If you want to take a postgraduate course in America but you are not a US citizen, you will need to have a student visa in place before you arrive. To be eligible you should be enrolled on a full-time course at an accredited university, have the resources to support yourself financially and prove that you’ll be going home when your course ends. If you meet these criteria, there are a number of steps to work through as part of the application process. These may vary depending on the US embassy or consulate in your country, so always check the appropriate website for precise details.
From the time you apply to the time a visa is granted, it can take between 3-5 months. However, visas can be issued up to 120 days ahead of your departure, so you can begin the preparations as soon as you have a confirmed place.
As an international student, the university and course you apply to should be accredited by the US government, through their Student and Exchange Visitor program. This is vital because it proves your postgraduate qualification is recognised by other institutions, along with any relevant professional bodies and employers worldwide. Only SEVP-endorsed universities can give you the documents you’ll need to apply for a visa. If you have any doubts about where you plan to study, check their credentials on the Study in the States website. Once you have been accepted onto a postgraduate course by an accredited university, they will make sure you are enrolled in the national SEVIS (Student and Exchange visitor Information System) database and this system will send you a document known as Form I-20 if you are eligible for an F1 visa. The fee stands at around $200 and it can be paid once you have submitted the application form, either online or in paper form. Don’t forget to print out a copy of your receipt as this will act as proof of your payment in future, and may be requested by a customs officer when you enter the US.
Applicants can complete the DS-160 visa application form online or in paper form. There are aids available to ensure you fill in each section correctly and you’ll need to upload or send a passport quality photo as part of the process. When you’ve finished, print out or copy the form ready for your interview.
An interview is usually required to obtain an F1 student visa; this will be carried out at the US embassy nearest to where you live and conducted by a consular officer. Always arrive with any receipts, forms and other documents you need and be ready to answer a number of personal questions relating to your wish to study in America. Sometimes similar questions can be posed in alternative ways, this is not an attempt to catch you out, the interviewer just wants to be sure you qualify for an F1. Visa interview questions will relate to your qualifications, the university you plan to attend and your financial position. You’ll also be asked about any obligations and family ties you have at home, so the officer can be sure you’ll return after your studies are complete. If you have answered each question with a satisfactory response, your F1 visa can be granted immediately. You may also have a digital fingerprint scan and be asked to pay an issue fee.
When you attend the interview you’ll be asked to bring along a number of documents, if you don’t have each one required, it could delay your application significantly. Take a valid passport, the non-immigrant Visa Application Form DS-160, a passport photo and your 1-20 form.
F1 students are allowed to work on campus up to 20 hours per week, when the university is open and teaching normally. In cases of extreme financial hardship, F1 students can speak to their DSO (Designated School Official) to ask for permission to work off campus. They in turn have to gain authorisation from the US Citizen and Immigration Service.
Your Duration of Status, or the length of time you can stay in America on an F1 visa, will run up to 60 day after your course ends. After this time you are legally obliged to either leave the country, or renew your visa to continue your studies.