3: Contact Your Embassy If You Have Questions
The visa application process described above is the general process for securing an F-1, M-1, or J-1 international student visa to the US. That said, you may find that your visa process differs slightly from the steps described above. Usually, this is due to differences in how US embassies choose to handle or process certain information.
As a result, always direct any questions or concerns you have about the visa process to your closest embassy. Your embassy is hands down the best resource for questions about fees, the interview, and other visa-related matters.
Additional Resources for International Students
If you want clarification or extra guidance on certain aspects of the US visa application process, here are a few official resources we recommend using:
- US Visas Official Website: This website is an official government website that covers everything you need to know about student visas, including how to apply for them, what kinds of visa policies there are, etc. Some excellent pages to look at if you have questions are the US visa FAQ and the visa fees pages.
- Study in the States: This official government website is run by the US Department of Homeland Security. By clicking on the “Students” tab at the top of the page, you’ll get tons of information on how to apply for a student visa, how to prepare for your arrival, and how to maintain your F-1 or M-1 visa status. You can also get the rundown of all of the major student forms you’ll need to fill out for your US student visa.
- Education USA: This government website run by the US Department of State helps international students navigate possible US schools, funding options, the visa application process, and more.
- J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program: The J-1 visa can be a little confusing for students, as it applies to non-students as well. Use this website to learn more about what the J-1 visa entails and how you can apply for one.
Recap: How to Get a Student Visa
All international students who want to study in the US must first obtain an international student visa. The three main visa types for international students are the F-1 visa, the M-1 visa, and the J-1 visa. Students who intend to study full-time in a US undergraduate or graduate program will most likely apply for an F-1 visa.
Before you begin your visa application, you'll need to have a passport that's valid for at least six months beyond your program end date, a digital copy of a passport-style photograph, and money for application fees.
Our 10-step guide above explains how to apply for a student visa to the US. To reiterate, here are the steps you'll need to take:
- Apply and get accepted to a US school
- Receive Form I-20 (for F-1/M-1 students) or Form DS-2019 (for J-1 students) from your school
- Pay the I-901 SEVIS fee online
- Locate your nearest US embassy or consulate
- Submit Form DS-160 (the online visa application)
- Contact your embassy to schedule your visa interview
- Pay the visa application fee (whether you pay this fee before or after your interview depends on the embassy)
- Attend your visa interview
- Pay the visa issuance fee (if required)
- Receive your visa from your embassy
Finally, our top tips for ensuring a smooth visa application process are as follows:
- Start the process early to reduce the risk of having your application rejected
- Avoid purchasing any airfare until after you’ve been approved for a US student visa
- Contact your embassy with any questions or concerns
Which schools should you apply to as an international student? Read our guide on the 25 best colleges for international students to consider your options!
Wondering if or when to take the SAT or ACT? Our guide to the SAT/ACT for international students has answers to all your questions!
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.