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A Guide to US Visas for International Students

Get ready to study abroad in America with our step-by-step guide to US F-1 student visas.

A male international student arrives at the airport with his passport and visa

Many students wishing to study in the United States are nervous about the student visa application process. If you are feeling overwhelmed, take comfort. There are over one million students currently studying abroad in the USA, and with some preparation and guidance, you can join them. To help you get started, we’ve put together this step-by-step guide to US visas.

1. Get accepted and get your I-20

The F-1 student visa process starts when you get accepted to a US university that is certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). The SEVP certification is the US government’s way of proving that your university is accredited and has the proper resources to provide you with an education. 

Once you are accepted, your university will grant you an I-20 form. This form documents your study plans and provides supporting information about your stay. 

The following information is recorded in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) when your I-20 is issued:

  • Your SEVIS ID number

  • Your program start and end dates

  • Your intended program of study

  • Your funding sources

  • Cost of attendance at your school of choice

  • Other personal information

This information is provided by your university and comes from your application to study. 

As soon as you receive your I-20, make sure all your information is accurate and then sign the bottom of the first page. It can take a long time to fix an error on your I-20 and if something’s wrong, you may not be granted access into the country. Retain your Form I-20. You will need it in order to enter the US, to work, and to do many other things like drive a car. 

Helpful resources: Confirm your US university is a SEVP-accredited institution 

TIP: Keep your Shorelight enrollment advisor updated through every step of the visa process – submitted application, scheduled interview, and, of course, when you get approved.

2. Pay your SEVIS fee 

The SEVIS fee is a SEVP processing and maintenance charge. 

Requirements: Your I-20

Cost: $350 USD

Helpful resources: Payment portal for your SEVIS fee

Make sure to save the I-901 SEVIS fee receipt. You will need it for your visa interview. 

3. Complete your DS-160 visa application 

Your DS-160 is your visa application. All prospective international students must complete a DS-160 in order to receive an F-1 visa. 

Requirements: Your I-20, passport, travel itinerary, photo for your visa

Cost: $160 USD

Helpful resources: Application portal for your DS-160

After you successfully submit your DS-160, you will receive a printed confirmation with a barcode on it. You will need this for your visa interview. 

4. Schedule your visa interview 

Find the nearest US embassy or consulate and schedule your visa interview. Wait times vary by country and can take months. Schedule your appointment as early as possible to allow for delays. 

If you are enrolling at a US university through Shorelight, ask your enrollment advisor about student visa interview tips or how to set up a mock interview session. This will make you feel more comfortable with the process.

TIP: Ask your Shorelight advisor to set up a mock visa interview for you.

5. Attend your visa interview 

In this step of the F-1 visa application process, the US consulate or embassy confirms you are coming to study as a legitimate, serious student. In your visa interview you must also prove you have the funds to cover your time studying in the US and that you plan on returning home after your studies are complete. Attending your visa interview in person is required, though there are a few rare exceptions (e.g., if you are under 14 or over 80 years of age, or if you meet certain visa renewal requirements). 

Documents to bring to your student visa interview:

  • Your passport

  • A copy of the photo you will use for your visa

  • Your DS-160 and I-901 SEVIS payment confirmation pages

  • Your I-20

  • Your school transcript and the official test scores you used on your university application

  • Your diploma, if applicable

  • Bank statements you used to fill out your college application

Cost: Your DS-160 payment covers the cost

Helpful resources: Scheduling portal for your visa interview

What to expect at your visa interview

Your interviewer will ask you questions to determine the three things we already talked about: 

  1. Are you a legitimate student? 

  2. Do you have the resources to pay for your studies?

  3. Do you plan to return home after completing your degree?

Your interview is important, but fairly casual. Feeling nervous is normal. Take a deep breath and remember that you are well prepared. 

A few sample questions you might be asked at your visa interview

  • Why did you pick this university?

  • 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?

After you successfully complete your visa interview, you will be granted your F-1 visa and will be cleared to study in the USA. 

Now that you know how US non-immigrant visas work for international students, create a checklist, and get started. The sooner you begin fulfilling the USA study visa requirements, the better chance you will have of securing your spot at an American university. 

How can we help? Talk to an advisor today about applying to a Shorelight partner university > 

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