What is an F-1 Visa?

An F-1 visa is the most popular student visa for those who wish to study in the United States. The F-1 visa applies to a wide variety of educational institutions, including everything from colleges to private elementary schools.

All international students who wish to study in the United States (except Canadians) require an F-1 student visa – including those from Visa Waiver Program countries who would otherwise qualify for an ESTA.

You will need to get accepted at an educational institution in the United States prior to applying for your F-1 visa. You will use this acceptance letter as part of the visa application process.

Generally, all educational programs between elementary school and graduate school will require an F-1 visa from international students. The only exception are non-credit-bearing courses. If you’re taking a cooking class, for example, and that class is not part of a degree, then you should not need an F-1 visa.

There’s no cap on the F-1 visa. The United States does not limit the number of successful F-1 visas it gives out every year. Generally, any student who fulfills the requirements should receive an F-1 visa.

Do I Need an F-1 Visa?

All foreign nationals who are studying in the United States at an accredited school will likely require an F-1 visa. The only exceptions are Canadian citizens, who do not require any type of visa to study in the United States. Even residents of Visa Waiver Program countries will need to apply for an F-1 visa prior to studying in the United States – regardless of whether you qualify for an ESTA.

The F-1 visa is designed for those attending the following courses:

  • Private elementary schools (non-U.S. citizens are prohibited from attending public U.S. elementary schools on an F-1 visa)
  • High school
  • Seminary
  • Conservatory
  • University and college
  • Other educational institutions and training programs, including language training programs

F-1 Visa Requirements

The main requirement for an F-1 visa is acceptance to a registered educational program in the United States. Total F-1 visa requirements include all of the following:

Offer of Admission from Qualified School: All F-1 visa applicants are required to have an offer of admission from a qualified school. For the purpose of the F-1 visa, a “qualified school” means a school on the list of Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) institutions. These schools have been verified to have acceptable conditions for international students. Before you apply for an F-1 visa, you need to have an offer of admission to an SEVP school. Before applying to your intended school, check to make sure it’s on the SEVP list. Otherwise, you could run into visa problems in the future.

Within 120 Days of your Date of Study: You can only apply for the F-1 visa within 120 days of the date your studies start. You cannot start your F-1 visa earlier.

Strong Ties to your Home Country: The F-1 visa does not permit you to establish or seek permanent residence in the United States. You must intend to return to your home country upon graduation. To prove this, you may be required to show strong ties to your home country – like family or friends back home or a property you own.

Sufficient Finances: To qualify for the F-1 visa, you must have sufficient finances to cover your tuition and living expenses in the United States. If you have received a scholarship, then you may be required to provide proof of that scholarship, including the specific amount that scholarship covers.

English Proficiency: You must be proficient in English to qualify for an F-1 visa. Students may be required to demonstrate their English proficiency by taking a standardized test like the TOEFL or the IELTS.

Documents Required for an F-1 Visa Application

If you plan to study in the United States, then you need to qualify for your F-1 visa application first. The F-1 visa application requires all of the ordinary documents you would require for a visa (like a valid passport). However, you may also be required to provide all of the following documents:

  • Documents demonstrating your previous education and current qualifications, including:
    • Original transcripts from previous educational institutions
    • Standardized test scores (GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, IELTS, and other standardized tests)
    • Letters of acceptance from an educational institution on the SEVP list
    • Previous degrees or diplomas
  • Form I-20, which states the funds required for the duration of your studies and proof that you can provide those funds; that proof can include any of the following documents:
    • Bank statements for the last three years
    • Tax records for the last three years
    • Recent records of employment, including paystubs and other proofs of payment
    • Proof of a scholarship, including the amount of money from that scholarship
    • Proof that you have already paid some or all of your tuition (optional)
    • Proof of an approved loan (if funding schooling through a loan)

If you can prove that you have been accepted to an SEVP-registered school and prove that you have the financial means to cover your studies, then you should have no trouble getting approved for an F-1 visa, assuming all other visa paperwork is in order.

