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The ultimate guide to the F-1 visa

One million students study at U.S. schools each year to further their education and career. Many of these students, particularly though in high school or pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees, will apply for F-1 student visas.

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Types of U.S. student visas: which one is for me?

International students must obtain a U.S. student visa before they can legally attend school in the U.S. At the end of the educational program, student visa status will end, after which students must leave the country or adjust their status to a different type of visa.

The three most common types of student visas include:

  • F-1 visa : for high school students and college or university students

  • M-1 visa : for students who wish to complete vocational or nonacademic programs in the U.S. These programs, such as culinary programs, are normally short-term 

  • J-1 visa : for various types of exchange visitors, including students or graduate students completing research

In general, if you are an international student hoping to pursue full-time studies at a U.S. graduate or undergraduate program, the F-1 visa is usually the most appropriate choice. A J-1 visa may be a good option if you want to study in the U.S. for a few semesters and then transfer the credits back to an institution in your home country.

What is the F-1 visa?

The F-1 visa is designed to permit international students to live and study in the U.S. until the end of their degree programs. It generally does not allow you to work off-campus during your studies. However, there may be opportunities for training that relates to your degree through the OPT program—read on for more on how that works. The F-1 visa is not a dual-intent visa, which means that it will not allow you to permanently live in the U.S. You’ll be expected to return to your home country once you have completed your degree program unless you adjust to another type of visa. 

How do you get an F-1 visa?

You cannot apply for an F-1 visa until you have applied to and been accepted by a school that is approved by the Student Exchange and Visitor Program or SEVP. Under U.S. immigration law, all schools in the U.S. that enroll F-1 students must be certified to do so by the SEVP. After you have been admitted to your chosen school, you will then be allowed to start the visa application process. You can search for a SEVP-approved school on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's website.

You have to receive your F-1 visa before the start date of your academic program. You can receive your F-1 visa up to four months before the start date of your program, but you are not allowed to travel to the U.S. on your visa until 30 days before the program's start date.

Applying for an F-1 visa

There are multiple steps involved with applying for and securing an F-1 visa. We explain each step below:

1. Apply to and be accepted by a SEVP-approved school.

Before you can apply for an F-1 visa, you will need to be admitted to a SEVP-approved school in the U.S. Many undergraduate and graduate degree programs at U.S. schools require prospective students to submit their applications the year before the start of the academic term or early in the year that the term will start. For example, if your desired degree program begins in August, the school might want you to apply by December or January. Schools typically send their admissions decisions to their applicants in March or April. Make certain to confirm that the educational institution to which you are applying is SEVP-approved by using the search tool on the Department of Homeland Security's website.

2. Obtain a Form I-20 from your college or university.

After you are admitted by a school and have decided to enroll, the university or college will send you a Form I-20. This form is a certificate of your eligibility for status as a nonimmigrant student and includes important information about your academic program, your school and your SEVIS ID. You will need the Form I-20 at your visa interview and to pay the required fees.

3. Pay your I-901 SEVIS fee

After you receive Form I-20 from your college or university, pay the I-901 SEVIS fee. The U.S. Congress mandates this fee to support the SEVIS system and the program. As of 2020, the I-901 SEVIS fee is $350 for F-1 students. You can pay the I-901 SEVIS fee online on the Department of Homeland Security's website. The I-901 SEVIS fee is not the same thing as the visa application fee, which is paid separately. After you have paid the I-901 SEVIS fee, a confirmation page will appear. Print this receipt out and bring it with you to the visa interview.

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4. Locate the U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country.

To apply for the F-1 visa, you will need to go to a U.S. embassy or consulate. While you can apply for an F-1 visa in a different country than your own, it’s generally preferable to apply via the embassy in your country of residence. You can check to see where a U.S. embassy or consulate is located on the U.S. Department of State's website.

The application process for F-1 visas may slightly differ based on the embassy at which you apply. Some embassies may require you to submit additional documentation with your application. To learn what you will be required to submit, contact the U.S. embassy in your country or check its official website.

5. Complete and submit Form DS-160

Your next step will be to complete and submit Form DS-160, the nonimmigrant visa application, online. To complete the visa application, you will need to have your passport, your Form I-20, and a passport photograph to upload. If you’ve previously visited the U.S., be ready to provide the dates of your previous visits and evidence of any international travel that has occurred in the past five years. You may also need a curriculum vitae or a resume. When you complete your visa application, you can choose the U.S. embassy or consulate where your interview will be conducted.

