Ready to study your international master’s in the US? Somewhere in your list of to-dos will be getting your US study visa.
For most people, this means securing an F-1 study visa. If your spouse or dependents are joining you during your time in the States, it also means getting F-2 visas for accompanying family members.
Getting your study visa is a process (just like getting into grad school), but it’s a fairly straightforward one - as long as you know what’s expected.
This guide will tell you what you need to know to get yours. We’ll help you out with everything from using a Prodigy Finance loan to secure your I-20 form to the work privileges and exceptions you need to know before you leave.
What is the F-1 study visa? (And who needs an F-1 visa?)
The F-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa to enter the United States for educational purposes. If you intend to pursue a master’s degree and you’re not a citizen or permanent resident of the United States, you’ll need to apply for the F-1 visa (or a similar class of visa under the advisement of an immigration official or advisor).
There are very few exceptions, such as entry for short-term, non-degree courses which can sometimes (but not always) be taken while on a visitor visa. Anyone wishing to study their master’s in the US who is currently in the US on another, non-tourist visa should consult their immigration advisor.
A non-immigrant visa entitles you to enter and stay in a country for a specific time period. You are obligated to leave the country before it expires or to legally and officially extend your right to remain. Study visas, including the F-1, fall into this category.
Immigrant visas allow holders to remain in a country for as long as they wish (and uphold any obligations attached to the visa).
A snapshot of the F-1 student visa:
- Non-immigrant visa for education.
- Lasts maximum 60 months (or the length of your degree).
- For non-US citizens or residents who aren’t in the US when they’re applying.
- Allows you the opportunity to apply for the OPT extension.
How long are F-1 visas valid?
The maximum duration of an F-1 visa is 60 months.
However, F-1 visas are issued to foreign nationals for the length of study. If you’ve been accepted to a master’s programme that lasts 12 months, you will receive a visa for a maximum of 12 months. If your degree will take two years, the visa length will be two years.
There are additional regulations:
- Nationals of certain countries may only have privileges to stay in the US for a period less than the length of their study. For example, some passport holders may only be issued an F-1 visa for 12 months, even if their programme lasts 24 months. You can find specifics about your country here. Speak to an immigration lawyer about how you should handle these cases.
- It’s possible to apply for an Optional Practical Training (OPT) F-1 visa extension to pursue work experience during or after your studies. This offers the possibility of extra time. Check out our guide to OPT visa extensions to learn more. Study visas are, for every country, a privilege not a right. Any country issuing study visas can impose additional restrictions and has the right to deny a study visa application.
Before you apply for your F-1 visa
There are a few things you need to do before you can apply for your F-1 study visa:
- You must be admitted to an SEVP-approved institution. For reference, all Prodigy Finance-supported schools in the United States are SEVP-approved. If you’ve been admitted to a programme Prodigy Finance does not support in the US, you need to ensure it’s on the US government’s list.
- You must have an I-20 form from your university. It’s not enough to be admitted, you must also have official documentation from your school that shows you’ve proven to them that you’re financially capable of supporting yourself for at least the first year of your studies; the I-20 form provides this proof to immigration officials and you can’t apply for your visa without it.
TIP: The international student office at your university will guide you through the process of getting your I-20 form and will likely contact you as soon as you accept your admission to your school.
Application process for F-1 visas
Once you have your I-20 form, you can apply for your F-1 visa. The process includes fee payments, completing application form DS-160 and an in-person interview at your nearest embassy or consulate.
Because each aspect is important, specific and there are exceptions for several nationalities, we’ve broken the application process down into several stages to make them easier to understand. Each section is part of your F-1 visa application as a whole and, therefore, must be completed as per US guidelines.
Where can you apply for your F-1 student visa?
Although you will complete the DS-160 form online, you’re applying at a specific US embassy or consulate for your visa. It’s very important that you select the closest or most convenient embassy or consulate to your current residence because you’ll need to:
Make a payment to cover your application fee (which sometimes requires a local account deposit).
Travel to this embassy or consulate for your visa interview.
You may need to pick up your passport (hopefully, with your new visa inside).
You should note that you can’t change which embassy or consulate once you’ve submitted your DS-160.
How much does an F-1 visa cost?
The F-1 visa application fee is $160. If you’re applying for an F-2 visa for your spouse or dependents, you’ll pay an additional $160 per person.
For most applicants, the visa application fee is the only official fee to pay. (There are also unofficial costs, such as making copies and travelling to your interview, which aren’t payable to the US government, but which you’ll need to budget for.)
There are, however, exceptions. Due to diplomatic agreements, nationals of specific countries may need to pay more, either for their visa application fee or as a visa processing fee (when an application is successful).
You can find a list of additional or exceptional fees by visiting the US State Department’s website. It’s your responsibility to check for and pay all fees applicable to your visa application.
Each embassy and consulate has their own instructions for fee payment. You will need to follow the instructions given by the embassy or consulate where you will apply and be interviewed.
When can you apply for your F-1 visa?
In principle, you should apply for your visa as soon as you have your I-20 form, the application fee ready to pay and all of your supporting documentation ready to go. You don’t have control over how long it takes to get your visa; that’s up to the embassy and US governmental procedures.
