Studying abroad is an exciting opportunity—both for the student, and for the United States—to extend opportunities for education and a better understanding of different cultures. Students gain access to the United States’ fine educational institutions, and their communities gain the skills and talents of a plethora of people from all over the world.

First Step: Apply for a School

The first step is that an applicant apply and get accepted to an educational program. Once the applicant starts applying for schools, then he or she should begin the VISA process. When the applicant is accepted by the U.S. school, they are automatically enrolled in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and must pay the SEVIS I-901 Fee.

The U.S. school will provide the applicant with a Form I-20 to present to the consular officer for presentation during the visa interview. If a spouse or children intend to reside with the primary resident in the United States while they study, they must obtain individual Form I-20s, but do not pay additional SEVIS fees.

Second Step: Apply for a VISA

There are several types of US VISAs available for application, and when it comes to studying in the United States, picking the right VISA is the first step of the application process.

A J-1 VISA is a non-immigrant visa issued by the United States for post-doctoral candidates and research scholars such as professors who participate in programs that promote scientific and cultural exchange. An F-1 VISA is a non-immigrant visa issued by the United States for language training programs, elementary & high schools, university, seminary, or conservatory schools. An M VISA is a non-immigrant via issued by the United States for nonacademic institutions such as vocational programs

There are several steps to apply for a visa. The order of these steps and how they are completed may vary at the individual U.S. Embassy or Consulate. However, these key documents must be fulfilled:

  • Valid Passport valid for travel to the United States at least six months beyond the period of stay
  • Form DS-160: Nonimmigrant VISA Application
  • Receipt Number for any approved petitions
  • A receipt showing payment of US$160 non-refundable non-immigrant visa application processing fee, paid in local currency.
  • An approved Form I-20 from your U.S. school or program.

Additional requested documents may include evidence of:

  • Academic transcripts, and other standardized test scores required by U.S. school;
  • Intent to depart the United States upon completion of the course of study;
  • Payment plan for all educational and living costs.

Third Step: VISA Interview Process

Whether the prospective student is applying under an M VISA, J-1 VISA, or F-1 VISA, they must interview with a consular officer before receiving the visa. While interviews are generally not required for applicants under 13, consular officers can require an interview of any applicant, regardless of age.

Wait times for interview appointments vary by location, season, and visa category, so all applicants should apply for the appropriate visa early. J, F-1, and M-1 student visas can be issued up to 120 days in advance of your course of study start date. However, student applicants will not be allowed to enter the United States in J, F-1, or M-1 VISA status earlier than 30 days before the start date.

During the visa interview, a consular officer will determine whether or not the applicant will receive a visa. When the visa is approved, the applicant may pay a visa issuance fee if applicable.

Fourth Step: Entering the United States

Once the VISA is received, F-1, M-1, and J visa applicant can enter the the United States up to 30 days before the start of their classes. Initially, it could take you a couple of days or even a week to set up a U.S. bank account, so one of the first things an applicant should do after landing is equip yourself with a couple of hundred dollars in cash to avoid credit or debit card fees.

Acquaint oneself with their new home—explore the university and its surrounding communities so that the experience is more comfortable and not so rushed once school begins.

When students complete a study program, they are allowed a 60-day grace period to either depart the U.S. or change visa status.

Re-Application Process

Each applicant must reapply for a VISA, including paying the necessary fees. Some applicants must complete another consulate interview. Other applicants must appear for the fingerprinting process. Other applicants have these processes waived. Since the US VISA renewal process can differ based on individual circumstances, it is recommended that individuals looking in to US VISA renewal should contact an attorney or other legal expert who specializes in immigration.

Individuals must complete the online VISA application and print the application form confirmation page to bring to your interview. Through the online application, the individual must upload a 2 in by 2 in photo and supply any appropriate documentation. Based on the individual VISA class, these required documents may differ. It is important to apply for the correct VISA class and provide correct documentation.

Individuals must schedule an appointment for the VISA interview at the US Embassy or Consulate in the country where you live. Wait times for interview appointments vary videly based on VISA class, time of year, or country of origin, so it is recommended that individuals apply for the VISA early, as to avoid problems in the US VISA renewal process.

Individuals seeking to renew their visas may be eligible, in certain cases, for the Interview Waiver Program (IWP), which allows individuals to apply for visa renewals without being interviewed in person.

Before the interview, it is also important to gather and bring the appropriate documents. These documents include:

  • Valid Passport valid for travel to the United States at least six months beyond the period of stay
  • Form DS-160: Nonimmigrant VISA Application
  • Receipt Number for any approved petitions
  • Legal Rights and Protections pamphlet
  • Proof of compelling ties to the individual’s home country, such as family, real estate, etc.

During an individual interview, a consular officer will decide on the VISA status, and which visa category is appropriate based on the purpose of travel. Fingerprint scans of any individuals will be taken as part of your application process. After the initial interview, the consular officer will make contact if any further administrative processing is required for the successful application, which may take additional time. Most administrative processing is resolved within 60 days of the initial VISA interview.
After completing the interview process, and once the individual is approved, the US VISA renewal process is over. Expect the passport with a stamped VISA to arrive via courier at a pre-disclosed destination.

Facilitating the Immigration Process

Whether applying for an F-1, M-1, or J VISA, the process of studying abroad is an enriching process, and by following the appropriate guidelines, with the assistance of trusted professionals, students and their families will have appropriate legal support in the United States, able to help in the transition process. From setting up a bank account and helping manage finances to navigating the immigration process, a team of professionals working on behalf of the student may be a prudent investment when considering studying abroad under a F-1, M-1, or J VISA.

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Beeraj Patel, Esq.

Partner at KPPB Law
Beeraj Patel's philosophy is simple - make it easy for talented and ambitious individuals to have access to immigration materials so that they can make the choice which is right for them.
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