You’ve chosen your dream US university, applied, and maybe even received an acceptance already. Whichever stage of the study abroad application process you’re in, it’s never too early to start looking into visa applications. We don’t want to spook you, but the student visa application process can indeed be long and at times complex. That’s all the more reason to get to work on it early! The extra time to understand what’s going on at every stage of the process and make sure you’re checking off all the right boxes helps you put together an error-free application. The more complete your student visa application, the greater your chances of visa acceptance with plenty of time to arrive in the USA before your classes! Here’s what you need to know about US student visa requirements.
Your Complete US Student Visa Guideline
Which Student Visa Is the Right One For Me?
As an international student - or a nonimmigrant student - you’re going to need a student visa to live and study in the USA. The type of visa you get depends on the type of course and school you’re enrolling in! For universities and colleges, you qualify for the F-1 student visa. If any dependents - for example, a spouse and/or your underage children - are coming with you to live in the USA, they qualify for the F-2 visa. The F-1 visa also applies to students in other academic institutions, for example in a language training program.
On the other hand, if you’re enrolling in a vocational school or other non-academic institution (barring language training programs), you qualify for the M-1 visa. M-2 visas, like the F-2 visas, apply for your dependents.
As an applicant to a US university or college, you're looking at an F-1 student visa application. Now that we've settled which visa applies to you, let's get right into the application process.
1. Get Admission into a SEVP-Certified School
You’re going to be running into quite a few abbreviations during your student visa applications. And the SEVP is as good a place as any to start understanding them. The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program. Specifically, this program coordinates between the relevant government factions, schools, and international students and their dependents for related matters. The program helps the government manage and track incoming and outgoing students in the interests of national security, as well as giving support to schools hosting international students.
So, a SEVP-approved school is a US institute that has official state authorisation to enrol and teach international students. To get a US student visa, you must have acceptance from a SEVP-certified school!
2. Fill Up the Form I-20 and Pay Your SEVIS Fee
Here’s another abbreviation for you - and this one’s very important to know too - the DSO. A Designated School Official (DSO) is an individual who represents your chosen school in immigration matters alongside other processes involving international students. The DSO works with schools, students, and the relevant government authorities for things like registering students to start off visa applications. It’s a good idea, therefore, to get in touch with your DSO early on. They can assist you later too when you want to get your driver’s license or work as a student in the USA.
Once you get admission into your SEVP-approved school, your DSO registers you into the SEVIS (Student Exchange Visitor Information System). They also send you Form I-20, a crucial document you must fill out and keep the original copy of throughout your international student journey. This Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status form is one of the most important components of your student visa application. Both you and your DSO will sign the Form I-20 and you must bring this signed copy to your student visa interview and show it upon arrival in the USA.
You also need to pay the I-901 SEVIS fee - this amounts to USD 350 for both F and M visa applicants. You have to wait until your Form I-20 before making this payment since you’ll need details like the school code and SEVIS identification number you’ll find on that document. Other details you’ll need for the payment include:
- Date of birth
- Email address
- Country of birth and citizenship
3. Complete the Online Application
The next step, after filling out your Form I-20 and paying the I-901 SEVIS fee, is tackling the Form DS-160. This is the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application form, which you complete online and send electronically to the Department of State. To complete this form, you need the following information and items:
- Your passport
- Travel details (if you already booked a flight)
- Your international travel history (including the dates of your five previous trips to the USA)
- SEVIS ID - which you’ll find on your Form I-20
- Program number, program name, university name, and university address
Filling out the Form DS-160 also involves uploading a digital photograph of yourself. The US student visa picture requirements for digital photographs are as follows:
- In-colour - 24-bit per pixel, sRGB colour space
- Aspect ratio of a minimum of 600 x 600 and a maximum of 1,200 x 1,200
- JPEG format
- File size must be 240 kilobytes or less. You may need to compress the file to fit within the maximum allowed file size
You can also upload a scanned image provided it’s:
- 2 x 2 inches
- Has a 300 pixels per inch resolution
When beginning your application, you will receive an Application ID after verifying where you’re applying from and doing a security check. Note and secure this Application ID - you’re going to need it to resume your application if you click away from or close the browser.
Once you sign and submit your application, you’ll see the Confirmation page. Don’t click away, because you’re going to need this page and the barcode on it for your visa interview. Print the page out and make sure that the barcode shows up clearly.
