US Visa Requirements to Study in the USA

Studying in the U.S. can be a rewarding experience for students, both academically and personally. Before traveling to the U.S., you need to first apply to and be accepted by an accredited school, and then apply for and receive a student visa. So, it's best to begin researching and preparing to apply to schools about two years before you expect to enroll. Once you're a student in the U.S., you may be able to apply for a work permit to gain practical experience related to your studies.

Applying to schools

Students accepted by an SEVP-certified school can apply for an F-1 or M-1 student visa to study in the U.S. Search for SEVP-certified schools on the Department of Homeland Security's website: Study in the States.

Once you've identified schools you'd like to attend, it's time to plan for the application process. According to CollegeBoard.org, Annie Gingerich, an international education coordinator at Colorado Mesa University, suggests these tips for international students applying to schools in the U.S.

Upon acceptance, your school will enroll you in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). You'll pay a SEVIS I-901 fee to receive a Form I-20 that you present to a consular officer when you later attend your student visa interview. If your husband, wife or unmarried children who are less than age 18 will live with you while you're studying in the U.S., they will also need Form I-20s (but they don't have to pay the SEVIS fee).

Applying for a student visa

Students need an F-1 (academic) or M-1 (vocational) student visa to study in the U.S. A student's husband, wife or unmarried children who are less than age 18 who will live with the student in the U.S. will need to apply for their own F-2 or M-2 visas.

Students who will attend one of the following types of schools apply for the F-1: university, college, high school, private elementary school, seminary, conservatory, or other academic institutions (including schools offering English language training programs).

Vocational students apply for the M-1 visa. Vocational students are those attending nonacademic institutions. Vocational students can only take language classes for the purpose of better understanding their vocational training. In other words, vocational study and not study of the English language must be the basis for an M-1 visa.

Here are the basic steps for applying for a student visa

  1. Understand the student visa application instructions on the website of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the country where you live.
  2. Complete the online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160.
  3. Request a visa interview appointment. (Usually, only students older than 13 and less than age 80 must attend interviews.)
  4. Pay the visa application fee prior to your interview. (Some countries also require students to pay a fee when the visa is issued.)
  5. Attend your visa interview. (Bring along required documents including a valid passport, your visa application confirmation page, your visa application fee payment receipt, your properly-formatted photo, your Form I-20, and any documents required by the embassy or consulate.)

Classes and employment

If you've taken Advanced Placement Program® classes, you may be eligible to skip some first-year college courses. Check with your school's international student advisor prior to registering for classes.

After being enrolled full-time for one full academic year, F-1 visa holders are eligible to apply for a work permit to work at a job to gain experience required by their degree program. Students who work for job training full-time for one year or more before graduating can't apply for a post-degree work permit to work at a practical training job. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students who won't complete practical training within 14 months after receiving their degree can apply for a one-time EAD extension before the first EAD expires.

M-1 visa holders who are completing their studies can apply for an EAD to work in a practical training job. For more information about student employment, visit USCIS websites: Students and Employment and Work Authorization Instructions.