The United States has a number of student and exchange visas available to foreign nationals visiting the United States to attend a school or participate in an exchange program. The most popular study and exchange visas include the F-1, M-1, J-1, and Q-1 visas.
Although the United States happily welcomes foreign students to its country, students are required to apply for and receive a specific visa prior to seeking entry to the United States. As long as you have this visa and are traveling to the United States for legitimate purposes, you should have no trouble gaining entry.
The four types of U.S. student visas and exchange visas for foreign nationals include:
F-1 Visa: For those attending school ranging from elementary school to graduate school, including language courses.
M-1 Visa: For students enrolled in vocational and non-academic education, not including language courses.
J-1 Visa: For students sponsored by certain organizations (typically for purposes of cultural exchange).
Q-1 Visa: For students participating in an international cultural exchange program (this visa includes opportunities for foreign nationals to work and train in the U.S.).
Do I Need a Study and Exchange Visa?
Not all students in the U.S. require a study and exchange visa. Typically, however, anyone enrolled part-time or full-time at a university, college, or other schools in the United States will require a study and exchange visa.
The only people who do not require a study and exchange visa are those enrolled in courses that do not count towards a degree, a certificate, or any other type of qualification. If you are taking a cooking class, for example, while visiting the United States, then you will not require a study or exchange visa.
Generally, if you are a foreign national visiting the United States for a study and exchange program, then you will be required to get a visa prior to your arrival at a U.S. port of entry.
Keep reading to discover the specific requirements for an F-1, M-1, J-1, or Q-1 visa.
The F-1 visa is required for foreign nationals who wish to study in the United States at any of the following educational levels:
- Private elementary schools (non-U.S. citizens are prohibited from attending public U.S. elementary schools on an F-1 visa)
- High school
- University and college
- Other educational institutions and training programs, including language training programs
Typically, you apply for the F-1 visa after you have been accepted at one of the above institutions. In order to qualify for the F-1 visa, you need to demonstrate that you have sufficient ties to your home country and intend to return to that country upon graduation.
All foreign nationals (except Canadians) require an F-1 visa to attend the above educational institutions in the United States – even citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries.
What Are the Requirements for an F-1 Visa?
As mentioned above, you need to be accepted at an approved university before you apply for an F-1 visa. Requirements for an F-1 student visa include:
Admission to a SEVP-Accepted Institution: The Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) certifies schools, universities, and other institutions that meet certain requirements for international students. You must have received an offer of admission to a SEVP institution before submitting your F-1 visa.
Proof of Ties to your Home Country: Your F-1 visa is not a path towards permanent residency or citizenship. You must return to your home country at the conclusion of your studies. Proof of ties to your home country can include a spouse, children, or other families in your home country, property ownership in your home country, and other ties.
Proof of Financial Means: You must have sufficient funds to cover your financial responsibilities while you study in the United States. This proof can include bank statements, scholarship documents, tuition documents, or letters from family.
English Proficiency: You must be proficient in English to attend university in the United States. You may be required to take an English proficiency test to qualify for an F-1 visa. Common tests include the Test Of English As a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test.
How to Apply for an F-1 Visa
You must start your F-1 visa application process within 120 days of the start of your program. You cannot begin your application earlier. The application process includes:
Step 1) Complete Form DS-160: This online form can be completed through your embassy’s local website. It asks basic information about your school and background.
Step 2) Pay the Visa Fee: The visa fee for an F-1 student visa is $160 USD. Keep the receipt for the interview.
Step 3) Pay the SEVIS I-901 Fee: Upon admission to the university, you will pay a fee to register through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). This fee is $200 for F-1 visa applicants.
Step 4) Schedule and Attend the Interview: You will need to attend an in-person interview at your local U.S. embassy or consulate. A consular officer will conduct the interview to verify all information on your application. The officer also wants to ensure you are not a security threat to the United States and that you intend to return to your home country upon graduation.
