Quick Guide: Immigration Primer

Applying for a Visa to Study in the United States

Updated February 2017

There are several important steps to take when pursuing study opportunities in the United States. A critical step is to understand the most up-to-date guidelines for student visas, which constantly evolve in response to ever-changing economic and social needs. This guide is intended to offer basic information to help you on your educational path. For comprehensive information about visa requirements, you are encouraged to research related websites provided by your home country and relevant agencies in the United States, and to consult the resources referenced here.

What type of visa do international students studying in the United States need?

Generally, an F-1 student visa is required. This temporary visa, issued by the U.S. Department of State, allows international students to travel to and enter the United States to study at an accredited U.S. college or university.

Other student visas include J-1 for visitors participating in an educational or cultural ex­change program, and M-1 for non-academic or vocational study.

What documentation do I need when applying for an F-1 visa?

You will need an I-20 or DS-2019 form gen­erated by the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and issued to you—only after you are admitted—by your MBA or other graduate program.

You must also:

  • Pay the SEVIS I-901 fee
  • Provide proof of SEVIS and visa fee payments
  • Supply financial support documents
  • Present a completed visa application form

Please note that each U.S. embassy or con­sulate may have its own requirements. So be sure to check in advance and carefully read the website of the embassy or consul­ate where you will be applying.

Where and how do I apply for an F-1 visa?

Apply at the U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country, and remember to take your I-20 or DS-2019 form, proof of fee payments, financial support documents, completed visa application form, and any other required documentation with you.

When will I get my visa?

The soonest you can get your visa is within 120 days of your program start-date. U.S. embassies and consulates cannot issue a visa earlier. Even so, waiting periods in certain countries are potentially lengthy so you are encouraged to apply as soon as you are ready. Don’t wait until the last month or week before classes begin to apply for your visa.

How soon can I enter the United States?

If this is your initial entry, you may only enter 30 days prior to your program start-date, and you must report to your desig­nated school official (DSO) before your program begins.

Can I work while in the United States on a student visa?

You should never work in the U.S. unless you speak first with your DSO and your employment is approved by the Depart­ment of Homeland Security. If you work without proper authorization, you will jeopardize your immigration status.

You can also jeopardize your immigration status if you:

  • Fail to enroll in your program by the specified date
  • Fail to maintain a full course load
  • Fail to leave the United States once your program or program-related employment is completed

Am I eligible to work while I am studying?

Curricular Practical Training (CPT), which can be obtained by students only after one year of enrollment (with exceptions), is designed to provide work experience directly related and integral to a student's degree of study. It is not intended for general, ongoing work authorization. *Please note that extensive CPT work can render students ineligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT) at the same degree level.

What if I want to stay in the United States after graduation?

With proper authorization, foreign nationals can work in the U.S. on either a temporary or permanent basis. One option is to apply for work authorization as part of Optional Practical Training (OPT). This allows you to work in a field directly related to your MBA or other graduate degree for one year. You need to consult with your DSO and receive work authorization from the Department of Homeland Security before beginning your OPT work.

In addition, students who receive a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM), may apply for an extension (up to 24 months) of their OPT while in a period of post-completion OPT. STEM OPT will be subject to additional reporting and students must submit extra documentation, including attestations from their employer.

As an alternative, you may qualify for a temporary work visa. Categories include:

  • H-1B for individuals who will perform services in a “specialty occupation”, which generally means you need a bachelor’s degree or higher, or its equivalent, for the position
  • O-1 for “aliens of extraordinary ability” in certain fields, including business, who can demonstrate national or international acclaim in their field and who will engage in work for an employer in their area of “extraordinary ability”
  • TN for certain professional citizens of Mexico and Canada who will engage in business activities at a professional level
  • E-3 for Australian “specialty occupation” workers

Visit U.S. Citizenship and Immigra­tion Services’ website about working in the U.S. after graduation and to learn more about temporary worker visa categories.

Learn about SEVIS

SEVIS is the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It is an Internet-based system that monitors and tracks international students and exchange visitors before and during their stay in the United States. You can learn more about SEVIS by visiting the ICE website. It offers a clickable map that lets you see whether the school you plan to attend has been approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). In order to enroll international students, a school must be approved by SEVP.

Websites of Interest

EducationUSA – U.S. Department of State network of 400+ international student advising centers in more than 170 countries

Study in the United States initiative

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Student Resources

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

U.S. Department of State

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement–SEVIS

This information is current as of the publication date. This information is subject to change at any time. Please consult the U.S. Department of State for the most recent information. 

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