Off to the United States for your masters? You’re in for an amazing experience.
But first, you need to get there. As an international student, you’ll need to secure an F-1 visa for the duration of your studies. This isn’t an ordinary stamp in your passport, and you should expect to spend time gathering documents before scheduling a visa appointment.
Looking for something specific? Take a jump to these pages:
The F-1 visa for international students
An F-1 visa is required for all international students pursuing a degree in the US. These visas may be issued up to 120 days prior the course start date, although you may not enter the US more than 30 days prior to this date.
What you'll need to apply for an F1 visa
- Your passport (valid for at least six months longer than your intended stay in the US)
- The DS-160 confirmation page (having completed the DS-160 application form online)
- Application fee payment receipt
- I20 form from your university You will also need a host of supporting documents that prove you are qualified to undertake the programme you’ve been accepted into, that you’re able to fund your education, and that you plan to return to your home country after graduation.
These documents can include:
- Undergraduate degrees and reports
- TOEFL (or similar) certificates plus GRE or GMAT results
- Your acceptance letter
- Scholarship or loan letters
- Bank statements
- Statement of intent to return (or at least leave)
- Documents from your parents or anyone else supporting your studies
This isn’t an exhaustive list; you should bring original or certified copies of all documents recommended by your university and the US embassy or consulate.
Once you have everything in order, you can make an appointment for your visa interview.
The I-20 form is critical for your F-1 visa
Before you can even think about scheduling that appointment, however, you'll need an I-20 form from your university.
The importance of an I-20 form cannot be underestimated. You will need it to secure your visa and you will need to have it on you when entering the United States. Even with the F-1 visa in your passport, you must show this form to immigration officials at the port of entry.
What is the I-20 form?
The I-20 form is a multi-purpose document that all US government-approved educational institutions issue to students who receive admission to a particular full-time study programme. The I-20 form also proves that the candidate has successfully cleared the financial I-20 requirements for living in the U.S. Officially termed the “Certificate of Eligibility'', the I-20 is needed to apply for an F-1 student visa at US embassies or consulates abroad. You must keep your I-20 visa documents safe to ensure a hassle-free stay in the US.
Why do you need the I-20 form?
The I-20 form is required to apply for your student visa. The form confirms your admission to the programme you will study and the school you will attend when you travel to the United States. Your SEVIS ID will also be on the I-20. If you are studying in the United States, the I-20 will be required from getting your student visa to holding an internship.
How to get an I-20 form: the I-20 application process
Here's an overview of how to apply for your I-20 form:
- Getting this form is a process; it’s not automatically issued to you simply because you’ve been admitted to an American university. The international office is typically the body responsible for issuing your I-20 form and they’ll need several documents from you to make it happen.
- The US I20 form includes your particulars (name, identity or passport numbers, date and place of birth, etc), information about the programme you’re attending (duration, degree level, start and end date, etc), and how you’ll pay for the cost of attendance (which is determined by the university).
- The school and international office will handle the first and second parts with little or no additional input from you, as they have that information to hand. However, if you plan to travel with your spouse or any dependents, you'll need to provide their information to the university.
It is the financial section that requires some information from your end. The left-hand column of this section outlines the Cost of Attendance (for the first year) in 4 parts:
- Tuition and fees
- Living expenses
- Expenses of dependents
- Other expenses
Your calculations do not matter here; the university provides these figures regardless of your actual costs. Whatever the total, you'll need to demonstrate your ability to meet or exceed this figure in the right column.
Proving financial ability for the US I-20 form
Any source of funding you have towards your education will go into the right-hand column. Most students focus on personal funds, scholarships, and funds from another source (such as loans).
Sources of funding for an I-20 form
- The teaching assistant and campus employment processes work differently at just about every university, and it may be that you’re not guaranteed either. You may want to explore your options by speaking to the relevant departments, but keep in mind that masters programmes are demanding and you'll have limited time to commit.
- Bank statements (yours or anyone that directly supports you, such as your parents) typically suffice to prove personal funds. The international office will provide you with the format and duration specifics of the bank statement for the I-20 form.
- Any scholarships or financial aid packages given by the university will automatically be entered into the calculations, but you'll need to provide details of external scholarships. Again, you'll need to inquire as to what suffices as I-20 proof of funds for this an original letter, a certified copy, etc.
- And then there are the funds from other sources. This includes educational loans (from any source), employer sponsorship, and any private funds not coming from your bank account. You may be asked to complete a particular form if your company or an extended family member is providing you with a personal loan.
Using your Prodigy Finance loan sanction letter for the I-20 form to prove financial ability
If you accept a Prodigy Finance loan, the Prodigy Finance letter will serve as proof towards “funds from other sources”. If you accept loans from other sources, you'll need similar letters from those institutions as financial support documents for your I-20 form. These letters will need to be in English or be accompanied by a certified translation. Keep in mind that different institutions offer a different version of the loan sanction letter for I-20 form, but they must provide specific details before they'll be accepted as I-20 proof of funds.
Prodigy Finance borrowers will receive an electronic copy of their loan sanction letter for the I-20 form once all the administrative steps of the loan have been completed. Because we work closely with the finance department of supported schools, this is often sufficient proof for the I-20 form.
If you accept a loan from another institution, the hoops you must jump through to receive your loan acceptance or sanction letter will be different.
- TIP: if you’re comparing loan products and you don’t have a lot of time, you may want to ask about the timing of this letter before applying for any loan.
I-20 processing time: How long will it take to get your I-20 form
The I-20 form processing time differs from school to school. Once you have proven sufficient funds according to the Cost of Attendance given by the school and completed any administrative requests the university may have, they'll send your I-20 form. Methods of delivery vary, and you'll need to check with the international office regarding the specifics.
However, please bear in mind that the US I-20 form only covers the first year’s cost of attendance.
If you are attending a two-year programme, you'll need to demonstrate sufficient assets for the second year to satisfy the immigration officials in charge of issuing your visa. Prodigy Finance’s second-year pre-approval is an appropriate proof of funds for the I-20 form.
What should you do after getting your I-20 form?
Right after getting your hands on the I-20 form, you need to ensure three things:
- Fill out the DS-160 form carefully with your personal, educational, and work details
- Schedule your US visa appointment by registering here.
- Pay a SEVIS fee.
When should you apply for your F-1 visa?
As with everything else relating to international masters study, you want to get started as early as possible. Indeed, it’s not a bad idea to gather paperwork and crunch numbers as soon as you’ve submitted your applications.
Once you’ve been accepted, you’ll need to begin sourcing all the documents required for I-20 form and F-1 visa.
You should be in contact with the international student office as soon as you accept an offer to study. They will guide you through the process, but it'll take time as you need to secure proof of funding and financial documents required for the I-20 form, wait for your I-20 form, schedule a US study visa interview, and then wait for your application to be processed.
In some cases, it may only take a week or two for visa processing. However, if additional background checks are required, that process can take as long as eight weeks. And remember, the United States advises you not to book your travel until you’ve got your US study visa in hand.
Give yourself as much time as you can… it’s definitely worth it.
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.
Prodigy Finance Ltd is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.
Post updated for accuracy and freshness on May 31st 2020, and prior to that on October 28th 2019. Originally published on March 16, 2017.