US Visa Process

Content from TABS (The Association of Boarding Schools)


1) The I-20 Form
2) Paying SEVIS Fee
3) Applying for US Student Visa
4) Documents Needed for Visa Application
5) Additional Documentation May Be Required
6) The Consular Interview
7) Returning Students/Visa Renewa
8) Visa Approval
9) Travel to the US
10) Maintaining Records

In order for an international student (defined as any student holding a foreign passport) to enroll at a school in the United States, they must obtain an F-1 (or student) visa. The information below explains the process of applying for a student visa and provides some useful suggestions. US embassies and consulates work from the same set of rules, which are then adapted to their host countries. Therefore you should inquire in advance about individual policies.

Students should plan ahead for their study in the US and should allow plenty of time for visa processing. Keep in mind, however, that you should not apply for a student visa more than 90 days before the registration date noted on the I-20 form. The timetable for visa processing can vary widely depending on the volume of applications processed by an individual consulate or embassy. Notifications of acceptance or denial can range from one to ten weeks. June, July, and August are the busiest months for visa processing.

1. The I-20 Form

Prior to applying for an F-1 visa, you must complete Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. The Form I-20 is a paper record of your information in the database called SEVIS. Each school that accepts you will mail you a Form I-20. Complete ONLY the I-20 from the school you plan to attend and use that Form I-20 to pay the I-901 fee and to apply for the correct student visa.

Be sure to check your Form I-20 against your passport information to make sure that your name and date of birth (DOB) are correctly listed and spelled. If it is not, contact the school official who sent you the Form I-20 and ask the school official to correct it.

2. Paying Your I-901 SEVIS Fee

Regulation requires all prospective "F Visa" students to pay the I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee before the Department of State issues you a visa. To pay the I-901 SEVIS fee, go to Read more about the I-901 SEVIS fee and requirements.

3. Applying for the US Student Visa

Once you have submitted the Form I-20, paid the I-901 SEVIS fee and received a receipt of payment, you can apply for a visa. There are several steps, which may vary at the US embassy or consulate where you apply. Please consult the instructions available on the embassy or consulate website where you intend to apply.

  • Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160 – Learn more about completing the DS-160. You must:
    1) complete the online visa application and
    2) print the application form confirmation page to bring to your interview.

  • Photo – You will upload your photo while completing the online Form DS-160. Your photo must be in the format explained in the Photograph Requirements.

4. Documents Needed for Visa Application

The student should bring the following documents when applying for a visa:

  • Passport valid for travel to the US - Your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond your period of stay in the US (unless exempt by country-specific agreements).
  • Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160 confirmation page Application fee payment receipt - If you are required to pay before your interview
  • Photo – You will upload your photo while completing the online Form DS-160. If the photo upload fails, you must bring one printed photo in the format explained in the Photograph Requirements.
  • Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status-For Academic and Language Students, Form I-20A-B – Your school will send you a SEVIS-generated Form I-20 once they have entered your information in the SEVIS database. You and your school official must sign the Form I-20.

5. Additional Documentation May Be Required

Be sure to visit the website of the embassy or consulate where you will apply. Additional documents may be requested to establish you are qualified. For example:

  • Letter of admission from a school
  • Your academic preparation
  • Your intent to depart the US upon completion of the course of study
  • Financial documentation that shows sufficient funds to cover the cost of tuition, room and board, books, and other related expenses.
  • Transcripts from previous institutions attended.
  • Scores from standardized tests used in the admission process, such as the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT), Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE), and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

It's best to come fully prepared to avoid any return trips.

6. The Consular Interview

In most countries, a consular interview is required. These meetings are conducted by US State Department Consular Officers and take place at the embassy or consulate. Some consulates/embassies request that students submit the required documentation before scheduling the interview, while others conduct the entire process on the same day.

The purpose of this interview is for a consular officer to determine the student's academic interests and English language proficiency. It is also the consular official's job to ensure that the applicant is a legitimate candidate for a student visa and is not entering the US for some other reason—such as immigration. To prove that students are seeking a visa solely for educational purposes, they will often be asked to show proof of ties to their home country. Examples of such ties might include evidence of a family business or real estate holdings in the student's home country. If close family members have studied in the US previously and then returned home, this information might serve as evidence of ties to the home country.

Applicants should be prepared to answer a variety of questions. There are no set questions for the interview, but the consular official's role is to learn about you and why you wish to study in the US The official will also want to know why you wish to attend a particular school. You may also be asked about the documentation you have provided, and officials may want to see copies of materials sent to the school such as transcripts and test scores.

Here are samples of questions that may arise during a consular interview:

  • Tell me about this school and why you wish to enroll there. What does it offer that your current school does not?
  • Where is the school located? (Be prepared to point out the location on a map of the US)
  • Who is the Head of School or Director of Admission?
  • Why do you wish to study in the US?
  • How will studying at this school benefit you when you return home?

7. Returning Students/Visa Renewal

A student may be issued a visa for one year or for several years. It is important to check the visa carefully in order to determine whether renewal is necessary. Visa renewal applications should be made at the nearest US consulate or embassy in the student's home country. Much of the same documentation is required for a visa renewal that is required when you first received your visa.

Applicants applying for renewals must submit:

  • passport valid for at least six months after proposed date of entry into the US
  • two completed Nonimmigrant Visa Application Forms (Form DS-160) with photo and receipt for application processing fee
  • new I-20 from school where the student is enrolled OR an I-20 that has been endorsed on the back by a school official within the last 12 months

Applicants for visa renewals should also be prepared to submit:

  • official copy of grades
  • financial documentation showing ability to cover cost of tuition, room and board, travel and other related expenses

8. Visa Approval

If the student visa application is approved, you will be given an F-1 visa stamp in your passport indicating:

  • where the visa was issued
  • date the visa will expire
  • number of entries permitted*
  • type of visa
  • visa number

At this time you will also be given a sealed envelope containing both pages of the I-20.
* A multiple entry visa enables a student to enter and leave the US as many times as indicated on the document. A single entry visa will require the student to obtain a new visa every time he/she travels outside of the US in order to return.

9. Travel to the United States

During the flight to the US, the student will be given the I-94 card (Arrival/Departure Record) to complete. At the Port of Entry, the student will go through customs and must present the following to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) official:

  • valid passport and visa
  • sealed envelope with I-20
  • completed I-94
  • any other requested information (financial documents, admission letter, etc.)

The INS official will:

  • return the passport/visa with an INS entry stamp.
  • return the departure record card with an entry stamp (usually will be stapled to the student's passport).
  • separate the I-20, keeping the first page for INS records and returning the I-20 ID to the student with the INS entry stamp in the right-hand corner.

10. Maintaining Records

Be sure to keep your passport/visa with I-94 card, I-20 Form, and all other important documents in a safe place. Replacing these items is a complicated and time-consuming process and may create problems.

In order to avoid jeopardizing your visa eligibility, it is wise to pay particular attention to your status as an F-1 student. When you enter the United States on a student visa, you will usually be admitted for the duration of your student status. That means you may remain in the US as long as you are a full-time student, even if the F-1 visa in your passport expires while you are in the US. If your visa expires and you leave the US, you will be required to apply for a new visa before returning. A student visa cannot be renewed in the US; it must be done at a consulate or embassy in the student's home country. Students who have completed the program of study have a 60-day grace period before being required to exit the US. This information was written by TABS, The Association of Boarding Schools.