Applying for a U.S. Student Visa

When should I apply for a student visa?

You will want to apply as soon as you can. Generally, this means as soon as you have decided which school you want to attend and have received the official I-20 form indicating academic acceptance at that institution. (If you are a sponsored student, you should receive the DS-2019 from your sponsoring agency showing that you are participating in their program instead of an I-20 from your university, and the DS-2019 is the form that you should use in applying.)

Under U.S. visa regulations, visas cannot be issued more than 120 days before whatever program start date is indicated on your form I-20 or DS-2019—however, you will want to apply for your visa as soon as you have your I-20 or DS-2019. If you complete the visa process more than 120 days before your program the U.S. consulate or embassy will hold your visa and issue it to you once you have reached the 120 day date.

Where should I go to apply for a visa? What is the process?

Normally students apply for visas at the U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country or country of residence. You will need to go to that embassy's Web site to get their specific requirements. Then fill out the online DS-160 visa application, pay application fees. (Many AMIDEAST offices can provide assistance completing the DS-160 should you need such help.)

You will use the information you receive after completing the DS-160 to make an appointment for a visa interview, and then bring a print out of the completed visa application form and supporting materials with you to that interview. However, procedures vary for different consular offices so you need to contact them for exact information. You can find current links to these consular Web sites and more information on the visa process by visiting www.unitedstatesvisas.us.

What should I bring with me when I go for my visa interview?

The U.S. government form that you currently need to fill out to apply for a visa is the DS-160. It needs to be completed fully in English and signed with your name as it appears on your passport and other official English-language documents. The following additional materials are also required—

  • I-20 or DS-2019. This is the form that you received from your university or your sponsoring agency confirming acceptance into their programs. If you have a form I-20, be sure to fill in pages 2 and 5, sign page 2, and check that your date of expected arrival is still current before you take it to your interview. If you have a DS-2019 form, be sure to read page 2, check arrival date, and sign the bottom of page 1.
  • Passport. Make sure that this is valid for at least six months beyond your planned U.S. arrival date, as that is a requirement for issuing the visa. Longer is better, obviously—if your passport expires and you need to return home, you will need to renew your passport and apply for a new visa before reentering the United States.
  • Receipts for Fees. You need to pay a visa application fee and a SEVIS fee before the time of your visa interview.
  • Photo. It’s best to have this taken by a photographer/photo facility specifically as a visa photo as there are very specific formatting requirements . Digital photos that are uploaded as part of the process of completing the DS-160 are currently required for student visas rather than print photos.

You will also need to bring supporting materials (described further below) to make your case to the consular officer that you should be awarded a student visa.

What are the requirements for the visa photo?

Your photo must be submitted with the DS-160 form. Formatting requirements are described on the Travel.State.Gov Web site .

Your visa photo must have been taken within six months of when you apply. In most cases, your head must be uncovered; however headwear that you normally wear for religious reasons is generally acceptable. Headwear that you wear for other reasons is not acceptable. Your face must be sufficiently visible to establish that the picture is of you and could not be of anyone else.

I wear a hijab/veils for religious reasons. Is that possible for the visa photo?

A headscarf worn for religious reasons is generally permissible provided that the person is identifiable, with their face fully visible in the photograph, up to and including the hairline across the forehead. A veil that covers all or significant portions of the face is not acceptable because the person’s identity needs to be clear. However, be aware that both the consulate in your country and the airport where you arrive in the United States will have female staff and private areas available to verify the identity of individuals who for religious or cultural reasons do not wish to show their faces to males unrelated to them.

What are the main criteria that consular officers use when deciding whether to award a student visa?

In order to award a student visa, the consular officer must be satisfied that the applicant is going to the United States with the primary purpose of being a student, that they are academically qualified for the program that they plan to attend, that they will have adequate funds to complete it, and that they plan to stay in the United States only for the length of time that it will take to complete their academic program.

How do I show that I am really planning to be a student, and that I am academically qualified?

The consular officer’s job is not to second-guess the U.S. university that has accepted you—the fact that you have received an I-20 to a great extent in itself shows that you are academically qualified. However, the consular officer must check that the I-20 was not issued based on, for instance, forged documents or an admission officer’s mistake. Therefore, you may want to bring along your past transcripts (with English-language, notarized translations as appropriate) and test score reports to further document your background. You should also expect to be asked to briefly summarize your study plans.