The DS-160 form must be completed in English. You can review the DS-160 FAQ page if you have questions about how to complete the application. After you submit the Form DS-160, you will be given a confirmation page with a barcode. Make sure to print this page out and bring it with you to your interview.

6. Schedule the visa interview

Once you have completed and submitted the Form DS-160, it will be time for you to schedule the visa interview with the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy. Visa interview wait times vary from embassy to embassy, so check the visa appointment wait times page on the Department of State's website for more information

7. Pay the visa application fee.

The nonimmigrant visa application fee is $160. The U.S. embassy in your country of residence will provide you with instructions regarding when and how you should pay your fee. If you pay the fee before your interview date, save the receipt and bring it with you to your interview.

8. Go to your visa interview

The visa interview is the most important step in the F-1 visa application process. The embassy or consular officer who interviews you will decide whether or not your application is approved. You will need to gather multiple items and types of documentary evidence in advance of your interview. At a minimum, you should gather all of the following together to take with you:

  • Your valid passport

  • A copy of a U.S.-approved passport photograph

  • The DS-160 confirmation page and bar code

  • The confirmation page from the payment of the I-901 SEVIS fee

  • The receipt for the payment of the visa application fee

  • The original Form I-20 that you received from your school

You might also be asked to bring some additional documents, including the following:

  • SAT or ACT scores if they are required by your university

  • TOEFL scores if English is not your first language

  • Official transcripts from any universities or colleges that you have previously attended

  • Diplomas or degrees from high schools, universities or colleges that you have attended

  • Proof that you will have enough funds to support yourself in the U.S. during your academic program

  • Proof that you intend to return to your home country after you finish your studies such as deeds to property, membership in various organizations or family ties that evidence your close relationship to your community

  • If you are married, and your spouse intends to travel with you, your marriage certificate and evidence that your marital relationship is valid such as guest lists, receipts for your wedding reception and honeymoon, and others

  • If you intend to bring your minor child with you to the U.S., you will need to provide a copy of his or her birth certificate

After you arrive at the embassy or consulate for your interview, you will go through a security check and be asked to provide digital fingerprints.

Your interview will be conducted in English. The embassy official or consular officer who interviews you will ask you questions that will primarily focus on why you have decided to study at the college or university that you have chosen and what you plan to do once you graduate with your degree. You need to tell the interviewer that you plan to return to your home country once you graduate with your degree. If the interviewing official isn’t satisfied that you have demonstrated an intent to return to your home country post-program, your application may be denied.

If your interview is successful, you will be told when and how you will receive your passport with the F-1 visa stamp.

9. If required to do so, pay the visa issuance fee

Some international students are required to pay visa issuance fees after they have been approved for F-1 visas. Whether this fee is required or not depends on your nationality and your country’s reciprocity agreement with the U.S. You can look up your country on the visa reciprocity page to learn more. 

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10. Receive your F-1 visa

After you have completed all of the required steps and have been approved for an F-1 visa to study in the U.S., the embassy will return your passport with an F-1 visa stamp. Some embassies mail the passports directly to the F-1 visa holders while others require F-1 visa holders to pick up their passports in person.

Visa processing times will vary depending on your embassy. You can get an estimate as to how long your visa will take to process by going to the US visas website.

Denials of F-1 visa applications

There are several reasons why your application might be denied. Typically, a denial occurs when an applicant does not meet a specific requirement either before or during the visa interview. Some of the grounds for denials of F-1 student visas are detailed below.

If your application is denied, the embassy will tell you the reason for the rejection. You will not receive a refund of the fees that you have paid if your visa application is denied. If you still need to get a student visa, you will have to start the process all over. Thankfully, however, the majority of F-1 visa applications are approved.

Failure to prove sufficient funds

One of the most common reasons that international students are denied F-1 visas is a failure to provide proof of sufficient funds. You need to be able to provide proof that you have enough money available to last at least one full academic year. You should bring proof of your funds to your visa interview such as bank statements.

Failing to prove intent to return home after the end of your program

The F-1 visa is not a dual-intent visa, which means that you must demonstrate that you intend to return to your home country after you complete your studies instead of remaining in the U.S. The government wants assurance that you will not overstay your visa. You will need to provide proof of your intent to return home once you complete your academic program in the U.S. Some examples of proof could include deeds to real property, evidence of your membership in various organizations, family ties and ties to your community. Bring whatever proof that you have with you to your visa interview and make certain to clearly state that you intend to return home after you secure your degree.

