study in the United States

Congratulations! You have been accepted to study in the United States! Last year, over one million international students studied in the U.S. in a variety of programs—from a six-month certificate to graduate-level work. Students pursued a diverse range of fields, including business, engineering, math and computer sciences, social sciences, and physical and life sciences. As a citizen of another country, you will need a student visa to study in the U.S., but today’s political climate is leaving many hopeful international students anxious about the visa process. Visit travel.state.gov to find out what to expect on your journey, and check out this brief outline of the visa process.

Apply First: Your first step is to apply to a program of study at a college or university in the United States. Schools must be included on the Department of Homeland Security’s list of Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) certified institutions.

Proof of Financial Support: There are several points along the way where students must provide financial documentation in order to secure a student visa.

  • Universities require students to demonstrate adequate financial support to live and study in the U.S. Students should check the university’s website for specific requirements. Some universities will require that students provide documentation supporting a year of costs, and others require proof of funding for the entire program of study prior to issuing paperwork to students.
  • Financial documentation may also be part of the visa application. Applications may be stronger if the financial support comes from family, employers, or other institutional sponsors located in the home country. Students often provide additional information about family accounts, such as a letter from a bank official stating how long the account has been open and details about balance averages and deposit history. It can be a good idea to have these accounts held at larger, international banks which are accustomed to working with U.S. universities and are easily able to provide English translations or documentation.

Check your mailbox: Hurray! You have been accepted! You will receive a form—either an I-20 or a DS-2019—confirming that you have been officially accepted at an institution authorized by the U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Service (USCIS) to enroll non-immigrant students. Since all applicants’ names are screened for security, check this form carefully to ensure that your name is spelled correctly and matches the name on your passport.

Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS): Once accepted to a U.S. school, your name will be entered into SEVIS, an online system that allows schools, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other relevant government agencies to exchange and monitor data on the immigration status of international students.

Complete the Visa Application and Schedule an Interview: The next steps for securing a student visa, and the order in which you complete them, can vary based upon the U.S. Embassy or Consulate where you apply. Visit www.usembassy.gov to read about the current procedure in place for obtaining a student visa. While you are encouraged to apply for your visa as soon as you have your I-20 (or certificate of eligibility) in hand, new international students should be advised that visas can only be issued up to 120 days in advance of your course of study start date. You must provide a photo and a non-refundable visa application fee along with your application, and you’ll need to schedule an interview with a consular officer. A helpful place to visit is a U.S. State Department EducationUSA advising center in your home country. Overseas advisors can help you navigate the interview process for obtaining your visa to the U.S. Check here to locate your nearest overseas advising center.

Gather All Documentation: Make sure you have the following documents in hand prior to your visa interview: valid passport (must be valid for at least 6 months beyond your period of stay in the U.S.), your completed non-immigrant visa application, application fee payment receipt, photo, and your I-20 (or certificate of eligibility). Other documentation that may be required are transcripts, diplomas, standardized tests scores, proof of your intent to depart the U.S. upon completion of studies, and account statements showing how you will pay all educational, living, and travel costs associated with your program of study (see above).

Show Up: During your interview, a consular officer will assess whether you should get a visa and, if so, which visa category is appropriate. Students are assigned one of three visa categories based upon their anticipated program of study:

  • F Student Visa: granted for study at an accredited U.S. college or university or to study English at an English language institute
  • J Exchange Visa: granted for participation in an exchange program (high school/university)
  • M Student Visa: granted for non-academic or vocational study or training

Depending on your country of origin, you may also have digital fingerprint scans taken as part of the interview process. Each country will have a different timeline for processing a student visa so make sure you understand how to collect your passport and visa when they are ready.

Intent to Return: One of the key differences between a student visa and other visa classifications is that holders of a student visa must demonstrate proof that they will return to their country upon completion of their studies. Examples of documentation that help support strong ties to your home country may include a job offer after completion of studies, proof of home ownership, dependents or other family members that rely on your financial support, previous passports demonstrating travel abroad, bank or salary statements, family documents, or student records. During your interview, be prepared to answer questions about your family and connections to your home country. You should be able to realistically discuss how you will use your degree once you return home. When an official does not think there is sufficient demonstrated intent, a student may be denied a visa at their interview. If this happens, students should inform the U.S. institution so that the school can contact the consulate or embassy to request an appeal for reconsideration.

Entering the U.S.: It used to be that the only question international students asked was “will I get into a good school?” Now, in some cases, students are left wondering if they will be able to enter the U.S. at all. Just having a student visa does not guarantee entry into the U.S. There are sometimes things that occur outside of our control. The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection officials at your port of entry have authority to permit or deny admission to any individual. It is a good idea to travel with the contract information for the International Student Office on your new campus so you can notify them of any issues throughout your trip.

Best wishes for a safe trip to your new home for the next four years. Please don’t forget to contact home when you have arrived to your final destination and, most of all, welcome to the United States!

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Written by Robyn Stewart
Robyn Stewart is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Prior to joining College Coach, she worked as a former financial aid officer at College of the Holy Cross.