The F-1 student visa: What you need to know

Check the requirements for this popular visa to decrease the chances of being denied.

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What's Inside

What's Inside

The United States is home to world-class institutions of learning and unique educational programs. It’s no wonder that the F-1 student visa is one of the most sought-after visas the country offers. Unfortunately, the F-1 visa also has a relatively high denial rate—nearly 35 percent in 2022.

This article explores what you should know to help you avoid the risk your application is denied. First, we discuss the F-1 visa requirements. Then we explain how it differs from other student visas, how to apply for the F-1 visa and your options after you get your visa.

F-1 visa requirements

The F-1 visa allows students to come to the U.S. to attend the following academic institutions:

  • University or college
  • High school
  • Private elementary school
  • Seminary
  • Conservatory
  • Other academic institutions, including language training programs

To be eligible to apply, you need to meet the following F-1 visa requirements.

1. Enrollment

F-1 visa holders must be enrolled as full-time students. Additionally, the institution they attend must be Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-approved.

2. Employment

You typically aren’t allowed to accept off-campus employment during your first year on an F-1 visa. However, you may apply for on-campus work with approval from your designated school official (DSO). If they sign off, while school is in session, you can work up to 20 hours per week. During other times of the year, you may work full time.

After your first year, you may apply to work off-campus if all of the following applies: 

  • You have good academic standing
  • On-campus employment is unavailable or doesn’t meet your financial needs
  • You’re experiencing “severe economic hardship” or “emergent circumstances” that arose after your enrollment

Severe economic hardship includes:

  • Loss of financial aid or on-campus work
  • Substantial increases to tuition or cost-of-living
  • Significant decreases in the value of your home currency
  • Unexpected changes in your financial situation

Emergent circumstances include but are not limited to:

  • Natural disasters
  • War and military conflict
  • Financial crises

If you work without authorization, you violate the terms of your visa and may be deported.

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3. Financial support

To obtain an F-1 visa, you need to show you can support yourself financially. Documentation for this may include bank statements and proof of scholarships. Sometimes you may have a U.S. sponsor submit a Form I-134, Declaration of Financial Support, to meet this requirement. 

4. Nonimmigrant intent

With few exceptions, nonimmigrant visas require applicants to demonstrate they don’t intend to immigrate to the U.S. permanently. Instead, you must prove you have “nonimmigrant intent”, meaning you intend to leave the U.S. after you complete your program. You’ll be asked to offer evidence of your intent to depart and your ties to your home country. 

5. English proficiency

The last F-1 visa requirement is you either need to be proficient in English or be enrolled in courses to become proficient.

F-1 visa vs M-1 visa

Students attending vocational, technical and nonacademic institutions may apply for an M-1 visa. These programs are typically shorter and focus on training students in skills applicable to a trade in hands-on ways.

F-1 visa vs J-1 visa

J-1 visa programs include student and student-related opportunities. The programs have varying qualifications and offer different visit lengths, and many J-1 visas include a foreign residency requirement after the program is completed. Under that requirement, you return home for two years before you may return to the U.S. unless you’re granted a waiver.

How to apply for an F-1 student visa

Below are the general steps to apply for an F-1 student visa.

1. Apply to a school

To begin your F-1 visa application, you apply directly to one or more SEVP schools. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operates SEVP and the related online Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)

You may look up SEVP-approved programs through DHS’s school search. Nearly 15,000 institutions have SEVP approval nationwide. 

2. Request your student visa

After a school accepts your application, it sends you a Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. Using the information on that form, you pay the I-901 SEVIS Fee, currently $350. Then you request a student visa in one of two ways, depending on if you live abroad or in the U.S.

Living abroad

If you live abroad, you must go through consular processing, where you request a U.S. consulate or embassy issue your visa by submitting a DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application. 

After you submit Form DS-160, you pay an application fee (currently $185) and schedule a visa interview. You may consult the State Department’s global or consulate-specific wait time pages to get a sense of how long you’ll wait to get an interview. 