Security check failure 

If you have committed certain types of criminal offenses in the past, you may be ineligible for an F-1 visa. There are many different types of crimes that can make you ineligible, including crimes of moral turpitude, drug offenses, prostitution, money laundering and human trafficking. Similarly, if the government determines that you might pose a threat to the national security of the U.S., your application will be denied.

Failure to bring all required documents to the visa interview

If you do not bring the required documents and items to your visa interview, your application for an F-1 visa can be rejected. Gather all required documents before your interview and double-check that you have everything required by the U.S. consulate or embassy where your interview will be conducted.

Failure to show up on time or at all to the interview

If you fail to show up for your interview, your visa application may be rejected. Similarly, if you are late for your interview, your visa application may likewise be rejected.

Applying for an F-1 visa too late

If you do not file your visa application on time so that you can begin your program, you will likely be ineligible for an F-1 visa. Make sure to begin the process as soon as you receive your Form I-20 from your school. You have to receive your F-1 visa before the start date of your program.

How to ensure that your visa application process is smooth

Make certain to start the visa application process early. If you apply for your F-1 visa shortly before the start date of your program, your application will most likely be rejected. Try to submit your application as soon as you receive the Form I-20 and your notice of acceptance from your university or college. If you apply to several colleges and universities, wait to apply for your F-1 visa until you have heard from all of them or have been accepted to your top choice school.

Do not purchase your plane tickets until you have received your F-1 visa. Even if you are certain that you will be approved, there is no guarantee. If you buy a plane ticket before you are approved for your F-1 visa and are subsequently denied for the visa, your airline tickets are unlikely to be refunded. 

Finally, contact the embassy or consulate if you have questions. Your embassy or consulate may have a process that slightly varies from the general steps that we have described. The embassy or consulate that will conduct your interview is the best resource for any questions.

Keeping your F-1 status valid post-arrival

Once your F-1 visa is approved, you will be allowed to travel to the U.S. to study at your university or college. You will not be allowed to enter more than 30 days in advance of the start date of your program, however. After your arrival, you must maintain your F-1 visa status. If you violate the terms of your F-1 visa, you won't be able to reenter the U.S. after you leave, and you will not be allowed to participate in Optional Practical Training. Here are some things to keep in mind so that you can maintain your valid F-1 visa status.

When you arrive

Schedule your plane tickets so that you will not arrive in the U.S. more than 30 days before the start date of your academic program. After you arrive, immediately contact the designated school official at your university or college to let him or her know that you have entered the U.S. You must contact the DSO again before the first day of your classes.

During your studies

You have to study full-time at your school. Make sure to attend all of your classes and keep passing grades in each course. If you are struggling in a class, talk to your DSO as soon as possible. He or she might refer you to tutoring services. You should avoid dropping any classes without talking to your DSO first. If you think that you will not be able to finish your degree program by the end date that appears on your Form I-20, talk to your DSO. He or she might help you to ask for a program extension.

Make sure that your passport is valid for at least six months beyond the end date of your degree program. If your passport will expire before you finish your degree, talk to your home country's embassy or consulate to get it renewed. When you travel around in the U.S., take a copy of your passport and your I-94 with you for identification. If you change your address, visa status, or plans for study, notify the DSO at your school.

Working

F-1 visa students are not allowed to work off-campus unless they are participating in the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which will be discussed in more detail later in this article. You also may not work during your first full year of studies, including through the OPT program. After your first year, you may be able to find an on-campus job, but you will not be allowed to work more than 20 hours per week while school is in session or a maximum of 40 hours per week between your academic terms.

After you complete your degree

If you are not participating in post-completion OPT, you will have to leave the U.S. within 60 days of completing your degree. Do not overstay your visa. If you do, you may be barred from reentering the U.S. If you overstay your visa for more than 180 days but less than one year, you will be barred from re-entry for three years. If you overstay your visa by one year or longer, you will be barred from re-entry for 10 years.

If you want to stay in the U.S. beyond your degree completion date, you will need to enroll in a new academic program such as one leading to a Master's or Ph.D., transfer to a new university to receive a new Form I-20, apply to adjust your visa status to a different visa status or participate in post-completion OPT. Otherwise, make arrangements to leave the U.S. within 60 days of when you graduate.

Work opportunities for F-1 visa students

F-1 visa students are generally not allowed to work off-campus. You might be able to work at an on-campus job or to work through Optional Practical Training if you are eligible. You will need to talk to your DSO to learn about the options that might be available to you. If you work without obtaining the proper authorization, your visa can be revoked, and you can be forced to leave the U.S.

