US Student Visa Requirements: How to Apply for an F-1 Visa

US Student Visa Requirements: How to Apply for an F-1 Visa
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Applying for a United States student visa can be a painstaking process. You need to know your deadlines, plan months ahead, and check all requirements for your specific visa type. These are all part of the challenges of studying abroad.

Three types of student visas are available to foreigners. These are the M visas for vocational study, J visas for cultural exchange programs, and F visas for academic study. The F visa is the most prevalent type as 94% of universities sponsor their international students under the F visa program (Student Exchange and Visitor Program, 2014 cited in Demirci, 2019).

In this article, we will focus on how to apply for an F-1 visa. F-1 is for full-time students studying at an accredited U.S. college or university or students studying English at an English language institute.

F-1 Student Visa Requirements Table of Contents

  1. Valid Passport
  2. Form I-20
  3. SEVIS I-901 Fee
  4. Form DS-160
  5. Additional Documents 
  6. What to Do in Case of Visa Denial

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., new immigration policies were adopted in the country’s visa system. These policies were aimed to prevent such an attack from happening again since it was found that the attackers came to the U.S. via legal travel channels. Though meant to safeguard the nation, the changes also became huge obstacles to legitimate international students and scholars (Urias and Yeakey, 2009).

On October 26, 2001, Congress enacted PL107-56, also known as the USA PATRIOT Act. This statute contains several important immigration-related provisions. The Act established the January 30, 2003 deadline for colleges and universities to comply with SEVIS or Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (Urias & Yeakey, 2009). SEVIS’s purpose is to track and monitor non-immigrant students and exchange visitors. It also enables authorities to identify visa status violators.

Even with stricter student visa requirements and background checks, the U.S. still remains the top host destination for international students globally with over one million students in 2019 (Duffin, 2020). Most of the international students came from China, followed by India, and South Korea (Duffin, 2019).

Moreover, the enrollment of international students in bachelor’s- and masters-level programs of U.S. colleges and universities almost doubled over the last decade with about a third of international students majoring in STEM fields covering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Demirci, 2019).

Source: Statista

Student Visa Requirements in the U.S.

Citizens of Canada and Bermuda do not need a visa to enter the US as a student. For other foreign nationals who will pursue studies that will lead to a US-conferred degree or certificate, a student visa is required.

1. Valid Passport

Before you start your F-1 visa application, make sure you have a valid passport with several blank pages for a visa. Some countries have a 10-year validity for adult passports, while some have five years. As for the blank pages, “U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recommend that at least one more blank page is available for your passport to be stamped if you are admitted to the United States” (US Embassy in the UK, n.d.). 

Moreover, make sure your passport is six months beyond your intended period of stay in the U.S. There are several instances where you’ll need to provide your passport details throughout your student visa application, from applying for admissions at a university to filling out visa application forms.

Some countries are exempted from the six-month rule. You can check the updated country list to see if you only need a valid passport for your intended period of stay.

2. Form I-20

Form I-20, also called the “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status–For Academic and Language Students,” is your acceptance letter from a SEVP-approved school. The SEVP or Student and Exchange Visitor Program is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program that administers the SEVIS.

It is important to apply to a SEVP-approved school to make sure that your degree is internationally recognized by other universities, professional organizations, and employers. Once you get accepted by your prospective school, they will register you with the SEVIS system, which will then generate the Form I-20. Note that not all institutions that issue the Form I-20 are SEVP-approved.

Form I-20 is a very important document not only during the F-1 application process but also throughout your stay in the country as an international student. You will need to present your Form I-20, for example, when entering the U.S. Do not pack it away in your checked luggage. You also need it when applying for a driver’s license or social security number, and when departing the U.S. after your studies.

3. SEVIS I-901 Fee

The SEVIS I-901 fee is used to maintain the office of the program and the automated services that keep track and update the information of students and exchange visitors. You must have a Form I-20 before paying the I-901 fee since you will need to fill out the Form I-901 with information from your Form I-20. You can schedule a visa interview appointment before paying the I-901 fee. Settle your I-901 fee at least three days prior to your interview date to allow the system to properly process and verify your payment.

New and increased I-901 fees took effect on June 24, 2019. For most students, the fee is $350. There are several payment options detailed on the SEVIS page. These include debit card, credit card, international money order, and check payments.

After paying, you can print a copy of your receipt by going to and selecting Check I-901 Status/ Print Payment Confirmation. Though people who need to verify your payment can do it online through the system, SEVP recommends that you keep a printed copy of your receipt since it makes it easier to prove that you have paid. You will also need to present it on the day of your visa interview.  

4. Form DS-160

Form DS-160 is the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application form for temporary travel to the U.S. Consular officers use the information on the DS-160, together with the applicant’s personal interview to determine if they are eligible for a student visa.

Before accessing the online DS-160 form, it is best to prepare a photo of yourself that meets the photo requirements for the application. You will be asked to upload your photo in the process of filling out the form.

To begin completing the DS-160 form, you need to select the country where you will be applying for your visa. There is also a security question you need to complete before the site takes you to the pages of the form. You will need to provide personal details, including your date of birth, passport details, and details of your previous travels to the U.S., among others.

Once you are done, you will be asked to electronically sign the form. After signing, your application will be uploaded into the system and you will receive a confirmation page with your application ID number, a barcode, and a barcode number. Print the details of the DS-160 barcode page.

Finally, visit the US Consulate or Embassy website so you can schedule your visa interview appointment. On the country-specific website, you will also be able to review the instructions on how to pay for the visa application processing fee.

5. Additional Documents

On the day of your visa interview, you need to present all the required documents we have mentioned above. There are also additional documents you should prepare and bring with you in case the consular officer asks for them during your interview.

