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Student visas for the USA

To study at university in the USA you need an F-1 (non-immigrant) student visa. You should plan well ahead to make sure that your visa is issued prior to your date of departure to the United States. Your I-20 immigration documents are issued by the university and your visa will be valid for the entire duration of your studies.

A visa for the USA International students at James Madison University

Below are answers to frequently asked questions about visas. The following information is adapted from the US Department of State's website:

What is a visa?

A visa allows a foreign citizen to travel to a US port-of-entry and request permission from the US immigration officer to enter the United States. It does not guarantee entry into the United States.

What type of visa do I need to study at a US university?

Most non-US citizens who wish to study in the United States will need an F-1 (non-immigrant) student visa. Although there are other visa types that are sometimes authorized for those who study in the United States, the F-1 is the most common for students. An F-1 visa is for people who want to study full-time at an accredited US university or study English at a university or intensive English language institute.

What do I need before applying for a visa?

Once your application to a university in the USA has been accepted, and we have received your deposit, we will send a University or College acceptance letter and a Form I-20 immigration document (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status for Academic and Language Students). You will need these documents to start the process of obtaining a student visa to enter the United States. Your I-20 document is a SEVIS-generated form that is issued by the university and is valid for the entire duration of your studies.

If you do not have a passport, you must obtain one from the appropriate office of your government. Your passport must be valid at least 6 months ahead at all times.

How do I apply for a visa?

Once you have all the required documentation, you may apply for a visa even if you do not intend to begin your program of study for several months. It is best to apply early for the visa to ensure that there is sufficient time for visa processing. As part of the visa application process, you will need to make an appointment for your visa interview with the US Embassy in your country.

Most of the procedures and requirements for applying for a student visa are standardized but some procedures vary by country. Contact the nearest US Embassy or Consulate in your country to find out how to apply for a student visa. You may need an appointment, or there may be walk-in hours.

When should I apply for a visa?

The US Embassy/Consulate cannot issue an F-1 visa more than 120 days before the actual start of the academic program in the United States. Thus, if the university to which you have been admitted states on the I-20 that the program will start on September 1, a visa cannot be issued before May 1. However, visa applicants are encouraged to apply for their visa as soon as they are prepared to do so.

Even if you have been issued a visa to enter the United States, you will not be allowed to enter the country more than 30 days before the start of your program when you arrive initially. Returning students do not have this restriction. For example, if the program of study starts on September 1, you will not be permitted to enter the United States until August 1 or later.

What do I need for my visa interview?

Prior to meeting with US Embassy officials you will need to pay a $100 SEVIS fee to the US government and a visa processing fee (the procedure will differ from one US Embassy/Consulate to another). Make sure you have the following documentation when you go for the interview:

  • your passport valid for at least six months
  • completed Form I-20
  • acceptance letter from your US university
  • documentation of your financial ability to support yourself
  • proof that you have ties to your home country (e.g all your family is in your country, you have a job waiting in your home country)
  • proof of payment of the SEVIS and visa application fees
  • a completed visa application form (Form DS-156 Nonimmigrant Visa Application - follow Department of State instructions carefully to ensure you complete it correctly)

What if my visa is denied?

Your Universities in the USA deposit is refundable in the event of a visa denial. The I-20 immigration document does not guarantee that you will receive a visa. The American consulate must determine if the reason you are applying for the visa is genuine and that you will return to your country once you have finished your education in the United States. If the American consulate or embassy rejects your application, contact us and try to re-apply for a student visa either immediately or at a later date when you have addressed the concerns of the US consulate officer.

What happens when I enter the United States?

You will receive a Form I-94 - your Arrival/Departure Record - onboard your flight to the US. When you enter the United States, you will need to present the following documents to a US Immigration inspector:

  • F-1 visa
  • valid passport
  • I-20 immigration document
  • completed Form I-94
  • financial documents

The immigration inspector will review your papers, stamp your visa, and attach the I-94 to your passport. You must retain it.

What should I do when I arrive at university in the US?

Once you arrive on campus, you should report immediately to the office that is responsible for assisting international students. It may be called the Office of International Services, the International Programs Office, or some other similar name. That office can help you with any questions or concerns you may have about immigration rules and regulations. The office must report your arrival within the SEVIS system. If this report is not submitted, you may be considered to be in violation of your status in the United States, so be sure to make the international student office one of your first stops on campus.