F-1 Visa Application Overview Glancis Luzeena Raja PhD Candidate, Mayo Clinic Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org This resource is a general overview of the F-1 visa application process (applicable for incoming master’s level and doctoral students from other countries). This process may vary based on country of origin (including additional steps, varying fees, documents etc.). So in addition to these steps, check your local embassy’s website for more specific instructions. You will be able to begin your visa application process and schedule your interview 120 days prior to the start date of your program, no sooner than that date. It is recommended that you schedule your appointment right at this 120-day mark, booking your appointment any later than that could result in delays in visa processing as open slots for interviews fill up quickly. Here are the broad strokes of the F-1 visa application process: • Admission documents from SEVP Institution The SEVP refers to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The primary role of this program is to approve and oversee institutions (i.e. the universities and programs you apply to for graduate school) that enroll nonimmigrant international students under the F and M visa categories who primarily come to the United States for the purpose of education and graduate training. This program also collects and retains information on international students for the purpose of national security. After securing your admission with an accredited university, you will receive an I-20 from the university, in addition to your acceptance letter. The I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status) is the first document you will need to begin the visa application process. You cannot schedule an appointment without this document, so ensure you follow up with the university’s international student office/department to receive this without delays. • SEVIS I-901 fee The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), part of the SEVP, charges a fee of $200. You need to retain a receipt of payment of this fee to include in your visa application form. • DS-160 form The DS-160 form is the nonimmigrant visa application form you fill online to start the application process. You need to complete this form prior to scheduling your visa interview. This means you will already need to have certain documents/information ready before you begin this application. The documents you will need to start with are: passport, photograph (that meets the specifications detailed here), travel itinerary (if already made), details about your last five visits (of any and all kinds) to the United States (if applicable), resume or curriculum vitae, I-20 issued by the university you will be attending, address of the school and program you intend to attend. This form need not be completed all in one go, you can begin your application, save your progress and resume it at any point within 30 days (always remember to save your progress as you fill this form). It is advisable to prepare all relevant documents and then begin the process to keep your time spent on the application to a minimum. A useful link to review before you plan to put together your documents for the DS-160 form is: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/forms/ds- 160-online-nonimmigrant-visa-application/ds-160-faqs.html • Visa application fee This fee is $160; however, rates may vary based on country. Always check the website for more details or contact your local embassy. • Scheduling F1 visa interview at Embassy This interview can only be scheduled once the visa application and required documents are submitted. The US Embassy also only processes visa applications approximately 120 days prior to the start date of the program specified by your university in the I-20. So this date needs to be kept in mind while scheduling your appointment (further details on the visa interview process in section below). • Submission of F1 related documents The following documents are required as part of your visa application: (1) Valid passport. (2) Completed DS-160. (3) Proof of payment of the F1 visa application fee and SEVIS fee. (4) Acceptance letter from the university. (5) I-20 from the university you have been accepted to, specifying the program and duration. This form also states the total amount of funds you would need to finance your study. This form is especially important because applicants must produce financial documents proving funds are available to cover these expenses (the university will fund PhD candidates, but as part of the visa application process you are still required to prove that you have funds to handle your expenses should you need to -- elaborated in section below). (6) Two copies of a photograph that meet the US visa photo requirements. (7) Educational qualifications: this includes original transcripts of all earned degrees relevant to your program, test scores (for the USA, this is your GRE, TOEFL scores, GMAT if applicable). (8) Proof of health insurance (this may vary based on university programs since some programs offer insurance for students and some may request students purchase their own). • Visa issue Typically, your consulate officer will indicate at the end of your interview if your visa has been granted or not. Most times, it will be granted right there. However, sometimes you may be handed a 221(g) form, which means your application will undergo additional administrative processing. This can be a vague process and the reasons why your application was placed in this category are unclear. However, this is no cause for alarm as this is typically just a waiting game while the embassy verifies all the details, documents and information provided in your application and interview. You will be provided with a reference ID to track the status of your application online. There are different colored forms (white, pink, blue and yellow) indicating different issues with the visa application and some categories may potentially require you to submit further supporting documents. There is no concrete timeline for when the visa will be granted under these circumstances, but since applicants specify their program start date as part of their visa application (additionally, your travel itinerary is available to the embassy, if included in your application), the embassy works to issue the visa within that time frame. Your visa is granted for the entire duration of your degree (2 years for master’s degree and 4-5 years