F1 visa to study in the USA
If you are an overseas national wanting to pursue a full-time course of studies in the USA, you may first need to apply for an F-1 visa. The following guide for F-1 visa applicants looks at the various different aspects of this nonimmigrant visa, from what this visa category is and what it allows, to ways in which you can stay on in the USA on expiry of this visa.
What is the F-1 visa?
There are two nonimmigrant visa categories for those wanting to study in the United States: the F-1 visa and the M-1 visa, where M-1 students are those enrolling in vocational courses, while F-1 students are those enrolling in more traditional academic courses.
Your course of study and the type of institution that you are proposing to attend in the USA will determine whether you need an F-1 or an M-1 visa.
What does the F-1 visa allow?
The F-1 visa will allow you to come to the USA as a full-time student at either an accredited college, university, school or other academic institution, or on a language training programme. You must be enrolled in a programme or course of study that results in either a degree, diploma or certificate, and your academic institution must be authorised to accept international students. Once approved for an F-1 visa, this will allow you to study on a qualifying full-time course in the United States for the length of that course.
F-1 visa requirements
You can apply for an F-1 visa provided you meet all of the following criteria:
- you must be enrolled in an academic educational or language-training programme
- your academic institution in the USA must be approved by the Student and Exchange Visitors Program (SEVP)
- you must be enrolled as a full-time student at this institution
- you must be proficient in English or be enrolled in a course leading to English proficiency
- you must have sufficient available funds to support yourself during your entire proposed course of study in the USA, including tuition costs and living expenses
- you must maintain a residence and close ties abroad.
How to apply for an F-1 visa
The first step to obtaining your F-1 visa is to apply to a SEVP-approved academic institution. Once that institution has accepted your enrolment, you will then be registered for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), at which stage the institution will issue you with a Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.
After you receive your Form I-20 and register in SEVIS, you may apply at a US Embassy or Consulate for an F-1 visa using Form DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application. As part of the application process, you will need to schedule an appointment for an interview. Your Form I-20 and proof of your SEVIS fee payment should be presented to the consular officer when you attend your visa interview, together with any other supporting documents.
You must pay the SEVIS Form I-901 fee through the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website at least 3 days prior to your consular interview. You must also make sure that the biographical details on your Form I-20 are correct, where you will need to contact your designated school official (DSO) if there any mistakes. Any Form I-20 errors must be amended as soon as possible and before you apply for your F-1 visa.
F-1 visa supporting documents
In addition to your Form I-20 and proof of your SEVIS fee payment, there are a number of documents that you will need to have with at your visa appointment, including:
- a current valid passport or other valid travel document
- a 5 x 5 cm (2” by 2”) colour photograph taken within the last 6 months
- your Form DS-160 confirmation page, including the barcode
- evidence of your status in the country from which you are applying for your visa if you do not have a passport for that country
- any previously issued US visa(s), if applicable.
You may also be asked for evidence of funds sufficient to cover all expenses, including tuition fees, as well as proof of close ties and commitments to a country other than the USA to ensure that you will depart once your F-1 visa expires. This could include evidence of family, professional, property, employment or other ties to another country.
F-1 visa interview questions
Interviews are generally required for most F-1 visa applicants, where the interview questions will be designed to establish if you meet the F-1 eligibility criteria. In particular, the consular officer will be looking to see if you can overcome the presumption of immigrant intent, as required by United States law, by showing strong ties to another country to prove that you will leave the US at the end of your authorised stay.
You may also be asked about any criminal record or previous immigration violations, where you are required to declare if you have ever been arrested, convicted or cautioned, as well as if you have ever been denied entry into, or deported from, the USA.
How much does an F-1 visa application cost?
The Form I-901 fee to be registered for SEVIS is $350. There is also a non-refundable fee of $185 to file Form DS-160, to cover the cost for your machine-readable visa.
How long does an F-1 visa application take?
The length of time to obtain an F-1 visa will depend on where you are applying from.
You should schedule an appointment for your visa interview at the US Embassy or Consulate in the country where you live, although wait times for interview appointments can vary by location and even the time of year. For example, the current wait time for an F-1 visa interview in London (UK) is currently 21 calendar days.
If your F-1 visa application is approved during your interview, the average processing time will again depend on where you are applying from. For example, if applying from London, the processing time will typically be 5-7 working days. However, this may take longer if your visa application is not straightforward, such as if you have a criminal record or further administrative processing is needed before the consular officer can reach a decision.
What happens once an F-1 visa has been approved?
Having been approved for an F-1 visa, you cannot enter the United States more than 30 days before your course of study begins. On arrival, you must immediately contact your DSO. You must then contact your DSO again when you arrive at your academic institution, and no later than the course start date as listed on your Form I-20.