Additional documents you need to prepare:

  • academic records (Ex. transcripts, diplomas, or certificates from schools you attended)
  • results of your standardized test (Ex. SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, etc.)
  • English proficiency test results (Ex. TOELF or IELTS)
  • recommendation letters
  • bank statements
  • documents for financial support covering the duration of your study

Arrival at a US port-of-entry

F visas can be issued up to 120 days prior to your course start date; however, you can only enter the U.S. 30 days before the start date of your course. Having an F-1 visa does not guarantee entry into the U.S. When you arrive at a U.S. port-of-entry and present your passport, visa, and Form I-20, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official will make this decision. You may be asked to present the same documents being used to apply for a visa including evidence of financial resources, letter of acceptance from your university, the paper receipt for SEVIS I-901 fee, etc. Once you are allowed to enter, the CBP official will give you an admission stamp or paper Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record.

Based on SEVIS data from 2018, the largest number of F-1 visa holders were in the West region of the U.S. California was the top state for international students (19.5%), followed by New York (11.2%), Texas (6.6%), Massachusetts (6.5%), and Florida (5.4%) (ICE, 2018).

Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

What Can You Do with Your F-1 Visa

You are allowed to renew, extend, and travel abroad with an F-1 visa. There are, however, specific instructions you should follow before leaving the U.S. to make sure you can reenter without problems. Talk to your Designated School Official (DSO) to discuss your case. Colleges and universities that host international students will have a DSO.

You are not allowed to work off-campus with an F-1 visa during your first academic year; however, you can accept on-campus work during your first academic year, subject to certain restrictions. You may also change the status of your F-1 visa to another category if, for example, you are offered employment that requires a different visa or if you get married to a U.S. citizen.

Departure from the US

One of the many changes to immigration policies that were implemented as a response to the 9/11 attacks is the new and comprehensive entry and exit system under the US-VISIT program of the US Department of Homeland Security. US-VISIT affects all international students/scholars except some Canadians (Urias & Yeakey, 2009). Through biometrics collection and constantly updated arrival and departure data, the system detects if a visitor overstays his or her allotted time.

F-1 visa holders must leave the U.S. within 60 days after the program end date indicated on their Form I-20. Failure to do so will result in being out-of-status, which automatically voids your visa. This can also make you ineligible for other U.S. visas in the future.

What to Do in Case of Visa Denial

Though data indicates that the U.S. is still the top destination for international students, those numbers might be on the decline. In 2018, 83% of institutions participating in the Institute of International Education’s annual “hot topics” survey reported that visa delays and denials were a factor in declining numbers of international students; in 2016, only 34% said the same (Usher, 2019).

  1. Reapply

    If your visa is denied, ask your interviewer what went wrong in your application. If you are not able to obtain this information, here are common reasons for rejection:

    • insufficient proof of financial capacity to support your studies and stay in the U.S.
    • inadequate or missing documents
    • failed background checks
    • behavior during the interview (ex. you were panicking, unable to provide convincing answers to questions)
    • not able to provide a satisfactory explanation on why you chose your university and what you intend to do with your degree in the future
    • inability to present proof of your intention to go back to your home country after your studies
    • insufficient English language skills

    Once you have figured out the reason why your visa was rejected, work to correct that mistake, if possible seek assistance from an immigration expert to examine your application and later reapply. You can apply as many times as you wish; however, if multiple rejections come your way, look at other options below.

  2. Study in Another Country

    If for any reason, you are not able to reapply for a U.S. student visa, you can look to other countries with equally world-class programs. Universities in Asia, Europe, and Australia top rankings for most international universities.

  3. Take Courses or Work While Waiting to Reapply

    You can also pursue other interests while pondering whether you want to reapply for a student visa. If you decide to work, your professional experience might have a positive impact on your profile. On the other hand, you can also take up courses related to the discipline you would like to study in the future. Check these most affordable private and public online colleges to see if any of them offer the courses you’re interested in.

  4. Study in Your Home Country

    Sometimes you do not need to go far in order to receive a quality education. If your situation changes and you no longer want to pursue your studies abroad, studying in your home country is always a good option. Needless to say, you will have an easier time preparing documents and the entire application process will also be less expensive.

Planning Is Everything

Studying the visa application process and preparing all the student visa requirements way in advance can definitely have a huge impact on the final outcome of your application. The good news is that the process of how to apply for a student visa for the U.S. is quite transparent and straightforward. It is often a matter of taking time to understand the steps you need to take and making sure you set aside ample time to gather all your documents.

The school year in the U.S. starts in August or September, so work backward from the start date of your intended program in order to figure out when you should be starting your student visa application. Also, you need to factor in the processing time in the U.S. Consulate in your country.

Take it from Benjamin Franklin’s most famous quote, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” Careful short- and long-term planning is necessary to make your student experience abroad as rewarding and worthwhile as possible.

Continue learning more about college life. Check our article on reasons not to go to college—barriers to tertiary education.



  1. Urias, D., & Yeakey, C. (2009). Analysis of the US visa system: Misperceptions, barriers, and consequences.  Journal of Studies in International Education, 13(1), 72-109.
  2. Duffin, E. (2020, March 9). Top host destination of international students worldwide in 2019, by number of students. Statista.
  3. Duffin, E. (2019, November 19). Number of international students studying in the United States in 2018/19, by country of origin. Statista.
  4. Dimirci, M. (2019, April 25). Transition of international STEM students to the US labor market: The role of visa policy. Economic Inquiry, 57(3), 1367-1391.
  5. Usher, A. (2019). Has President Trump scared away all the foreign students? Education Next, 19(4).
  6. US ICE (2018). 2018 SEVIS by the Numbers Report. Washington, DC: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
  7. US Embassy & Consulates in the United Kingdom (n.d.). Passport and Travel Documents. Washington, DC: US Department of State.

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