Part of academic preparation is having the English proficiency that you need to participate in your planned program. If you have received conditional admission or are going to the United States to study English, obviously requirements for English proficiency will be lower. Many consular officers do speak and understand other languages proficiently, and an interpreter will be provided if you need one—but be aware that it is to your advantage to communicate in English if you can. If your academic program requires English proficiency, the consular officer is likely to conduct the interview in English and may also ask you to read or restate information in English.

What do I bring to show that I have adequate funds to complete my program?

You need to show that you (or your sponsors, if someone else is funding you) have enough money to realistically fund your U.S. study program. The rule is that you need to document that the full amount needed to fund your expenses (both tuition and living expenses as well as transportation and other costs) for the first year will be available, and that you can explain how you will fund the rest of your program as well, showing adequate expected funds from reliable sources. (Applicants for the M-1 visa must fully document funding for their entire planned study period.)

You or your sponsor should have filled out an “affidavit of support” form guaranteeing that funds will be available for your needs during your stay as part of the university application process. You will want to bring this signed document, with supporting, notarized bank documents (a signed, dated letter from a bank official indicating that your sponsor has the minimum balance available or an original bank statement with the balance clearly stated) to your visa interview.

If you are taking family members with you to the United States, you will be expected to show adequate funding for their needs (remember that dependents of students are not permitted to engage in paid work in the United States at all). If you are leaving family members who are dependent on you at home, the consular officer will want to know how they will be supported while you are studying.

Usually the most essential additional materials to support your case will include original bank books or statements covering at least three months of transactions; information from the bank on length of account existence and average account balance; tax forms showing annual income; proof of other assets such as ownership of a business (business license), property, stock, etc.; and/or documents showing that a scholarship has been awarded to you.

What types of documents should be presented at the consular section to prove that I will return to my home country after my U.S. academic program ends?

Every case is individual and you will want to think carefully through what will best show your commitment to your home country. Some documents that are typically useful include those that prove you or your immediate family are involved in an established business or own a home; diplomas from in-country educational institutions; letters of reference from someone in a position of responsibility (such as a teacher) describing your community involvement; deeds showing land ownership; an expired passport showing that you have traveled abroad and returned home; documentation related to siblings who have previously studied abroad and returned home (diplomas, letters from their employers or their current passports, etc.); a letter from your current employer stating that your planned studies will be useful; a letter from a company stating that you will be hired for a specific job upon return; and/or a letter from a company stating that you will be considered for a job when you return and that they need employees with the education that you will receive in the United States.

However, be aware that the visa interview will be a short conversation, not typically focused on reviewing documents. While documents can be important, the most essential thing is to be ready to talk about how you decided on the particular type of U.S. study you are pursuing, and how that U.S. study fits into a plan for a career in your home country.

How long will my visa interview last?

The time available for a consular officer to talk with you will be quite brief (perhaps one to three minutes) because of the volume of visa cases that need to be processed daily in most U.S. consulates. Because of such time limits, good organization of your materials and short, direct answers to questions will be appreciated by the consular officer.

What if I applied late or the processing takes longer than expected and I don’t get my visa in time for my program start date?

If this happens, you have two options. You can request a faxed letter from your university stating that it is acceptable for you to attend after the date indicated in your I-20 and specifying the latest date that you can arrive. The second option is to request a deferral to the next semester from your university.

Why does visa processing take longer for some people than others?

Students who study certain scientific and technical subjects are subject to additional checks. Or, a name may be the same as that of someone on the U.S. terrorist “watch list.” Only about 2 percent of all visa applicants currently go through the U.S. Department of State special clearance, “advisory opinion” process, which takes additional time.

Another possible reason for delays is simply that the consulate has a lot of visas to process. Avoid applying around holiday periods if possible.

How soon can I apply again if I am denied a visa?

You can apply for another interview right away if you want. However, you should have new information to provide that you did not present (or were not able to properly document) to the interviewing officer at the time of your first application. Before reapplying, try to understand why your visa was denied initially. Do you have an I-20 from an accredited institution? Is your English good enough for university study? Can you prove that sufficient funds are available for your study, and that you plan to return home afterwards?

For more information on visa application requirements, as well as details on the process of entering the United States and what you need to do to maintain your student visa status, please visit the Visa section of this Web site. AMIDEAST offices also regularly offer presentations on applying for student visas, often with a consular officer taking part and answering questions. Contact your local AMIDEAST center to learn when such presentations are scheduled.