4. Set Up Your Visa Interview
As an applicant between the ages of 14 and 79, you’re most likely going to need to sit for a visa interview. To schedule one, visit the website of the US embassy or consulate in your country! Note that the wait time before you can get an appointment varies from country to country. To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, here are the wait times of Student/Exchange Visitor Visa interviews across locations within the same geographic region:
|Location||Visa Interview Appointment Wait Time|
|Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia||28 calendar days|
|Jakarta, Indonesia||8 calendar days|
|Mumbai, India||38 calendar days|
|Dhaka, Bangladesh||20 calendar days|
Since specific steps of your application process can take a while, we recommend starting early to give yourself enough time to secure your visa and fly off to the USA in time for your classes. You can check the approximate wait times for visa interview appointments at your location here.
5. Prepare for Your Visa Interview
The US embassy or consulate in your country may have specific requirements or a specific order to meet these requirements for the application and interview. So, we highly recommend looking into the particulars for your interview location!
Here’s a brief overview of the US student visa interview requirements in the following locations:
|US Student Visa Requirements in Malaysia|
|US Student Visa Requirements for Indonesia|
|US Student Visa Requirements for India|
|US Student Visa Requirements for Singapore|
|US Student Visa Requirements in Bangladesh|
Note that these are general overviews of a few specific locations - your application and interview requirements may vary. So, it’s very, very important you look into your region-specific requirements per your local US consulate or embassy! For instance, depending on where you’re applying from, you may need to pay the application fee - of USD 160 - before your interview. Depending on your nationality, you may also need to pay additional issuance fees after getting your visa.
Alongside the specific documents you need to bring with you to the interview, the consular officer may also ask to see documents validating your:
- Educational background and academic performance
- Proof of finances
- Intent to return to your home country after you finish your degree
6. What to Expect During the Student Visa Interview
The consular officer who interviews you wants to make sure you’re a legitimate student fitting the lawful criteria for US student visa requirements. A “legitimate student” is someone who has genuine intentions of going to the US to complete their study program and return to their home country following completion. Now, as an international student, you might already be considering post-study work opportunities in the USA. Don’t worry - you can still pursue those opportunities after you get your student visa.
Consular officers look out for whether your primary and central objective is to study in the USA and for your willingness and intention to return to your home country after you complete your program. This helps them eliminate candidates who are using the student visa to enter the USA, but don’t intend to study there and may end up staying and working in the USA without authorisation. So, what types of questions will consular officers ask to gauge your authentic study intent?
"Why the USA?"
Why did you apply to study in the USA rather than completing your studies in your own country? You want to give thoughtful answers here, rather than casual, superficial, or vague responses like “I wanted to come here because of my favourite TV shows” or “I have relatives here.”
Discuss instead how you feel you can secure a better job back home with this degree. Perhaps the USA and your chosen program stand out in global rankings and reputation for the highest quality of education, research, innovation, etc. in your field. You could highlight whether your country lacks programs of this calibre. Perhaps you prefer the flexible nature of the education system in the US, where you can spend a couple of years trying out different disciplines before declaring a major. Centre your answers and your approach to them around why the USA specifically will help your academic pursuits. Your consular officer may ask you about your study plans - how does doing your degree in the USA elevate these plans? How does it give you an edge in your field of specialisation that you wouldn’t get back home? Help your consular officer see that your decision was a deliberate and well-thought-out one.
"Why this University?"
Again, the depth of your knowledge about the university you want to study in helps consular officers understand your intentions as a legitimate student. Why did you choose this particular university? How specific can you get about the department, faculty, professors, and alumni? Why are you excited to pursue your chosen field at this university? You could discuss how well the university ranks for a particular subject or the professors who specialise in your field under whom you wish to mentor. Even knowing the exact location of your university shows your consular officers that you truly intend to study in your chosen university. They will see, through your answers and the extent of your knowledge about your university that you have genuine intent to see your studies through in the USA.
Your Educational Background and History
Discussing your academic background and accomplishments also helps consular officers scope your potential to succeed and take advantage of the opportunity to study in the USA. This could include your English proficiency test scores - since the consular officer will want to know that you have a strong working knowledge of the language you’ll be studying in and using most of the time during your stay in the USA. Other exam scores, like GRE and GMAT scores or other subject-specific exams, also help establish your intent as a legitimate student for your program. Keep your test scores, your high school and above transcripts and academic certificates, etc. handy in case your consular officer asks to see these!
