What is a US International Student Visa?
To study in the US as an international student, you need to obtain a US student visa. There are three student visa types in the US: F-1 student visa, J-1 student visa, and M-1 student visa.
Before you can apply for a student visa as an international student, you first need to get accepted to an accredited US college or university. If you are unsure about which university or degree programs are right for you, Shorelight can help: Reach out to our expert advisors for college application assistance.
Keep reading to find answers for all your student visa USA questions.
What Are the Types of US Student Visas?
To study in the US as an international student, you need to apply for a F-1 student visa, a J-1 student visa, or a M-1 student visa. The visa you require may vary depending on the type of education you want to pursue in the US.
For example, most universities require international students to have a F-1 student visa for academic studies, but if you want to attend work- or study-based exchange and visitor programs in the US, you need to apply for a J-1 student visa.
As the most popular type of student visa, a F-1 student visa enables international students to attend an accredited college or a university in the US, an English language institute, or if your course of study is more than 18 hours a week. The F-1 student visa process starts after your application to a US institution (certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, or SEVP) is accepted.
As an international student on a F-1 student visa, you are expected to complete your studies by the expiration date included on your I-20 form (also known as the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, provided by the US college or university you have been accepted to). So, if your expiration date is June 30, 2025, you must earn your degree before that date.
If you have a F-1 visa, you may be eligible for Optional Practical Training (or OPT visa), which can enable you to gain work experience in the United States.
However, OPT must be directly related to the academic program in which you are enrolled. For example, if you want to request OPT for a software engineering internship, you should be studying for a STEM-related degree. Additionally, the programs you attend in the US must be sponsored by an educational or other nonprofit institution accredited by the Exchange Visitor Program designated by the Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Also known as the Exchange Visitor visa, the J-1 student visa is required if you want to attend work- or study-based exchange visitor programs, known as Academic Training (AT), designated by the Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The M-1 student visa is required for international students who want to travel to the US for non-academic purposes or vocational studies such as cooking classes, cosmetology courses, and technical courses. Note that if you are studying in the US on a M-1 student visa, you are allowed to work full time in practical training only after the completion of your program.
Learn more about American visas by visiting State.gov.
US Student Visa Requirements
To be eligible for a US student visa (F-1 student visa for most international students), you should first get accepted to an accredited college or a university in the US. Once you are accepted, you will need:
School transcript and the official test scores you used on your university application
Bank statements you used to fill out your college application
Make sure you meet all US student visa requirements.
The DS-160 form is an online nonimmigrant visa application required to apply for a nonimmigrant visa. As the first step of applying for your student visa USA, you have to complete the DS-160 form and pay a non-refundable fee.
When filling in the DS-160 form, you should have the following documents:
Travel itinerary, if available
Dates of your last five visits to the United States, if you have traveled to the United States before (you are also required to submit your international travel history for the past five years)
Resume or CV with information about your current and previous education and work history
Additional information if prompted (e.g., your intended purpose of travel)
Completing the DS-160 form is mandatory, as consular officers will use the information you submitted to process your student visa USA application and determine your eligibility for a F-1 student visa. Once you have completed the form, submit it directly to the Department of State’s application portal.
The I-20 form (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status) is a document that proves that you are legally enrolled in a program of study in the US. The I-20 is required to complete your US student visa process.
The I-20 form documents your study plans and provides supporting information about your stay in the US. After your university application is accepted by a SEVP-approved college or university in the US, the university will then provide your I-20 form. After obtaining the I-20 form, you must pay the SEVIS I-901 fee (SEVP processing and maintenance charge) to register your information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
Once your SEVIS fee is paid, you can now start applying for a student visa.
How to Apply for a US Student Visa
Applying for a US student visa takes time, so be patient and flexible during the process. There are several steps you need to complete to apply for a F-1 student visa, J-1 student visa, or M-1 student visa.
Here is how to get a US visa for international students:
Get accepted to a SEVP accredited US university—Only SEVP-approved colleges or universities in the US can register in SEVIS and provide the documents required for your US student visa. You can find out if the institution you applied to is accredited by visiting Study in the States.
Get your I-20 form and pay the SEVIS fee—Three days before submitting the visa application, you are required to pay the SEVIS fee via the payment portal after obtaining your I-20 form from the university you are planning to attend.
Complete your DS-160 visa application—Also called the online nonimmigrant visa application, this form is required to complete your DS-160 in order to obtain a F-1 visa. To complete your DS-160 application, you need your passport, I-20 form, travel itinerary, photo for your visa, and will have to pay a fee.
Schedule your visa interview and prepare—After completing and submitting your visa application, contact the nearest US embassy or consulate and schedule your visa interview. The waiting time will vary depending on your country, so make sure to schedule your appointment as early as possible.
Attend your visa interview—In your visa interview, you must prove that you are traveling to the US with an intent to return home after your studies are complete. You are required to take all important documents, including your DS-160 and I-901 SEVIS payment confirmation information and your I-20 form.
For more information on the F-1 visa process (or the American student visa process), please visit State.gov.
Visa Interview Scheduling and Fees
After completing your DS-160 form, the next and the final step is to schedule your student visa USA interview. Reach out to the nearest US embassy or consulate to make arrangements for your interview. Before you go, bring the following documents for your F-1 student visa interview:
You may be asked to submit additional documents to be eligible for the student visa, such as academic transcripts, degrees or diploma certificates, or English language test scores.
Visa Appointment Wait Time
The visa appointment wait time will vary depending on staffing, location, season, and visa category. US embassies and consulates aim to work efficiently to keep wait times for appointments as short as possible. The earlier you book your appointment, the sooner you can get an interview date and time confirmed, so make sure to apply for your visa early.
The final step in your student visa USA process is attending the visa interview.
At the interview, you should prove to the US consulate or embassy that you are traveling to the US as a legitimate, serious student and that you wish to return home after your studies are completed. You should bring all interview documents and have met all of the F-1 student visa requirements.
Before you attend the interview, make sure to do your research and practice potential questions in advance. Here are some F-1 visa interview questions you may be asked at your interview.
Why did you pick this university?
Why do you want to pursue a degree in the US?
Which other US universities did you apply to?
How will you pay for your education?
Do you have relatives in the USA?
Do you plan to work while in the USA?
What do you plan to do after graduation?
Entering the United States
While obtaining your student visa is mandatory to travel to the US, it does not guarantee entry.
Your visa will allow international students like you to travel to a US port-of-entry (such as an airport) and request permission to enter the US from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials at the port-of-entry. They have the authority to either permit or deny your admission to the US.
Maintaining Student Visa Status
International students studying in the US with F-1 student visas are required to depart the United States within 60 days after the end date of the program which is listed on form I-20, including any authorized practical training.
If you wish to extend your visa status, you can request an extension through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Change of Student Visa Status
In situations where you receive an offer of employment or marry a US citizen, you may have to change your student visa status. You can request to change your nonimmigrant status to another category through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).