The M-1 visa is for students enrolled in a vocational or non-academic institution, not including language courses. Vocational schools can include technical colleges, profession-specific training programs, and similar courses. If you are attending any of the following types of vocational training in the United States, then you may require an M-1 visa:
- Technical courses
- Cooking classes
- Flight school
- Cosmetology school
- Any other vocational courses
As an M-1 visa holder, you are permitted to do some things but not others. You can open a U.S. bank account and get a driver’s license, for example, but you are only permitted to work under certain circumstances (mostly on-campus work). Other forbidden activities include:
- You are not permitted to work full-time at an off-campus job
- You must be a full-time student; part-time students are not eligible for the M-1 visa
- You cannot change your program or transfer to a different institution more than six months after starting your program
- You cannot pursue another degree or continue your education without re-applying for a visa
What Are the Requirements for an M-1 Visa?
The requirements for an M-1 visa are very similar to the requirements for an F-1 visa. Main requirements include:
- You must be accepted at a SEVP-registered institution that offers vocational training or courses
- Strong English proficiency
- Ability to support yourself financially while in the United States
- Strong ties to your home country and intent to return to your home country after graduating
How to Apply for the M-1 Visa
The M-1 visa application is similar to the F-1 visa application. Here are the basic steps:
Step 1) Complete the DS-160 form online
Step 2) Pay the M-1 visa fee of $160 USD
Step 3) Pay the SEVIS I-901 fee of $200 and receive your SEVIS number
Step 4) Schedule your interview with a U.S. embassy or consulate
Step 5) Attend the interview with all the required documents
Once you’ve completed these steps, you should be able to visit the United States to attend vocational school and similar training programs on your M-1 visa.
The J-1 visa is more unique than the visa types listed above. The J-1 visa is for some students and cultural exchange program participants, including au pairs, camp counselors, and interns, among others. Some of the people who qualify for a J-1 visa include:
- Government-sponsored visitors
- Professors and research scholars, including long-term and short-term scholars
- Au pairs
- Camp counselors
Generally, this visa is most popular among research scholars and professors as well as anyone participating in a cultural exchange program in the United States. Certain study programs also encourage cultural exchange with the United States. Doctors, for example, may get a J-1 visa to complete certain training in the United States to receive a foreign degree.
Each of the groups mentioned above has specific requirements to qualify for the J-1 visa. Typically, a J-1 visa is applicable throughout the duration of your program. Once the program is complete, you have 30 days to leave the United States. Interestingly, if you have held a J-1 visa in the last two years, then you are not applicable for a new J-1 visa. A minimum of two years is required between J-1 visa applications (although you are permitted to enter the United States on another type of visa).
The J-1 visa comes with a mandatory application fee of $160 USD and a SEVIS I-901 fee of $180, similar to the F-1 and M-1 visa mentioned above.
The Q-1 visa is another unique visa. This visa is specifically for participants in an international cultural exchange program. Under a Q-1 visa, foreign nationals can work and train in the United States while participating in a cultural exchange program.
To qualify for a Q-1 visa, you need to be part of a Q-1 visa program offered by the USCIS. All Q-1 visa programs are administered by the USCIS. There is no cap on the number of Q-1 visa applications per year.
Applicants must be over 18 years of age to qualify for a Q-1 visa. You must also be skilled and knowledgeable enough in the customs of your home country to participate in the exchange process. You must also demonstrate proof that you intend to return to your home country at the conclusion of the exchange program.
Organizations seeking to bring Q-1 visa holders to the U.S. must also meet certain requirements. Businesses must have an international cultural exchange program, for example, and provide adequate working conditions.
Applicants are required to pay a fee of $190 to submit form DS-160 for a Q-1 visa, after which you are required to attend an in-person interview at a nearby U.S. embassy or consulate.
If you are able to successfully receive a Q-1 visa, then that visa will be valid for a maximum of 15 months. If your visa is valid for fewer than 15 months, then you may be able to apply for an extension once you’re in the United States. After 15 months of being in the United States on a Q-1 visa, you must return to your home country. You cannot return to the U.S. on a Q-1 visa for at least one year.