Your Proof of Finances
Before sending you Form I-20, your DSO will first confirm that you have the financial ability to cover your studies and stay in the USA. This includes being able to cover the costs of your tuition fees, study materials, living and travel expenses, etc. throughout your study. You’ll need to show this proof when you’re applying for your visa and also when you arrive in the USA. Both your consular officer and the US Customs and Border Protection Officer at your port of entry want to see that you have the ability to support yourself throughout your studies. Again, this helps them see that you’re a legitimate student with the ability to complete your program and return to your home country.
Being able to give detailed answers about your sponsor, your tuition fees, how much you expect to pay in accommodation and for meals, insurance, etc. helps your consular officer get an idea of your financial planning to study in the USA.
As much as you might be intending to stay and work in the USA after graduating, you want to show your consular officer that you have the ability and intention to return home. Rather than saying you plan to stay with your relatives in the US, for example, you could detail your plans to begin a start-up or to join a particular profession back home. Describe the career you are planning on entering after completing your program. Mentioning plans that involve staying in the USA past your study program is a red flag to consular officers that your primary intention is not to study in the USA. Once you have your student visa, you can pursue legitimate pathways for post-study opportunities.
7. After Your Interview
If your application is successful, you will receive instructions on how to pick up or receive your passport with your student visa from your local US consulate or embassy. In some cases, the consular officer may ask for your application to undergo additional administrative processing. They may require information from other sources to validate your eligibility for the visa! The embassy or consulate will let you know if further administrative processing is necessary.
Typically, as a new student, you can get your visa up to 120 days before the date you start your program. However, you can only arrive in the USA 30 days before the program start date and not before.
Note, also, that getting the visa isn’t a sure-fire guarantee that you can enter the US. The visa authorises you to fly to a US port of entry. At this port of entry, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer will review your documents - including your passport, the visa, the original Form I-20, etc. Make sure you have everything you need on hand, in your carry-on luggage, when you arrive in the States!
Our key piece of advice when it comes to checking off the US student visa requirements is simple - start early. The process can feel long and at times overwhelming - which is why starting early helps you approach it calmly and methodically. You have more time to research everything you need to apply, fill up and secure forms, schedule appointments, practice for your student visa interview, etc. By making sure you don’t rush any stage of your application, you reduce the room for error. And the more time you get to take to put together a complete application, the stronger your chances of acceptance!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How many years’ visa does the US give for students?
Both the F-1 and F-2 visa has 60-month (5-year) validity.
How much bank balance is required for a US student visa?
As part of the conditions you need to meet to get the Form I-20, your DSO will verify that you have sufficient funds to cover your tuition fees, study materials, living expenses, etc. throughout your study. This financial information could be:
- Family bank statements
- Documents from your sponsor
- Financial aid letters
- Scholarship letters
- Letter from an employer indicating your annual salary
Schools may have specific requirements for the types of financial proof they accept. Be sure to look into what these are for the schools you’re applying to!
How much funds are required for a US student visa?
After receiving Form I-20, you will need to pay the USD 350 I-901 SEVIS fee. For the visa application itself, you also need to pay USD 160. Depending on your nationality, you may pay issuance fees after receiving your visa too.
When applying to your chosen university, you also need to provide proof of your finances. These documents indicate that you can financially cover your time studying and staying in the USA. You'll be needing this proof of financial support during your visa application too. How much you will need in funds will depend on your chosen university, program-specific tuition fees, and where you will be staying too.
Can the US student visa get rejected?
If the consular officer finds that your application does not fit the criteria of student visa eligibility under US law, it could get a rejection.
What are the US student visa vaccination requirements for Covid-19?
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mandates that all international students complete their Covid-19 vaccination courses before travelling to the USA. Accepted vaccines include:
- Johnson & Johnson
When arriving in the USA, you must show a negative Covid-19 test result taken one day before your flight so you can board the plane. If you’re recovering from Covid-19, you will need to bring documentation showing you recovered fully, along with a letter from a licensed medical professional stating that it’s safe for you to travel.