Optional practical training for F-1 visa holders

Optional practical training or OPT is a type of authorized work that may be available to F-1 visa holders. OPT must directly relate to the major fields of study of the F-1 students.

The DSO must make the recommendation for OPT and enter it into the student's SEVIS record. He or she will then endorse the student's Form I-20. It will be up to the student to apply for employment authorization by applying to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. The student may not begin working through OPT until he or she receives the employment authorization document or EAD. The authorized start date for the employment will be listed on the EAD.

Types of OPT

There are three types of optional practical training. Pre-completion OPT is OPT that is used before the F-1 student completes their degree. A total of 12 months of OPT is available to F-1 students at each level of higher education. Any portion of OPT used before a person finishes his or her degree will be subtracted from the total allotted amount. If an F-1 student later pursues a Master's degree, he or she will have an additional 12 months of pre- or post-completion OPT available at a higher level of study.

Post-completion OPT is available for up to 12 months after a student has completed his or her studies. Pre- and post-completion OPT employment must be directly related to the F-1 student's major degree program. Post-completion OPT must be full-time employment. Pre-completion OPT employment may be up to 20 hours per week when school is in session and up to 40 hours per week when school is not in session.

For F-1 visa holders who graduate with STEM degrees in specific fields, the STEM OPT extension might be available. This option provides F-1 visa holders with the opportunity to extend their post-completion OPT by up to 24 months. To check if your science, technology, engineering, or math degree qualifies you for the STEM OPT extension, you can take a look at the designated STEM degree list on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement website.

Finally, F-1 students who have H-1B applications pending may qualify for the cap-gap OPT extension. Many F-1 students will have their OPT eligibility expire before a decision is made on an H-1B petition. Because of this, the government provides a cap-gap extension that extends the OPT up to Oct. 1 or until the H-1B decision is made. If the H-1B petition is denied, the OPT authorization will end. If it is approved, the adjustment of status to the H-1B visa will begin when the H-1B authorization starts on Oct. 1.

Who is eligible for OPT?

To be eligible for OPT, the student must complete one year of full-time studies at a SEVP-approved university, college, conservatory, or seminary. F-1 students who are studying English as a second language do not qualify. The employment must be directly related to the F-1 student's major study area. Students who have already used all of the OPT allotment for their levels are not eligible. For example, if an F-1 student worked for 12 months through pre-completion OPT, he or she will not be eligible for the 12 months of regular post-completion OPT. Students who have been authorized to work for 12 or more months of curricular practical training also do not qualify for OPT.

The OPT application process

To apply for OPT, you must meet with the DSO at your school and ask for him or her to recommend OPT. 

The DSO will review your visa status to make certain that it remains valid and that you have completed or will soon complete one year of full-time academic studies for pre-completion OPT, that you will graduate with your degree within 90 days or have graduated in the past 60 days for post-completion OPT. He or she will also review the intended employment to ensure that it directly relates to your major area of study or your degree.

If the DSO agrees to recommend your OPT, he or she will endorse the Form I-20 and will enter the recommendation into your SEVIS record. You will then need to apply for employment authorization with the USCIS by filing Form I-765 and the supporting documents along with the required fee of $410. You cannot begin working in your OPT employment until you are notified that your application has been approved, and you have received your employment authorization document or EAD.

Your application for pre-completion OPT can be filed up to 90 days before you finish your first year of full-time academic studies at a SEVP-approved institution. If you want to apply for post-completion OPT, the application window is up to 90 days before you graduate to 60 days after your graduation. You may not apply outside of this window. If 60 days have passed since you graduated, you will need to leave the U.S.

To apply for the STEM OPT extension, you will need to ask your DSO for a recommendation. After he or she endorses your Form I-20 and enters the recommendation into the SEVIS record, you must apply for the extension within 60 days. You are allowed to apply for the STEM OPT extension up to 90 days before your regular post-completion OPT period is scheduled to expire. If you timely file an application for the STEM OPT extension, your OPT employment authorization will automatically be extended for 180 days if your OPT period expires while your application for the extension is pending. The 180-day extension will end once the USCIS decides on your application for the STEM OPT extension.

