Students from outside of the United States experience much of the same college search and application processes if they decide to study at a U.S. college. But international students must not only be accepted to a U.S. college; they must also obtain permission from the U.S. government to live and study in the United States. Although the process is relatively straightforward, getting that permission requires good planning and preparation. Read on for the basics of applying for a U.S. student visa.
The College Admission Process
Before you can apply for a visa, you must know what college you'll be attending. So, much like students living in the United States, international students must research their college options, apply to several colleges, and be accepted to at least one of them. Unlike U.S. students, international students must also prove to the college of their choice that they can pay all college fees and living expenses while studying in the United States. Some financial and merit aid may be available to international students, depending on the college you choose, but you still must have a well-thought-out, documented financial plan for your years in the United States.
Once you've been accepted and the college is satisfied that you can support yourself, the college will send you an I-20 form. This form documents that you have been offered admission to the college and that the college is satisfied that you can afford to study there. It also gives you a "report date," or the date when you're expected to arrive at the college to begin classes.
The I-20 is one of the main documents you'll need to apply for a student visa.
Documents and More Documents
Once you receive your I-20 from the college, it's time to put together the other documents you'll need to apply for the visa. Students who plan on attending a four-year or two-year academic program should apply for the F-1 visa.
You need several main documents to apply for a visa:
- Form I-20, which you receive from the college.
- Form DS-156, which you can get from the U.S. State Department's Web site, and Form DS-158 and Form DS-157 (for males only), which you can get from your local U.S. embassy or consulate.
- A passport that is valid for at least the next six months (preferably longer).
- A passport-sized photo of yourself.
- A receipt that shows payment of the visa processing fee. How you pay the fee differs in each country, so make sure to check with your local U.S. embassy or consulate for details. In some countries, you may not be able to pay the fee at the consulate.
Although these documents are the only official ones needed to apply, you also need to gather documentation to support certain aspects of your visa application.
The Big Three Questions
Your visa application, supporting documentation, and your interview with a consular officer (see below) must work together to answer the following questions:
- Are you a real student?
- Do you intend to return to your home country after college?
- Do you have enough money to support yourself while in the United States (without getting a job, which is illegal for nonimmigrant students)?
Remember, by U.S. law, it is the consular officer's job to find reasons to deny your visa. The officers are required to assume that you're trying to immigrate to the United States permanently. It's your job to prove differently.
The documents needed to answer these questions may be different depending on your country and your situation, but they may include any or all of the following:
- Your academic record to date.
- Copies of scores from any standardized tests you've taken (SAT, TOEFL, GRE, etc.).
- Letters of admission and financial aid awards from your U.S. college.
- Financial documents, such as your and your family's bank statements, tax documents showing your/your family's income, and statements from any investments that you plan to use to finance you education.
- Documents showing any scholarships or financial help from other sources (college financial aid, governmental or organizational grants, outside scholarships).
- Business registration or licenses and other documents if you or your family owns a business.
- Evidence that you intend to return to your home country, such as a statement from an employer that you'll be considered for a job or have been offered a job after you complete your U.S. study; evidence that you own assets in your home country; anything else that shows that you have strong ties to your home country.
If you're not sure what documents you should bring, talk to your high school counselor, the college contact for international students, or someone at the U.S. consulate.
All visa applicants must have an interview with an officer at their country's U.S. embassy or consulate. Different consulates may schedule interviews differently, so check with the consulate ahead of time.
Also, U.S. embassies and consulates in some countries are very busy and may have a long waiting list for visa interviews. It's a good idea to check with the consulate early in the college application process, even before you receive an I-20, just in case your consulate has a waiting period. Some countries may have a months-long waiting period; others may be able to schedule interviews fairly quickly.
During this interview, consular officers will ask you a variety of questions about your plans for your education, finances and career after college. Again, they are looking for any reason to believe that you're not a real student, that you may be planning to stay in the United States illegally, or that you won't be able to support yourself financially in the United States.
The best way to succeed in your interview is to arrive well-prepared. Think through your answers to some of the following questions:
- Why do you want to study in the United States?
- Why did you choose this college?
- Why did you choose this major? What jobs does this major prepare you for?
- How will studying in the United States prepare you for a job here at home?
- What have you been involved in that shows your commitment to your home country?
- How will you pay for the college fees and living expenses in the United States? (Remember, students with F-1 visas are not allowed to get jobs in the United States except under special circumstances. So you cannot plan on any job income to pay for your studies or expenses at colleges.)
- Other questions about the United States, your educational plans, your career plans, and your finances.
You may wish to practice your answers with a counselor or friend. Be polite, and make your answers short and to the point. Most interviews are less than five minutes, so short answers are best.
Start the Process Early
Since the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the student visa process has been scrutinized by the media (several of the hijackers had visas to study in U.S. flight schools). The U.S. government now evaluates applicants more carefully than in the past, and some applications require additional security screening. With these changes, advance planning is very important for international students.
For More Information
This is only an overview of what international students can expect from the U.S. visa application process. For more detailed information and help, talk to your high-school counselor or the advisor to international students at your college. In addition, the U.S. State Department has placed quite a bit of information on their Web site.
If you have questions about the visa process, it's best to call your local U.S. embassy or consulate directly, or to check their Web site for information. It may seem intimidating to call the consulate, but it's the best way to get good information about the visa process in your country.
Written by Jennifer Gross.
Published May/June 2002. Updated April 2006.