A College Student’s Guide to U.S. Visas
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Your intended program of study and country of origin can impact the visa you need to study in the United States.
The number of international students in the United States increased from the 1950s to 2020, with a moderate slowdown in growth during the last decade. There are three visa classifications for foreign students and exchange visitors in the U.S.: F, M, and J visas. Each classification has sub-types, each with its own specific requirements and conditions.
Most individuals studying full-time at academic institutions — including most colleges and universities — or enrolled in a language training program need an F-1 visa. Full-time students at vocational or other nonacademic institutions, like trade schools, need an M-1 visa. Exchange students need a J-1 visa.
Commuter students from Mexico or Canada — meaning those who do not plan to live in the U.S., but only to attend U.S. schools — can study via an F-3 or M-3 visa.
This guide addresses frequently asked questions about student visas and explains the different types of visas and how to obtain them. It also explores how online study and employment work while on a student visa.
Frequently Asked Questions
To date, the U.S. issues college student visas to individuals who have been admitted to an appropriate program of study.
A college student visa lasts for the duration of study. After the individual leaves their educational program, they must exit the U.S. within the requisite amount of time associated with their visa type.
Costs for student visas vary by category and country of origin; the application fee is $160. Additional fees may apply.
All student visas require individuals to have a valid passport, a completed application, a photo, and documentation of acceptance to a program of study.
Incomplete or incorrect information on an application may result in a rejected student visa. Insufficient financial resources and unclear post-graduation plans may also jeopardize a visa application.
What Types of Student Visas Are There?
International students studying in the U.S. have three main options for a visa. Individuals enrolled full-time at an academic institution must apply for an F-1 visa, while students who plan to attend a vocational or nonacademic program need an M-1 visa.
During their program of study, F-1 visa-holders can maintain employment, although they are limited to 20 hours of work at an on-campus job. Potential for off-campus employment and additional hours applies on a case-by-case basis. M-1 visa-holders can often take part in approved practical training.
Exchange students studying in the U.S. need a J-1 visa. With a J-1 visa, students can work on campus for up to 20 hours each week during the academic year. Additional employment opportunities include academic training specific to one's field of study or an allowance for off-campus employment based on economic need.
A visitor visa — class B — allows for short recreational and non-credit study.
Individuals entering the U.S. to study full time at an academic institution need an F-1 visa. The visa covers the length of the student's program of study, with additional options to apply for optional practical training (OPT) during or after the program. F-1 visa-holders have 12 months of OPT, although students in STEM fields may apply for an extension.
All F-1 visa-holders must check in with their academic institutions upon arrival to the U.S. To maintain visa status, students have to attend the school where they are authorized and must remain in good academic standing. Students must have an I-20 document from their school that attests to their visa status, and that document that must be extended if they will not complete their program of study by the time it expires.
Each time F-1 visa-holders travel out of the U.S., they must have a travel signature on their I-20 from within the previous year. Students who do not take part in OPT and those who complete OPT must leave the U.S. within 60 days of finishing or leaving their educational program.
International students accepted to a program of study at a vocational or nonacademic institution need an M-1 visa. An M-1 visa allows students to stay in the U.S. for the duration of their program, provided they maintain good academic standing.
M-1 visa-holders can extend their visas if additional time is needed to complete their programs. This requires the renewal of their I-20 document, and extensions are limited to three years.
Eligible M-1 visa-holders can pursue up to six months of practical training after they complete their programs. The length of practical training varies by the length of the M-1 visa-holder's period of study, and learners must request permission to pursue it before their programs end.
Exchange students — meaning students who are in the U.S. as part of a partnership between their home institution and a U.S. institution — need a J-1 visa for the length of their program of study. The date the visa expires appears on the DS-2019 document issued to the visa-holder. J-1 visa-holders have 30 days after expiration to exit the U.S.
J-1 visas are also available to interns, camp counselors, academic scholars, and other participants in trainee programs. Each J-1 visa requires a sponsor, and the visa-holder must report to their sponsor upon arrival in the country. Extensions for J-1 visas depend on program type, and many exchange programs no not allow for continuation.
Employment opportunities for J-1 visa-holders include part-time, on-campus work for up to 20 hours each week during the academic year.
Getting a Student Visa
To apply for a college student visa, students need a valid passport, proof of admission to an eligible program, and proof that they have financial resources to support themselves during their program of study. The application process also includes payment of requisite fees.
Some applicants will need to demonstrate English language proficiency, though the level of required English proficiency varies by visa. J-1 visa-holders need to demonstrate language abilities, but students entering a language program on an F-1 visa may take a test to determine at what level they should study.
It is also common for visa applicants to complete an interview. If required, the interview will take place with a consular officer. At an interview meeting, students should present transcripts, standardized test scores, and other relevant academic and educational information. The official will also ask about the student's plans to leave the U.S. after completing their program and about how they will pay for travel- and education-related expenses.
F and M student visas may be granted up to 120 days before a program start date, but visa-holders may not enter the U.S. more than 30 days in advance of that start date.
Studying Remotely While on a Student Visa
Online options for international students in the U.S. were, until fairly recently, limited. Until July 2020, international students with an F-1 visa were only allowed to take one course per semester online for academic credit. J-1, M-1, and English as a Second Language students were not allowed to take any online classes to meet program requirements.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, students holding F-1, M-1, and J-1 visas were allowed to take a mix of online and on-campus classes, and visa-holders already in the U.S. were allowed to remain even if their institutions shifted to fully online classes. However, no visa-holders may enroll in fully online degrees.
Working While on a Student Visa
Holders of F-1, M-1, and J-1 visas all have options to take part in practical training while studying in the U.S. Students need to apply for practical training and may be limited as to how many hours they can work each week.
F-1 and J-1 visa-holders can also work part time, with permission. Students with these visas can work up to 20 hours each week at on-campus jobs during the academic year, and occasional exceptions are made for individuals with extreme financial need. Over summer months or breaks during the year, enrolled visa-holders may also have opportunities to work full time.
Policy Updates Impacting Student Visas
In January 2021, President Joe Biden resumed visa processing and ended travel restrictions put into place by the Trump administration. By opening up visas to individuals from previously restricted countries, the Biden administration put an end to what it termed "discriminatory bans on entry into the United States."
A subsequent proclamation from the Biden administration called for the implementation of "science-based public health measures" to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. As a result, federal officials are working to determine appropriate precautions that need to be established for international and domestic travel. These will impact international students as they pursue visas to enter the U.S., but the details remain unclear.
Header Image Credit: Nastasic | Getty Images
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