Finally, if you begin studying at a different educational level while you are on OPT, your employment authorization will terminate. Your authorization will also terminate if you transfer to a different university or college while you are on OPT. While your employment authorization will end in these situations, it will not impact your F-1 student visa status. However, if you continue to work after your EAD has been terminated, you will violate your visa status. Working without a valid employment authorization can result in deportation and removal proceedings and a bar to reentering the U.S. Follow the rules so that you will not violate your visa status. If you believe that your employment authorization was terminated in error, talk to your DSO to find out how to ask for a reconsideration of the decision.

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Adjustments of status from an F-1 visa to an H-1B visa

Many F-1 visa holders want to adjust their statuses from F-1 visas to H-1B visas. Unlike F-1 visas, H-1B visas can potentially provide an avenue to the visa holders to become lawful permanent residents. By contrast, F-1 visa holders are expected to return to their home countries once their F-1 visa statuses expire along with any OPT authorizations.

To adjust your status from an F-1 visa to an H-1B visa, you must find a qualifying employer willing to sponsor your petition. You cannot petition for an H-1B visa on your own. The employer must be willing to pay you the prevailing wage for the work that it pays to other workers in your area. The employment must require at least a bachelor's degree, and the employer must participate in E-verify. If you find an H-1B employer that wants to hire you, the employer will need to register you electronically during March. At the beginning of April, the government will randomly select from the pool of registrants to apply for H-1B visas.

There is an annual cap of 65,000 H-1B visas that can be issued. If you have a Master's degree, there are an additional 20,000 H-1B visas available at that level. If you are selected from the pool of registrants, the H-1B employer will then need to timely file an application for an H-1B visa on your behalf. It can take several months for an H-1B visa petition to be approved by USCIS. If you are working through OPT, you can apply for a cap-gap extension of your OPT employment authorization so that you can continue working until the USCIS decides on your H-1B visa application. If you are approved, your H-1B status will begin on October 1 when your H-1B employment begins. If your application is denied, your OPT authorization will automatically terminate and you will need to leave the U.S.

While it is possible to transition from an F-1 visa directly to an H-1B visa without participating in post-completion OPT, it is more difficult. Working through post-completion OPT can give you more time to find an H-1B employer to sponsor you.

Your options when your F-1 visa status ends

When your F-1 visa and any OPT employment authorization end, you will have a couple of options. You can adjust your status to a different visa status or leave the U.S. and return to your home country. You should never overstay your F-1 visa. If you do so, you will begin accruing “unlawful presence.” If you accrue 180 days up to one year of unlawful presence, you will be barred from returning to the U.S. for three years. If you overstay your visa by a year or more, you will be barred from returning for 10 years.

You can also enroll in a SEVP-approved institution to pursue a higher level of education. For example, if you enroll in a Master's or Ph.D. program, you can continue studying in the U.S. on an F-1 visa. You will have new opportunities to participate in OPT employment at that level, but you will need to go through the application process again with your school's DSO and the USCIS.

Some F-1 visa holders apply for adjustments of status based on marriages to U.S. citizens. To secure a marriage-based visa, your spouse will need to file the petition for you. It is important to note that the USCIS thoroughly investigates marriage-based visa applications to determine whether the marriage is valid. 

You and your spouse will be interviewed, and you will have to provide proof that you have a bona fide marriage. Some examples of the types of proof that you might need to provide include your guest list, receipts for your honeymoon expenses, a lease in both of your names or joint bank account documents. If the USCIS official determines that your marriage is valid, you will be able to adjust your F-1 visa status to conditional residency. You can later apply to adjust to lawful permanent residency after you have maintained your conditional permanent resident status for two years by filing Form I-751.

The takeaway

An F-1 visa can open the doors to many opportunities. Some of the SEVP-approved schools in the U.S. are among the best in the world. As an F-1 visa holder, you will also have the opportunity to receive further training in your field of study for up to 12 months after you graduate through the OPT program or for an additional 24 months through the STEM OPT extension. While you are expected to return to your home country after your studies, you can apply to adjust your status to a different visa type such as the H-1B visa or a marriage-based Green Card. If you reach that point, you might want to work with an immigration law attorney to make sure your filing process is smooth. 

After you have received notice that you have been approved for an F-1 visa, you will likely be actively planning for traveling to the U.S. Besides purchasing plane tickets to arrive within 30 days of the start date of your academic program, you will want to take other measures to ease your transition to life in the States. For example, prospective landlords will want to check your credit history to decide whether to lease an apartment to you and banks will check your credit score before approving an application for a credit card. Nova Credit allows you to use international credit history from over a dozen countries to qualify for products and services in the U.S. Learn more about how you can transfer your credit history today. 

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