Becoming an F-1 Student at a U.S. Institution
Humane Immigration Policy Debate
So, you want to be an F-1 Student.
According to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) website, “The Immigration and Nationality Act provides two nonimmigrant visa categories for persons wishing to study in the United States. The "F" visa is reserved for nonimmigrants wishing to pursue academic studies and/or language training programs, and the "M" visa is reserved for nonimmigrants wishing to pursue nonacademic or vocational studies.” There is also a third category for cultural and education exchange programs called the "J" visa and the controversial H-1B visa allowing employers to hire students. But for the purpose of this article we will concentrate on the F category, for students who wish to study fulltime in an academic or language training program.
Students who wish to study in an academic setting, including language training, must apply for an F-1 visa. To qualify for this visa, the student must first be accepted at a U.S. Institution, must be proficient in the English language, must show sufficient funds to cover the tuition and living expenses while studying in the US, and must have a permanent home address to return to when the study is completed. However, meeting these criteria is no guarantee the student will be approved by the USCIS.
So where do I start?
First, you must be accepted to a U.S. Institution. As such, you should have an idea which school in the United States you would like to attend. Usually, students know prior to applying for an F-1 Visa, what school meets their personal requirements; whether they are studying Business, Engineering, Law, Medicine, or the popular Computer Science. Once you have identified the school, you should apply for admittance. School term in the United States varies from one institution to the next, and programs do not necessarily admit students for the spring semester. You should, therefore, do your homework to know the deadline for the application.
Once you have been admitted to an institution, you must now acquire what is called the Certificate of Eligibility for Non-Immigrant (F-1) Student Status, a.k.a. the SEVIS Form I-20. Most times you will hear the term, Form I-20, or just simply the I-20. All of these terms refer to the same document. This document is very important, and is a vital step towards entry into the United States. A student cannot enter without it. In order to acquire the Form I-20, you need to provide proof of financial support, whether self or family, to cover the study during your stay in the United States. You must also prove proficiency in the English language before the Form I-20 is issued. Once you receive your Form I-20, you should review it for accuracy. An Immigration Officer will not accept even one typo on an I-20.
I got my I-20, what next?
This is the fun part. Now you have been accepted to a U.S. Institution, you have the SEVIS Form I-20 in hand, but now you must convince an Immigration Officer that you are planning to visit the United States for a short time, and will return home at the end of your study. If you manage to convince the officer, your I-20 will be stamped with an F-1 Student or J-1 Exchange Visitor visa stamp. J-1 students are issued a DS-2019, but discussing the DS-2019 is beyond the scope of this article. I may revisit it at a later date.
To meet with an officer, you need a valid passport from your government for permission to travel abroad and re-enter your home country. The US Government requires that your passport must also be valid at least six months into the future, upon entry into the United States. You also need to pay what’s called a SEVIS Fee. SEVIS is the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which is a “is a real-time, federal immigration database. It serves, in part, as a tracking system for all F-1, F-2, J-1 and J-2 non-immigrants.” F-2 and J-2 non-immigrants are dependents of F-1 and J-1 visa holders. As at the time of this writing, the fee was $200 USD. You can pay the fee online with a credit card, and by completing the Form I-901. If you plan on paying online make sure to do so at least three business days prior to your visa appointment, to ensure the fees are posted. In addition, you will need to print out a copy of the receipt and bring with you to the appointment.
Where do I go to meet with an Immigration Officer?
Every country has a U.S. Consulate or Embassy. This is where you will find the Immigration Officer who issues the visas. However, you need to make an appointment to meet with an Immigration Officer. These officers are called Consular Officers. You will also hear the term Consular, referring to these officers. Once you have received your appointment date, you need to visit the office on or before the expected time of arrival. Lateness will not score you points with an officer. You should have with you, your error-free SEVIS Form I-20, your passport, and all binding ties to your home country. Everyone who applies for an F-1 visa must show “bona fide nonimmigrant intent.” The officer wants to be convinced that you have a permanent and binding address outside of the United States that would compel you to leave when you have completed your study. Contrary to popular belief, the Consular will not be amused if you arrive with an assortment of silk or polyester ties. I heard this actually occurred at an embassy in a foreign country.
The Consular Officer will examine your application form, i.e. the Non-Immigrant Visa Application a.k.a. Form DS-156. If you’re a 16 – 45 year old male, you are required to complete the Form DS-157 (Supplemental Visa Application) as well. The Consular will also examine your Form I-20 (checking for errors and even typos), your offer letter from the U.S. Institution, your proof of English language proficiency (they will not accept your punctuated diction during the interview, as proof of proficiency), and all original documents proving you have the financial means to survive in the United Staes during your years of study. Do not expect to work and support yourself as a student. This is grounds for a visa denial. Each individual embassy/consulate may have additional criteria. Check their websites before applying for the visa.
When you receive your U.S. nonimmigrant visa at the embassy or consulate in your country, the Consular Officer will seal your immigration documents in an envelope attached to your passport. DO NOT OPEN THE ENVELOPE. When you arrive in the United States, the U.S. Immigration Inspector at the U.S. port of entry will open the envelope to review the documents. You should also keep with you in your carry-on luggage, all the documents you took to the Embassy/Consulate.
What if I'm denied a visa?
Unfortunately, not everyone who applies for a student visa receives one. If you are denied, do not despair. The U.S. Government encourages reapplication as often as you wish. Bear in mind, if your status has not changed since your last denial, you will likey be denied again. However, if your status has considerably changed since you were last denied a visa, do reapply at your earliest convenience. Sometimes, due to the technological field of study, or the country you are from, additional security clearance checks must be enforced before the visa can be issued. This may seem like a denial. It is not so. Usually, the Consular Officer will inform you if there will be a visa delay. It also helps if you contact the DSO at the Institution you plan to study. The DSO is the Designated School Official who is, in a way, an immigration officer. DSOs are also referred to as International Services Officers; it is the DSO who issues the Form I-20. Usually, DSOs can help to speed the process of acquiring an F-1 visa, and may speak with the relevant authority on your behalf.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go into all the details of becoming an International Student in the United States. There are exceptions to rules, rules change daily, and each individual case is unique. Visit the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services website, along with the links below for more detailed information. These links also covers students who wish to be reinstated, and students with severe economic hardships.
The following photos are courtesy of Sudhir Shah & Associates
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