While studying in the USA, you must attend all classes, maintaining normal academic progress and a full course of study for each term. If you do not think that you will complete your course of study by the official end date listed on your Form I-20, you should talk to your DSO about requesting a possible extension before your course finishes.
Can dependants join you on the F-1 visa route?
If your spouse and any children under the age of 21 years old wish to accompany or follow to join you in the United States for the duration of your stay as an F-1 student, they may be eligible to apply for derivative status as an F-2 nonimmigrant.
If your spouse and children plan to live with you in the USA while you study, they must also enrol in SEVIS, each obtaining individual Form I-20s from your SEVP-approved institution before applying for their F-2 visa(s). However, there will be no Form I-901 SEVIS fee due for either a dependent spouse or child seeking permission for F-2 derivative status.
Can you work in US with an F-1 visa?
Depending on your status and course of study, you may be eligible for either on-campus or off-campus employment opportunities while you are studying in the USA.
On-campus employment is specific to work that takes place either on campus or at an off-campus location that is educationally affiliated with your academic institution, such as working at a university bookstore or cafeteria. However, you cannot participate in more than 20 hours per week on-campus employment when school is in session. You must first check with your DSO that any job role qualifies as on-campus employment. You will also need an approval letter from both your DSO and on-campus employer to be able to apply for a Social Security Number (SSN), where you must have an SSN if you wish to work.
Off-campus employment is work that takes place outside of campus, although this is only possible following approval by your DSO, before being authorised by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) following an application for employment authorisation.
As you must show an ability to afford the costs of tuition and living expenses to be eligible for an F-1 visa in the first place, USCIS will only authorise off-campus employment in cases of severe economic hardship due to unforeseen circumstances beyond your control that arise after enrolment in your course of study. This could include, for example, unexpected changes in your sources of financial support or unexpectedly large medical bills not covered by insurance. You must also meet all of the following criteria:
- be enrolled in a full course of study in the US
- have been in F-1 status for at least one full academic year
- be in good academic standing, and
- can show that working will not adversely impact your ability to attend your classes on a full-time basis and maintain academic standing.
However, you may instead be eligible for curricular practical training (CPT) at either undergraduate or graduate level during your course of study in the US, or optional practical training (OPT) during or following your course. CPT-employment must be an integral part of an established curriculum and the role must directly relate to your major area of study, where your DSO can give you the school’s policy on this particular option. OPT is a form of temporary employment that also directly relates to your field study, where this is referred to as “pre-completion OPT” if undertaken before you have fully completed your F-1 course.
Can you stay in the USA after an F-1 visa?
If you will be looking to stay on in the USA on successful completion of your studies, you will need to consider your available options as a recent graduate. For example, you may be able to transfer to another academic institution and begin a new course of study, or change your education level, for example, from a bachelor’s to a master’s degree. However, when it comes to employment-based options, you may want to consider enrolment in a “post-completion OPT”. Alternatively, you could look for work with a US employer who is willing and able to sponsor you for an H-1B temporary work visa.
A post-completion OPT programme will allow you to undertake 12 months study-related training after you have graduated, provided your employment is directly related to your major field of study. You may also qualify for a STEM OPT extension, where those who have studied certain science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields may be eligible to extend the length of their OPT-employment authorisation from 12 to 24 months.
While an OPT programme will only allow you to stay in the US for an additional 1-2 years, this can help you to create invaluable connections within your chosen field that may help you with sponsorship for more long-term employment. Your employer may even choose to petition for H-1B status on your behalf, provided you meet the relevant requirements. The H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant work visa for graduate level workers wanting to undertake a job role in a specialty occupation that requires a bachelor’s or higher degree as a minimum entry requirement, although you must be uniquely qualified because of your field of study.
The OPT and H-1B visa options are just two of the potential work routes available to you as a graduate in the USA, where seeking expert advice from an immigration specialist specifically tailored to your circumstances is strongly recommended. Having completed your course of studies, you will have just a 60-day grace period before you are required to leave the country or apply to change your status to another visa category, if eligible.
If you fail to make a valid in-time application for another visa type, or fail to depart during your grace period, this could adversely impact your ability to re-enter the United States under a different nonimmigrant or immigrant classification in the future. It is therefore essential that you plan ahead if you are intending to stay on after your studies.
NNU Immigration are US visa specialists. For expert advice on your options to study in the USA, contact our attorneys for guidance on the eligibility requirements and application process.
F1 visa FAQs
What is an F1 visa?
An F1 visa is the permission needed to undertake a full-time course of studies in the USA as an overseas national at a school authorised to accept international students.
How long can you be on F1 visa?
An F1 visa will be valid for the duration of your course of studies in the USA, although you will be given a 60-day grace period after your course end date before you will be required to leave the country.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.