Living in the U.S.

If you’re already in the U.S., submit Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Also submit documents showing your acceptance into an SEVP-approved program, that you qualify for the program and that you have the means to financially support yourself. There’s also an application fee (currently $370). 

After you submit your application, USCIS will send you a notice informing you of the day, time and location of your visa interview at a USCIS office. 

3. Attend your interview

Bring copies or originals of all relevant documents to your visa interview. This may include your:

  • Passport
  • DS-160 confirmation page (if you live abroad)
  • Proof of your current valid immigration status (if you live in the U.S.)
  • Passport-style photograph, if not uploaded to the DS-160
  • Form I-20
  • Academic records or transcripts
  • Diplomas, degrees or certificates
  • Bank statements or other proof that you have the financial means to support yourself in the U.S.

Whether you attend an interview at a consulate or a USCIS office, your interviewer will ask similar student visa interview questions. Often they review your qualifications, ask about your program of study and ensure you’ll follow the terms and conditions of the F-1 visa program, like maintaining your status, employment options, financial reserves and intent to leave the U.S. Examples of possible student visa interview questions include:

  • What are you coming to the U.S. to study?
  • Why did you select the school you’re planning to attend?
  • Why do you want to study in the U.S. specifically?
  • How will you pay your bills while you study in the U.S.?
  • What do you plan to do after you complete your program?

After your interview, the officer should tell you whether your application is approved or denied, or if they need more information before they’re able to proceed. If they deny your application, they should tell you why. If you can remedy the issue, you may be able to reapply for a visa.

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4. Begin your program

If you’re outside the U.S., you may enter the country within 30 days of your start date. Within those 30 days, you must travel to the U.S. and request entry. Unless Customs and Border Protection (CBP) determines that you’re a national security threat or otherwise inadmissible, you should be admitted.

5. Finish your program

At the end of your program, you may depart the U.S. Or you may also apply for optional practical training (OPT), allowing you to stay in the U.S. temporarily to receive training in your field of study.

And, despite the requirement that you have nonimmigrant intent, you may seek another visa. You may change your status to another nonimmigrant visa, like a temporary work visa. Or, if you have a qualified U.S. sponsor, you may pursue an immigrant visa, allowing you to get a green card.

How an attorney may help

Despite its popularity, the F-1 visa is among the most commonly denied visas. Though you don’t need to work with a lawyer, hiring an immigration attorney may give you an edge up. Your attorney may review your application, guide you through each step and help you avoid common mistakes.

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Frequently asked questions

Can I work while on an F-1 visa?

You may be able to work on an F-1 visa. With designated school official (DSO) approval, you may work an on-campus job for up to 20 hours per week during the school term and full-time outside of it. You may only work off campus after a year of academic study and if you can show emergent circumstances or severe economic hardship.

Can I bring my family with me on an F-1 visa?

Yes, with an F-1 visa, you may bring your spouse and unmarried children under age 21 to the U.S. Each person you bring with you should receive their own I-20 and, if approved, will be issued an F-2 visa. Note that F-2 visa holders aren’t allowed to work in the U.S., and bringing your family may raise questions about your nonimmigrant intent. So, if you’re applying for an F-2 visa, showing your financial resources and nonimmigrant intent often becomes even more vital.

Can I change status from an F-1 student visa to a green card?

Yes, you may apply for a green card while on F-1 status. You need to qualify for an immigrant visa and follow USCIS procedures to apply for it.

What is the processing time for an F-1 visa?

If you’re applying from abroad, the F-1 visa processing time depends on when you get an interview, which varies based on the consulate. If you’re applying from the U.S., applications for F-1 status currently take about four to eight months.

How long can you stay in the U.S. on an F-1 visa?

You may stay in the U.S. on an F-1 visa as long as the program authorizes. For example, if you’re working on a bachelor’s degree, you’ll likely be authorized to stay for four years.

Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

This page includes links to third party websites. The inclusion of third party websites is not an endorsement of their services.

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