Q: What are the basic requirements for a visa that would allow me to study at a college or university in the United States?
A: US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) applies a number of criteria in determining whether a prospective international student is eligible for an F-1 student visa. The most basic requirement is acceptance for enrollment in an “academic” education program, not a vocational-type program. Enrollment in an accredited college, university, seminary, conservatory, high school, private elementary school, or language training program qualifies as academic study. A student in an institution of higher education can be seeking a Bachelor’s, Master’s, Ph.D., or other graduate-level degree, or can be engaged in post-doctoral studies. Programs not considered to be “academic,” such as those offered by technical and vocational schools, would require the issuance of an M-1 visa instead of an F-1 visa. The M-1 visa requirements are similar but not identical to those for the F-1 visa.
Once you have been accepted by an accredited school, the institution will issue appropriate documentation for you to include in your visa application at the US Embassy.
The applicant must intend to enroll in a school approved by the US Attorney General for attendance by foreign students. The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) put into place after the September 11, 2001, attacks introduced a number of changes in the process by which the Department of Homeland Security ensures that a school is eligible to participate in the F-1 process. Schools must demonstrate that they are legitimate educational institutions and appoint a designated school official (DSO) who will sign all necessary forms. The international student must be intending to enroll in a “full course of study” at the school, which generally means at least 12 credit hours each semester. The international student must provide proof of proficiency in English or be enrolled in English language courses leading to proficiency. The international student must have sufficient funds available for full support during the entire proposed course of study. The international student must maintain a residence abroad that he or she has no intention of abandoning and must intend to leave the US upon completion of the course of study.
Issues of non-immigrant intent and finance: One of the most important issues in obtaining a student visa involves “non-immigrant intent.” This is probably the most closely scrutinized element of the application process. USCIS and the US Embassy in your home country will need to be satisfied that you do not have the intention of immigrating to the US, of failing to maintain full-time student status, or of overstaying your student visa. To prove non-immigrant intent, you will need to show ongoing ties to your home country. These could include having immediate relatives, home ownership, apartment leases, ongoing affiliation with community/church groups, or an offer of employment or plans for further academic study or training upon your return home.
Another major issue in obtaining a student visa involves finances. You need to be prepared to prove that you have the means to support yourself and pay tuition and fees while studying in the US. Some US colleges are very expensive (including even public colleges with respect to the tuition charged to “out-of-state” residents), and you would need to be able to demonstrate access to considerable funds to apply for a visa to attend them.
Once you enter the USA on the F-1 visa: Be aware that at the end of your course of study it may be possible to apply for a period of Optional Practical Training (OPT) in the US employing the skills that you have acquired, and allowing you to be paid during the training. This maximum time allowed usually is one year, with some exceptions, but if you work full-time during school vacations, that time will be subtracted from the one year available to you at the end of your course of study.
Study on a J-1 Visa: A J-1 exchange visa for academic study (administered by the US State Department rather than USCIS) may be appropriate in some situations instead of an F-1 visa. Many of the requirements are comparable, but there are differences depending on the circumstances of each individual case.
International Student Advisors may assist you: US colleges and universities that admit international students typically have advisers and files of information to assist you in your application, including determining whether the F-1 or J-1 visa is a better fit for you. All colleges have web sites, and typically they contain a section with very detailed information for prospective international students.
For a free, confidential consultation on this or any other immigration issue, visit one of our weekly legal clinics advertised in The Emigrant.
Disclaimer: These articles are published to inform generally, not to advise in individual cases. US Citizenship and Immigration Services and the US Department of State regularly amend regulations and alter processing and filing procedures. For legal advice seek the assistance of an IIIC immigration specialist or an immigration lawyer.
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