Student Visa Basics

Student Visa Basics

Overview of F-1 and M-1 Student Visas


General Information

Foreign students may study full time at thousands of learning institutions approved by USCIS, including American language schools, high schools, universities and other institutions of higher education.

If your main purpose of travel to the U.S. is tourism but you also want to take studies of less than 18 hours per week, you may be able to do so on a visitor visa. If, however, your studies will be more than 18 hours per week, you must secure an F-1 or M-1 student visa. F-1 student visas are granted to academic and language students for the full duration of their studies. M-1 student visas are issued to vocational students for up to 1 year of studies.

Application Process

First you must apply and get accepted to an USCIS-approved learning institution. Your school will provide you with Form I-20, F-1 or M-1 as applicable. Both you and your school must sign this form. Your school will enter this information into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), an internet-based system that maintains nonimmigrant student information.

You will also provide Form DS-156 Nonimmigrant Visa Application as well as DS-158 Contact Information and Work History for Nonimmigrant Visa Applicant.

After you application has been accepted, you will attend an interview. A digital fingerprint scan will be taken in addition to a digital photo.

You will need a passport with an expiry date at least 6 months past the end date of your period of study. A passport-type photograph must also be supplied as well as a receipt confirming all application fees have been paid.

Tip: Plan ahead! The summer months before the start of fall semesters are the busiest months for Embassies and Consulates, and you might have trouble getting an appointment during those months. Your visa can be issued 120 days or less in advance of your study registration date. If you apply more than 120 days in advance, your application will be held until the 120-day mark.


Be prepared to provide transcripts and diplomas from previous institutions. You will also need to show your standardized tests scores. Both the learning institution as well as USCIS will need financial evidence showing that you and/or your sponsor can cover your tuition and living expenses while you’re in the U.S. Proof may include tax documents, bank statements, and if applicable, business registrations and licenses.


You cannot arrive in the U.S. more than 30 days before your study start date. If you need to come sooner than this, you must obtain a visitor visa. Note, that if you choose this route, you will need to file for an adjustment from visitor status to student status. This will require an additional fee, and you can’t begin your studies until the adjustment has been approved.

Entering the U.S.

When you arrive at the port-of-entry, you will provide Form I-20 to the Border Protection official. The official will review your documents and authorize your entry into the U.S. You will be enrolled in the US-VISIT program and an I-94 Arrival-Departure Record will be placed in your passport. DO NOT lose this form, as it is the only record of your arrival in the country.

Duration of a Student Visa

If you’ve been admitted for the full duration of your studies as an F-1 visa holder, you may remain in the U.S. until your studies are completed, even if this takes you beyond your F-1 visa expiry date. Even if your visa expires, you may remain in the States as long as you continue your full-time studies. Once your studies are complete, you are allowed some additional time before you must exit the country. F-1 students may stay for an additional 60 days.

M-1 students are admitted to the U.S. for a 1-year course of study. They have 30 days to depart the U.S. after completion of their studies, but their total time in the U.S. cannot exceed 1 year.

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