The time it takes to issue a visa is dependent on:
- Your nationality.
- The embassy or consulate where you apply.
- The number of applications submitted.
- When you and immigration officials can schedule your interview.
- Whether officials have questions regarding parts or the whole of your application.
You can’t rush the student visa process, but you can start early.
In addition, F-1 student visas can be issued up to 120 days before the course start date and you can enter the country up to 30 days prior to your course start date.
TIP: If you wish to enter the US more than 30 days before your course begins, you‘ll need to apply for a visitor visa and subsequently apply for a change in status before your course begins (or you can be found in breach of your visa conditions and possibly deported). Speak to the embassy or consulate where you apply to learn more about entering earlier, before booking your ticket.
Documentation required for your F-1 visa application
Receiving your I-20 is a signal that you’re ready to start your F-1 visa application, but it’s not the only document you need.
You need to gather several documents for your F-1 visa application and these can be broken into two groups:
These are the standard documents that all F-1 visa applicants are required to submit. They include:
A passport valid at least six months longer than your intended stay. (There are a few exceptions to the length of validity. Check with the embassy or consulate where you’ll apply if your passport is set to expire before the completion of your studies.)
Receipt for payment of your visa application fee.
The I-20 form provided by your university.
Visa application form DS-160. It is completed online and the confirmation page must be printed and brought to your interview. The DS-160 form is the cornerstone of your F-1 visa application; if you have any questions about how to complete it or you’re uncertain about a question, contact a US embassy or consulate.
A passport photo which can be uploaded along with your DS-160 application or printed according to US government requirements. The sizing of US passport photos is probably different than in your country and other sizes will not be accepted. There are several requirements you must meet, including background colour and the removal of glasses and hats. Be sure to check these requirements before having your picture taken.
In addition to the required documents, you may be required to complete additional forms. You will also be asked to provide supporting documents which are specific to your application. These can include:
Everything that shows how you’re paying for your studies and living expenses while you’re in the US. This includes:
- Your Prodigy Finance loan letter
- Scholarship and fellowship letters
- Bank statements
- Sponsorship letters
- Employment letters, bank statements and other financial information from others who may be supporting you
Academic success and preparation documents, such as:
- Diplomas and transcripts
- GMAT, GRE, LSAT or similar test results
- TOEFL or other English proficiency test scores
- Proof of academic awards
Documents showing your intent to return to your home country after graduation. This can be difficult to prove for many students as it’s best demonstrated through:
- Property ownership documents
- Close familial ties (spouse, children or other dependents not travelling with you)
- Job or career opportunities or offers in your home country
TIP: Supporting documents aren’t the only way to prove your intent to leave the US after getting your degree, but they are the easiest. If you don’t own property or have a job to return to, however, you should be prepared to answer more questions about your post-graduation plans than others might face.
Document checklist for your F-1 student visa
Must have documents:
- Receipt for your visa fee
- I-20 form
- Printout of your DS-160 application
- Passport photo
- Financial supporting documents (like your Prodigy Finance loan letter)
- Academic records
- Supporting documents to show you have roots to your home country
What questions to expect in the F-1 visa interview
All of the information on your DS-160 and I-20 forms can be independently verified. But, the purpose of the visa interview isn’t to check facts; it’s to see if:
- You have other motives for entering the US.
- You have plans to remain in the US after graduation.
- Your finances and academic drive are sufficient to get your degree.
As such, you can expect questions that relate to all three concerns.
Above all you need to prove that your primary reason for entering the US is the education you can receive at the university you’re attending, that you plan to leave the US after getting your degree and that you’ve got the financing you need to support yourself.
After you get your F-1 visa
Congratulations! You’re one step closer to your dream degree.
While you’re thinking about your finances, now’s a good time to double check your budget. If you still need an international student loan, check out what Prodigy Finance can offer - or begin budgeting for your second year on campus to make sure everything is in order before leaving for the US.
Once you get on campus, make sure you get to the international office, as they’ll help you stay on top of visa changes and regulations.
When it comes to your internships and post-graduation employment, both the international office and the career center at your university will guide you through the process of applying for your F-1 OPT visa extension or your H-1B employment visa.
And, if your Prodigy Finance loan includes living expenses, don’t forget to open a local bank account as soon as possible so your university can transfer these funds to you.
Want to know how to fund your masters abroad?
Prodigy Finance provides loans to international students pursuing their masters at top schools across the globe.
The purpose of this guide is to provide prospective students with an overview of the application process for a US student visa and should not be regarded as legal or immigration advice or as a substitute for the official information published by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) from time to time or any instructions and/or advice provided by US embassies and consuls. Whilst we have carefully compiled the guide in accordance with the information published by USCIS, Prodigy Finance Limited does not accept liability for any inaccuracies, mistakes, omissions or outdated information in the guide and we encourage prospective students and other readers to consult the USCIS’s website at https://www.uscis.gov. Prodigy Finance Limited is not authorized by the Department of Justice (DOJ)'s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to provide immigration services and will not provide any additional information or assistance to any person to apply for a US student or other category visa.