Navigating the Student Visa in Seven Steps
As the saying goes, “Travel broadens the mind,” and young adults more than ever are looking into their options to study abroad and be exposed to new cultures. The U.S. welcomes over one million students each academic year. This guide will provide you with a road map to obtain a student visa.
Plan Ahead - Failing to plan is planning to failProper planning is fundamental to the successful and timely obtaining of your student visa. You will want to start planning as early as possible, ideally, at least a year prior to the academic year in which you intend to start studying in the U.S. Your first step should be to research and come up with a list of schools that match your priorities and educational goals. A few important things to consider during that process include academic ranking, the different academic programs offered, location, costs and admission requirements. Make sure the schools you select have been certified by the Student Exchange Visitor Program. As you research your future school you will notice that most schools have similar admission requirements. You should create a table to help you keep track of the requirements. You will most likely need to:
- Take the TOEFL or IELTS to show your proficiency in spoken and written English.
- Obtain official or certified copies of your academic records (usually all secondary school records and/or examination results). Note that you will need to obtain certified English translations for records in a foreign language, and you will need to obtain a course-by-course evaluation report with grade point calculation if your educational system does not follow a U.S. grading scale (A, B, C, D, F or 0 - 100).
- Provide financial information - Studying in the U.S. is an investment, and you should start evaluating your finances and figuring out how you will pay for your studies. As an international student, you likely have to pay higher tuition fees than local students. You will need to be able to show that you have the financial means to cover your tuition and cost of living for the duration of your program. If you think that you will need financial assistance then you will need to look at financial aid, scholarships, and student loan options. Although the cost of attending college in the U.S. has gotten more expensive, you will likely find that the benefits of studying abroad and earning a U.S. degree are still significant enough that it is worth it.
Applying & Getting AcceptedIf you’ve done step one properly, the application process will go smoothly as your table will help you keep track of all the requirements. Make sure to dedicate enough time to this step to craft a successful application. Keep in mind that you are competing not only with students all over the U.S. but also all over the world. You’ll need to find the best ways to present your profile to show what you will bring into the school and why they should pick you over another student. It would be wise not to put all your eggs in one basket, and you should apply to several schools. It may be costly and time-consuming, but it will increase your chances of success. If you get accepted into several schools, you will have the opportunity to compare their admission offers and pick the one that best suits your goals. Obtaining several offers can also give you some leeway to negotiate a better offer. For instance, if School A was your top choice and offered you a scholarship, but School C offers you a scholarship and in-state tuition, you may want to reach out to School A and ask them if they are willing to match School C’s offer. If they really want you and do not want to risk losing you, they may just accept. This process can be stressful, but be sure to always remember your value. Keep in mind that you bring value to the school, and your attendance will be a great contribution to the school’s community.
Obtain your Form I-20 & submit your Nonimmigrant Visa Application/DS 160After you’ve accepted your offer, the school (usually International Student Services) will issue your Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. They will typically mail it to you. When you receive it, you should carefully review the Form I-20 and verify that all the information is accurate. You will then pay your SEVIS Fee and complete your Nonimmigrant Visa Application (DS 160). At that time, you should also check the website of your local U.S. Embassy and review their rules for student visa interviews. The interview scheduling process will be different for each country. Plan to schedule the interview as early as you can but no more than 120 days before your program begins.
Attend your Consular InterviewYou should approach the consular interview as having a conversation with the consular officer to discuss your project to study in the U.S. You do not need to study for the interview. Just be yourself and make sure that you have all your required documents. Required documents will include:
- Original I-20
- DS-160 Confirmation Page
- Passport - Must be valid for at least six months
- A Passport size photo
- Visa Application Fee Receipt
- Sevis Fee Receipt
When you arrive at the embassy or consulate, you will first go through security. Each embassy has its own rules, and they are usually strict about what you can bring in. Make sure to review their website to avoid any unnecessary stress on the day of the interview. If you bring unauthorized items, you may be forced to throw them away or leave them in a locker. After you’ve gone through security, your fingerprints will be collected electronically. You will then meet with the consular officer. The officer will want to assess the following topics:
- Who you are and what ties you have to your home country. This is an opportunity for you to discuss your academic journey with the officer. 2
- What you are planning to do in the U.S. This is the opportunity for you to discuss what you plan to study.
- How you are going to pay for your studies and for your living expenses in the U.S. You should be prepared to show evidence that you have funds in hand for the first year of your program and a plan for the following years.
- What you want to do when you finish your studies. Be prepared to discuss your post-graduation plans and your intent to return to your country.
- The extent of your English language skills. The interview will usually be in English unless your I-20 states that you need to study English. The officer will assess that you can have an academic conversation and can be successful in your program.
There is no cap and no quota for student visas. Therefore, as long as the consular officer is able to assess your eligibility, you should get your visa. After the interview, the officer will keep your passport and mail it back to you with the visa inside.
Arriving in the U.S.You will be authorized to enter the U.S. no more than 30 days before the start of your program. You must travel with your passport with your student visa and your Initial Attendance I-20. Make sure to carry both your passport and your I-20 with you. Do not leave your I-20 in your checked luggage as you will need it to go through immigration (customs) at the airport upon arriving in the U.S.
Upon arrival, you will have another “mini” interview with an immigration officer. Although people are often anxious when they go through customs, you should just be yourself and answer the officer’s questions. He will check your documents and provide you with an admission stamp in your passport.
Check in with your School/Report to your Designated Student Official (DSO)When you enter the United States and arrive at your destination, you will be required to check in with your school. Your school will provide you with the information relative to their check-in process and time frame. You will have to bring your passport, visa, admission record (I-94), I-20 and any other documents required by the school. You will be assigned a Designated Student Official (DSO). Their primary responsibility will be to ensure your successful transition to the school community. Your DSO will be your primary resource for your immigration, academic, cultural and even personal concerns.
Start Your Program and Maintain your StatusThe fun part begins! You’ve worked hard to get where you are, but it’s not the time to relax. Focus on your program and give it 100%.
You should always keep in mind your immigration status and the rules that you have to follow as failing to maintain your status could have serious consequences. Stay in touch with your DSO and your international student adviser, and don’t hesitate to reach out to them if you have any questions.
Seven tips to maintain your status:
1 - Check-in with your international student adviser often
2 - Maintain full-time enrollment. Talk to your international student adviser if you need to reduce your course load.
3 - Keep your passport valid
4 - Extend your I-20 or apply for a new I-20 as needed
5 - Obtain permission before engaging in an internship or any type of employment
6 - Carry your passport and your admission record (I-94) with you at all times. You can obtain your I-94 by visiting https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/#/home
7 - Depart the U.S. or change your status before the expiration of your authorized period of stay