for doctoral degree depending on the program duration specified in the I-20). This can be extended in the form of an OPT post-graduation (your university will direct this process for you and this is usually towards the end of your degree). Financial documents As part of your visa application, you will need to provide documents to prove that you can fund your expenses (tuition, living expenses, health insurance, any additional expenses) throughout the course of your graduate education in the United States. While PhD programs are usually funded by your department, the US embassy still requires these documents as proof that you will independently fund your education and not rely on local welfare programs to fund your education, should your institution fail to cover your expenses, or in the event of any unforeseen circumstances. There are several documents you can provide for this, and it is recommended that you provide as many financial documents as possible to secure your F1 visa without any delays. Eligible documents include: (1) Bank statements from the past 3-5 years at minimum (these may be your own bank statements or those of immediate family members with steady income and employment). (2) Tax records from the last 3-5 years (if submitting those of a family member, be consistent with the person chosen as your sponsor). (3) Proof of scholarship received from the university if applicable. (4) For master’s programs that are not commonly funded by the university, proof of tuition paid (not mandatory, but recommended). (5) Proof of approved loan if that will be your main source of funding for your study in the US. (6) Form I-134 (form of financial support by a US citizen or green card holder) if you choose a sponsor based in the United States. All financial documents listed above will also need to provided for the past 3-5 years (bank statements, tax records, employment records and pay stubs). Note: When applying for a student visa, it would be best to keep this as a last resort since your main goal here is to obtain a student visa, and a key component to that is establishing strong ties to your home country, not the United States (further elaborated in the visa interview process section). Having a US citizen willing to sponsor you undermines this as the consulate officer could take this to mean you may have other goals besides education in the United States, and you have a sponsor who is already permanently based in the US that could help with that. Visa interview process The visa interview is a crucial part of your application process. This is where the officer verifies the information provided in your application with what is said during the interview when questioned. The aim is to determine if the applicant intends to legitimately pursue graduate education in the United States. These are some general guidelines to tackle the interview process: (1) Dress formally and professionally. (2) Answer questions clearly and without hesitation. (3) Preparation is key prior to your interview. You need to know everything about every document included in your visa application (from your financial documents to your academic transcripts). (4) Topics you may be questioned on: your current academic credentials, the department you’re going to do your graduate work in, why you chose your thesis advisor, why you chose your specific field of research, future career goals*, why choose the USA for graduate education over other countries or over your own home country, number of universities you applied to and acceptances received, names of professors you know in the university you are attending in the USA, prior visits to USA, test scores (GRE, TOEFL, GMAT etc), financial details (program tuition, how these expenses will be funded etc), sponsor’s occupation, if you will visit your home country for vacations**, why you should be granted a student visa***. (5) Always bring your documents when going to the visa interview and keep these organized so you are not scrambling for them when asked during the interview. * When asked about career goals, it is recommended that you state that while you are open to employment opportunities in the USA, you will not rely on them solely and that you have strong ties to your home country. Here the consulate officer aims to determine if your primary goal is to obtain quality graduate education, or if US- based employment after graduation is your main priority. Answers that sound like US-based employment is more of a focus for you than the graduate degree (which is the aim of the F-1 visa) may hurt your chances of obtaining your student visa. ** Personal questions such as number of siblings, if you will visit your home country for holidays etc are meant to evaluate your ties to your home country. The consulate officer wants to verify that the purpose of your visa application is to solely pursue your graduate education in the USA and not prolong your stay by permanently staying in the country outside your course duration. *** Be specific about your education goals here. This is where you specify why you chose the specific university that you did, the program, the principal investigator (PI). This makes your case stronger and more legitimate. Broad or vague answers will hurt your case, so prepare to answer these questions in detail. A brief checklist of the steps involved in the F-1 visa process Prepare documents required for the DS-160 Visa Application Form: ☐ Valid passport ☐ Passport sized photographs per visa application specifications ☐ Form I-20 from the University/Program ☐ SEVIS I-901 fee payment online and receipt for visa application ☐ Acceptance letter from University ☐ Transcripts from prior degrees ☐ Records of standardized test scores (GRE, TOEFL, GMAT, all applicable) ☐ Proof of health insurance ☐ Travel Itinerary (flight reservations, US address of residence) ☐ Financial documents totaling entire program tuition/expenses (bank statements, tax records, pay slips, property documents) ☐ DS-160 form submission online (120 days prior to program start date) ☐ Visa interview appointment Note: This is by no means a comprehensive checklist of documents as this could vary based on multiple factors, including home country, embassy-specific requirements, program-specific documents, funding sources the applicant will rely on etc. Always ensure you check with the International Student Department in your University as well as the embassy at your home country for specific instructions and additional documents needed in your application.