If you are going to the U.S. primarily for tourism, but want to take a short course of study of less than 18 hours per week, you may be able to do so on a visitor visa.  You should inquire at the appropriate U.S. Embassy or Consulate. I f your course of study is more than 18 hours a week, you will need a student visa.   For additional student related information, visit the EducationUSA website created by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to learn about educational opportunities for undergraduate and graduate study, opportunities for scholars, financial aid, testing, admissions, and much more.

In most countries, first time student visa applicants are required to appear for an in-person interview.  However, each embassy and consulate sets its own interview policies and procedures regarding student visas. [»] Students should consult the Embassy Consular Section with jurisdiction over their place of permanent residence for specific application instructions.

Keep in mind that June, July, and August are the busiest months in most Consular Sections, and interview appointments are the most difficult to get during this period.  Students need to plan ahead to avoid having to make repeat visits to the Embassy. 

  • All student applicants must have a SEVIS generated Form I-20 issued by an educational institution approved by the Department of Homeland Security, which applicants must submit when they are applying for their student visa.  The consular officer will need to verify your Form I-20 record electronically through the SEVIS system in order to process your student visa application.  Unless otherwise exempt, participants whose SEVIS Form I-20 was issued on or after September 1, 2004 must pay a SEVIS I-901 Fee to the Department of Homeland Security for each individual program.
  • The consular officer may need to get special clearances depending on the course of study and nationality of the student.  This can take some additional time. 
  • Students should note that Embassies and Consulates are able to issue your student visa 120 days or less, in advance of the course of study registration date.  If you apply for your visa more than 120 days prior to your start date or registration date as provided on the Form I-20, the Embassy or Consulate will hold your application until it is able to issue the visa.  Consular officials will use that extra time to accomplish any of the necessary special clearances or other processes that may be required.
  • The Department of Homeland Security regulations require that all initial or beginning students enter the U.S. 30 days or less in advance of the course of study start/report date as shown on the Form I-20.  You should consider this date carefully when making travel plans to the U.S.
  • Continuing students may apply for a new visa at any time, as long as they have been maintaining student status and their SEVIS records are current. Continuing students may also enter the U.S. at any time before their classes start.


Entering the United States

A visa allows a foreign citizen coming from abroad, to travel to the United States port-of entry and request permission to enter the U.S. Applicants should be aware that a visa does not guarantee entry into the United States.  The Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have authority to permit or deny admission to the United States.  Student visitors must have their Form I-20 in their possession each time they enter the United States.  Students should review important information about [»] Admissions/Entry requirements on the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection website.  Upon arrival (at an international airport, seaport or land border crossing), you will be enrolled in the [»] US-VISIT entry-exit program.  In addition, some travelers will also need to register their entry into and their departure from the U.S. with the Special Registration  program.  If you are allowed to enter the U.S., the CBP official will determine the length of your visit on the Arrival-Departure Record (Form I-94). Since Form I-94 documents your authorized stay in the U.S., it’s very important to keep in your passport. 

When you enter the United States on a student visa, you will usually be admitted for the duration of your student status.  That means you may stay as long as you are a full time student, even if the F-1 visa in your passport expires while you are in America.  For a student who has completed the course of studies shown on the I-20, and any authorized practical training, the student is allowed the following additional time in the U.S. before departure:

  • F-1 student - An additional 60 days, to prepare for departure from the U.S. or to transfer to another school.
  • M-1 student - An additional 30 days to depart the U.S. (Fixed time period, in total not to exceed one year). The 30 days to prepare for departure is permitted as long as the student maintained a full course of study and maintained status. An M student may receive extensions up to three years for the total program.

Many students will be issued an Arrival-Departure Record/Form I-94 with the endorsement of “Duration of Status” or “D/S” rather than a specific ending date.  As an example regarding duration of status, if you have a visa that is valid for five years that will expire on January 1, 2007, and you are admitted into the U.S. for the duration of your studies (often abbreviated in your passport or on your Form I-94 card as "D/S"), you may stay in the U.S. as long as you are a full time student.  Even if January 1, 2007 passes and your visa expires while in America, you will still be in legal student status.  However, if you depart the U.S. with an expired visa, you will need to obtain a new one before being able to return to America and resume your studies.  A student visa cannot be renewed or re-issued in the United States; it must be done at an Embassy or Consulate abroad.

However, if you hold an I-94 card with this designation, but are no longer performing the same function in the U.S. that they were originally admitted to perform (e.g. you are no longer attending school), you may be out of status although not accruing unlawful presence.  In this case a DHS or an immigration judge can make a finding of status violation, resulting in the termination of your period of authorized stay.