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THE USA: Essentials - Must read

Essentials: US student visas

How do you secure a US student visa correctly? Read our guide to what you need, requirements and costs...

UK student visa

Offering students the chance to study at world-class institutions across virtually any course of study, America’s allure as a study abroad destination is no secret. With the nation’s tight immigration laws in mind however, getting a visa might seem overwhelming or scary for international students. Don’t worry: thousands of students successfully head Stateside to study every year, so obtaining a student visa is a well-worn administrative process that is quite straightforward if you’ve got all your documents in order.

Let our step-by-step breakdown of the US visa application procedure guide you through the process...


Which visa do I need?

The type of visa you will need to study in the US will depend on the nautre of your study programme. The application process for each visa type is the same, however in some cases you might be required to produce additional documents or information about your study programme depending on your specific circumstances. Your host institution will inform you how to proceed if this is the case.

When you complete your study programme, you are allowed a 60-day grace period in which you may leave the US, apply to change your visa status or request a transfer into another academic programme.

Learn more about post-study options in the US



Most international students will require an F-1 visa. This visa is for international students who have been accepted into a full-time academic degree programme at an accredited US College or University, i.e. Undergraduate, Postgraduate or Doctorate study. Exchange students whose full-time study load is more than 18 hours a week will also need an F-1 visa.

Check if your host institution is an accredited US College or University



This visa is for students completing a non-academic or Vocational study programme at a US College or University.



A J-1 visa is for students who are enrolled in an educational exchange programme that is a credited part of their home study programme. Students in these programmes remain enrolled at their home university whilst they study in the US, and return home to complete or receive their qualification after the fixed term in their exchange agreement is finished.

Exchange students whose study programmes are longer than 18 hours a week full time will need an F-1 visa.



After you have applied directly to your host institution and been accepted, your information is entered into a US government database called Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). When you’re accepted, the government uses this information to create what is called an ‘I-20’ form, which acts as proof of your eligibility for a US student visa. Your I-20 will have a SEVIS ID number on it that you will need to complete the DS-160 and SEVIS I-901 online forms.  Your host institution will send your I-20 in the mail.

After you have your I-20, there are three steps in applying for a US student visa: completing the Nonimmigrant Visa Electronic Application (DS-160) Form, filling out the SEVIS I-901 form and paying relevant fees, and completing an interview (with relevant supporting documents) at your local American embassy or consulate.


Nonimmigrant Visa Electronic Application (DS-160) Form

You must complete and submit the DS-160 online before you’re able to make an appointment with your local American embassy or consulate. At the start of the DS-160, you will be asked to select your nearest consulate from a drop-down list. This MUST be the same consulate that you complete your interview at.  

It’s important that you have all the documents and information you’ll need handy before you begin, as your session will automatically expire after 20 minutes. When you begin, you should write down the Application ID displayed in the top right-hand corner of the page: if your session expires, you’ll need this number to be able to begin again and complete your application. Once you have this number, you’ll be able to begin your application again as many times as you need to until it’s been successfully completed.

After you’ve filled in all the question sections you will need to electronically sign the document by pressing the ‘Sign Application’ button at the bottom of the form. This electronic signature is legally binding and once you click the button you will be unable to change any of the information on the form. After this, you’ll be lead to a confirmation page you will need to print and bring with you to the interview. Once you have printed this page, hit the ‘back’ button on your browser and email a copy of the form to yourself. It will automatically email in PDF format. 

Next, you should contact your nearest US embassy or consulate and schedule an interview. When you make an appointment you will need to pay an application fee, and will receive a confirmation letter or email that you will need to bring with you to the interview.

Find your nearest US Embassy or Consulate


SEVIS I-901 and Fees

Between completing your DS-160 form and your interview date, you will need to fill in a SEVIS I-901 form and pay two sets of fees: the I-901 fee and the visa application fee (MVR). You MUST pay both fees BEFORE your interview.

You can complete the SEVIS I-901 form and pay the fee online. You will pay the fee after you’ve completed the form. Proof of payment will be electronically recorded using your SEVIS ID number, so make sure you have your I-20 on hand when you complete the form. Payment can be made via Visa, MasterCard or American Express.

The SEVIS I-901 fee for F-1 and M-1 students is US$200, whilst J-1 students will pay US$180. Once your payment has been processed, you need to print the receipt. A paper receipt will also be mailed to the home address you’ve listed on your I-901 form.

You will also need to pay an MVR application fee. This fee is paid directly to the embassy online after you’ve made your appointment. Fees for all student visa types are US$160.

You can make an appointment with your local US embassy via their website, and will need both your application details thus far and the information on your I-20 to do so. After you pay the MVR fee, you will need to print the receipt and take it with you to the interview.

If you do not take both receipts with you to the interview then you will NOT be issued a visa.



When you arrive at the US embassy you will need to show your valid passport, letter confirming your appointment and receipt for your MVR application fee. You will then go through a security check, including a metal detector scan and fingerprinting procedure.

When you are called for an interview you will be asked to produce your supporting documents. The interview is designed simply to verify your documents, and questions are NOT designed to trick you in any way.  If your documents are authentic and you’ve brought everything you need then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be granted a visa. You will be told immediately after the interview if your visa has been approved or not. If your application has been successful then the embassy will take your passport and mail it back to you with the visa attached.

American organisation Path2usa have made a short video that walks applicants through the visa interview process.


Which documents will I need?

When you complete the DS-160, you will need to have the following documents and information handy:

  • A valid passport and all valid passport deals
  • Your travel itinerary if you have already purchased flights
  • Dates of your last five visits to the USA if you have previously been there. You also might need to provide details of all your international travel history for the past five years.
  • CV and information on your current and previous work history
  • Information and details of your current and previous education history, including relevant academic transcripts to date
  • Your SEVIS ID, which will be printed on your I-20 form
  • The name and address of the institution you will be studying at.


When you complete the SEVIS I-901 form online, you will need to have all the information on your I-20 handy, including your SEVIS ID number and details of your host institution. You’ll also need a valid credit card to pay the fee after you’ve filled in the form. You will also need the information on your I-20 to book an appointment at your local US embassy.

At the interview, you will need to bring the following:

  • Confirmation letter or printed email of visa interview appointment
  • Valid passport
  • Receipts for SEVIS I-901 and visa application (MVR) fee
  • Proof you have access to enough funds to support yourself for the duration  of your study programme
  • A self-addressed envelope for the return of your passport and successful visa
  • I-20 form
  • Printed confirmation page of completed DS-160 form
  • All relevant academic transcripts to date
  • Any existing academic qualifications (i.e. Bachelors degree)
  • English Language proficiency test results ( if applicable)
  • A valid passport photograph



Now that you know what you need to do to apply for a US student visa, why not start browsing courses in the US now and start planning your study abroad adventure?



Read more:

'Post-study visa options in the US'

'Application Checklist: Essential documents to have close to you'

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About Author

UK student visa

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.


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