A visa is a document that allows you to enter the US in a certain kind of status, and determines the restrictions and opportunities you have in the US based on the visa category you enter in, as well as how long you can stay in the US.
The F-1 student visa is required for individuals that will enter the US to pursue an educational degree, assuming you do not already have US citizenship, permanent residency, or another visa category that allows you to study in the US.
*Please note, your visa will be issued based on your name as it appears in your passport. If there are any errors in your name in your passport, or if it is structured incorrectly (such as not having a first or last name), it is STRONGLY advised that you correct your passport BEFORE applying for your US visa. Once you enter the US, your official names in all documents are based on your passport, and it becomes much harder to change your name after you arrive. Students with no first name or no last name in their passport often find this challenging to manage in the US, especially related to work permission, as the US system expects both a first and last name. Please take the time to have any errors corrected BEFORE applying for your visa!
Applying for an F-1 Student Visa
1. You must first be admitted to a College or University, and receive an I-20 from the school you plan to attend. Click here to learn more about how to get your I-20 document, and click here to learn more about what an I-20 is and what it tells you about your stay in the US.
2. After you decide which school you will attend and have an I-20 from that school, you will need to pay the I-901 SEVIS fee for that SEVIS ID (found a the top right of the I-20). This is a one-time fee, which is used to maintain the immigration database that manages international student and scholar information. You can read more information and pay the fee here. Please note you will need to take your SEVIS fee receipt to your visa appointment.
3. Next, complete a DS-160 visa application form, found here. The DS-160 has a US$160 application fee, which you often cannot pay until you actually schedule your visa appointment. Each embassy handles this a bit differently. You will need information from your I-20 to complete this form.
4. After completing the DS-160, you can schedule your visa appointment. Typically, you can apply at your nearest US Embassy. A list of US Embassy locations can be found here. You will need to have an interview with the US Embassy to apply for a visa. Please note, each Embassy manages the process of scheduling an interview differently, so please read the information on your specific Embassy location’s website carefully. The wait time for a visa appointment varies by Embassy, and can be viewed here.
5. Gather the required documents listed on your specific Embassy’s website before your visa appointment, and be sure to carry all requirements with you to your visa appointment. Your interview usually lasts no more than 3 minutes, and the consular officer you meet with will ask you questions about your goals in the US and intentions after completing your academic goals. Many Embassies have videos on their websites to help you prepare for your visit to the Embassy.
You should plan to carry the following documents to your visa appointment, in addition to any other documents listed on your Embassy’s website:
- I-20 for the school you plan to attend
- DS-160 visa application fee receipt
- Valid passport
- passport photograph – many embassies ask you to upload these with your DS-160
- I-901 SEVIS fee receipt
- Transcripts from University and secondary school studies, appropriate to your intended degree program in the US; and relevant test score reports, such as TOEFL/IELTS, GRE or SAT, etc.
- Financial documents proving available funds for at least one year of expenses
6. If your visa appointment goes well and your are approved, you typically need to leave your passport with the embassy so they can process your visa stamp, and it will be returned to you shortly after with the visa added to the passport. This process also varies by Embassy.
7. Once you have your visa, you can plan your travels to the US. Please note, when entering the US for the first time in F-1 status, you can only enter up to 30 days before your I-20 start date- please plan your flights accordingly!
For more details concerning the F-1 student visa, please visit the US Department of State website here.
Canadian citizens do not need an F-1 visa to enter the US as a student. You will need to simply enter the US no earlier than 30 days before your I-20 start date, and carry your passport and I-20. It is also best to carry your financial documents, proving your financial support, and your SEVIS fee receipt. You should be prepared to answer similar questions to the visa interview tips below at the border.
Visa application tips:
- Carefully enter all information concerning your name and personal information so that it matches your passport.
- If your passport does not give a first name or a last name, we would recommend that you consider adjusting your passport if this is an option for you. Naming conventions in the US assume an individual will have a first and last name, so not having these will make official matters such as working and driving in the US more complicated for you. It’s much easier to make this change before leaving your country rather than after arriving in the US.
- Apply as early as possible to avoid long delays in getting a visa appointment close to the start of a semester
- If your nearest Embassy has a long wait time to get an appointment, you can look up other possible Embassies you could visit and see how long it takes to get an appointment here – please be sure to use the “Student visa” timing information.
Visa interview tips:
The visa interview is a chance for the consular officer to hear your story about why you want to go to the US for your education. They are looking for consistency between your documents and your answers to their questions.
A visa interview usually involves the interviewing officer establishing:
- Who you are
- What you want to do
- How you are going to pay for it
- What you intend to do when you’ve completed your “approved activity” (in this case, your studies)
To that end, you should expect questions about:
- your travel plans
- what you plan to study, and why you chose the specific school you have an I-20 for to study that subject
- your academic goals in the US
- your plans for after graduation – please note, your F-1 visa is for studying only, so please avoid talking about goals involving employment in the US, or staying longer than necessary for your studies only
- how you will fund your studies in the US
- intention to return to your home country after you finish school – the F-1 category is specifically for school, so you will want to focus on your intent to return home to pursue your career or further education after you complete your degree in the US
Your visa interview will be conducted in English, so you should be prepared to feel comfortable understanding and responding to the questions in English.
Some Embassies will have videos or other information on their specific website about how the interview works at that embassy – please be sure to explore your Embassy’s website for additional resources!
Administrative Processing (221g)
Sometimes students receive “administrative processing,” also called “221(g)” – this is not a denial. Administrative processing simply means that the consular officer feels they need more information to make a decision on your visa application. Administrative processing is more common for academic programs considered to be sensitive to US national security, such as Biotechnology or certain kinds of Engineering. Individuals that are citizens of countries considered by the US State Department to be state sponsors of terrorism can typically expect to receive administrative processing, and should apply early to avoid extensive delays to their visa application.
The length of processing time varies, but can be as short as a week or as long as multiple months, though most cases are under one month. Applicants might be asked to provide additional documents to their application. When the processing is complete, if the application is approved then the applicant will be notified to collect their passport with the US F-1 visa stamp appropriately.
If your visa application is denied, you can apply again. There are instances where students have received their visa easily at a second interview. Sometimes something as simple as a misunderstanding on the part of the officer interviewing you can lead to a denial.
Most denials are based on “214(b)” – this means you did not establish that you are eligible for an F-1 visa, usually because you did not satisfy the visa officer that your goals in the US are in line with the kind of visa you are asking for. Be sure to ask the officer interviewing you for a more specific reason! They should be able to explain to you why you were not eligible, and this will help you understand and decide if you want to apply again.
If you plan to apply again be sure to be prepared to address the issue that caused the first denial. It’s best to apply as early as possible so that if you have a problem, you can apply again.