How to Apply For the F-1 Visa

Applying for the F-1 visa involves a similar process to a standard visa application. Like any visa, you need to complete an application, provide the requested documents, and then complete an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

Here’s the step-by-step process:

Step 1) Apply to an SEVP-Registered School and Receive a Letter of Acceptance: The first step of the F-1 visa application process is to apply for – and get accepted to – a registered education institution on the SEVP list. Once you have a letter of acceptance from the accredited institution, you can proceed with the rest of the F-1 visa application process.

Step 2) Complete the Online DS-160 F-1 Visa Application Form: The DS-160 form is the standard online visa application for non-immigrant visitors to the United States. The form is available online through your local U.S. embassy’s website. Find the form and fill out the F-1 visa application with all requested information.

Step 3) Pay the F-1 Visa Application Fee: The F-1 visa is priced at $160 USD. You will need to pay the fee online to submit your DS-160 application.

Step 4) Pay the SEVIS I-901 Fee: All foreign students in the United States will need to pay the SEVIS I-901 fee to receive a foreign student number. The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee is $200 for F-1 visa applicants. Once you have paid your fee, you will receive your SEVIS number.

Step 5) Schedule your Interview: You can now schedule your interview with the nearest United States embassy or consulate. Your F-1 visa interview will take place at the same location as all other visa interviews for entry to the United States. All F-1 visa applicants are required to attend an in-person in order to complete the F-1 visa application.

Step 6) Gather Required Documents: We mentioned the required documents above. You will need to gather all of these documents prior to visiting the U.S. embassy for your interview. The consular officer may ask for any of these documents during the interview. Bring your visa application payment receipt, your DS-160 form code, and all other relevant information.

Step 7) Attend the Interview: Arrive at the U.S. embassy or consulate early for your interview. Embassies have strict security procedures and wait times can be long. Follow the instructions you receive. You may have your fingerprints taken. After your fingerprints are taken, you will need to wait for your appointment with the consular officer. Complete the interview and answer all questions honestly. Remember: one of the main goals of the interview is to ensure that you intend to return home after your studies are complete. The officer also wants to make sure you’re not a security threat to the United States or its people. Sometimes, the officer will tell you if your application has been approved or denied immediately after the interview.

Once the interview is complete, the consular officer will take your passport and return it to you via courier once your F-1 visa application is approved or denied.

If your visa is approved, it should be for the full length of your intended studies in the United States. However, depending on your country of origin and other demographic information, you might receive an F-1 student visa for only one or two years. In this case, you will have to renew your F-1 student visa.

When renewing an F-1 student visa, you may be able to waive the interview.

Once the F-1 student visa is approved, you are permitted to arrive in the United States a maximum of 30 days before your program starts. You cannot enter the United States any earlier.

How Long Does It Take to Process an F-1 Student Visa?

An F-1 student visa is one of the fastest visas in terms of processing time. As mentioned above, you are required to submit the F-1 student visa within 120 days of the start of your studies, so the embassy wants to approve or deny your visa as quickly as possible.

Many F-1 student visas will be processed before your interview is complete. For most visa applicants, the interview is the final stage of the application process. After the interview, the interviewer might congratulate you if your visa is approved.

However, this isn’t the case with all F-1 visa applications. Some visa applications may take long to approve or deny.

How Long Does My F-1 Student Visa Last?

The F-1 student visa lasts for as long as stated on the I-20 and I-94 form given to you when you enter the United States.

After your F-1 student visa ends, you have 60 days to leave the United States. During this grace period, it’s expected that you will make plans to leave the United States and return to your home country.

If the F-1 visa expires before your studies conclude, then you may need to apply for an F-1 renewal or extension.

Can I Extend My Stay in the United States?

F-1 student visa holders have the option to change their status in certain situations. If you find a job, for example, then you might be eligible to change your status with sponsorship from the employer. The employer will send a petition to USCIS and your work visa (say, an H-1B visa) will be approved or denied.

Can I Get A Green Card as an F-1 Visa Holder?

The F-1 visa is one of the few visas where you can “self-petition” your visa to become a permanent resident. Although the process is complicated, it is possible to apply for a green card as an F-1 student visa holder. Some students choose to self-petition as a “person with extraordinary abilities”.

There are other options to change your immigration status as an F-1 visa holder. If you get married in the United States to a U.S. citizen, for example, then you can change your immigration status to become a lawful permanent immigrant.

You can also become a green card holder (i.e. a lawful permanent resident) if you can prove that you will invest $500,000 in the U.S. economy.

For most students, however, the best way to remain in the United States after your studies are complete is to get hired by an employer willing to petition you for an H-1B visa.

Can I Work With an F-1 Visa?

The F-1 visa is for students, and the American government recognizes that some students need to work to support their studies.

With that in mind, you are permitted to work as an F-1 visa holder. However, there are restrictions on your work. You are only allowed to work part-time on campus while your program is in session, for example, and full-time during breaks.

There are also two circumstances where you can work outside of campus, including Curriculum Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT):

Curriculum Practical Training (CPT)

If your educational institution requires you to work as part of the curriculum, and you need to complete practical training in order to graduate, then you may be allowed to work in Curriculum Practical Training (CPT) under your F-1 student visa. With this work, the training or practical work must be in your field study. The work also needs to be approved by your Designated School Official (DSO). CPT can begin after a minimum of 9 months of training in your degree. There is no limit on how long CPT can last, although if you have a CPT position for more than 12 months, then it prohibits you from applying for Optional Practical Training (OPT).

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is different from CPT. OPT is not required by your degree, but it is intended to give you work experience in the United States near the conclusion of your program. You can start OPT before or after you graduate. The main restriction is that the work has to be related to your field of study. You also cannot work in OPT positions for more than 12 months (although students in STEM-related subjects can file for an OPT extension of up to 24 additional months). You OPT position can start after you and your Designated School Official (DSO) file for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), which is done by filing Form I-765. If your OPT position goes successfully, then your employer may sponsor you for an H-1B visa.

Can I Bring Family Members and Dependents to the U.S. on an F-1 Student Visa?

The F-1 student visa allows you to bring certain family members to the United States under a special dependency visa called an F-2 visa. The F-2 visa is available to your spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age.

As long as your dependents meet the requirements for the F-2 visa, they should have no trouble completing the application process. The requirements for an F-2 visa include:

  • Be the spouse of an approved F-1 visa holder
  • Be the unmarried child of an F-1 visa holder under 21 years of age

F-2 visa applicants may also be required to prove that the F-1 visa applicant has the financial means to support his or her family while studying in the United States. Alternatively, F-2 visa applicants can demonstrate that they have the financial means to support themselves.

Can I Travel Outside the United States on an F-1 Student Visa?

Students may wish to travel as part of their studies or as a break from school. However, you may have to complete certain paperwork before leaving the United States on an F-1 student visa.

The first step is to talk to your Designated School Official (DSO). The DSO will verify your Form I-20 and sign it. Once the DSO has signed your Form I-20, that signature is valid for one year. That means you can travel in and out of the country on your F-1 student visa for up to one year after the document has been signed.

The F-1 visa allows you to travel outside of the United States for up to 5 months. Your SEVIS record will be updated to show your absence from the country. If you stay outside the country for more than five months, then your SEVIS number will be declared terminated, which means you need to get a new Form I-20 upon re-entry to the United States.

How to Renew an F-1 Visa

In some cases, your studies will last longer than intended. Or, your consular officer might have given you just a one or two year visa for a four year program. In that case, you will need to renew your F-1 visa before your studies are complete.

You can renew an F-1 visa in two ways:

  • By going to the United States embassy and requesting a renewal
  • By re-applying for an F-1 student visa
  • By using the automatic visa revalidation option

The automatic visa revalidation option is used by some visitors to the U.S. on non-immigrant visas. These individuals can travel to certain countries in North America (including Canada, Mexico, and most adjacent islands except Cuba) for fewer than 30 days, then apply for renewal upon re-entry to the United States.