You’ve been admitted — now what? Time to get your student visa!
It’s May, and students around the world are experiencing a range of emotions. For many international students, this month is both the most exciting — admission to a first-choice college – and most nerve-wracking — application for a student visa. While this next step can trouble even the best, with proper preparation and research, students can approach the visa process with confidence.
Making a final decision — which offer to accept?
Some students can easily decide which college or university to attend. However, students who have received offers of admission from different institutions might need to consider factors such as how much financial aid is being offered and the total actual cost, among others. Richard O’Rourke, Associate Director, Office of Admissions, Recruitment and Outreach, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, shares that students are wise to also consider value of an institution’s education: “A lower or higher cost will not automatically indicate value. Instead, this requires a critical analysis of each institution against a student’s personal and professional goals.”
At many U.S. colleges and universities, students must secure their place at their chosen institution by May 1. For domestic undergraduate students, this typically means paying a tuition and/or, if living on campus, a housing deposit. International students may or may not be required to pay a deposit to secure a place (depending on the college to which he or she has been admitted). Key to an international students’ next step is the I-20 they receive from the institution they wish to attend.
I-20 and paying the SEVIS Fee
Once students are academically admitted and have funding for at least one year of study, the admitting college or university creates and sends an I-20 form. This document records in the U.S. government’s Student and Exchange Visitor System (SEVIS) the student’s intended program of study, required program start date, cost of attendance, funding sources, and other personal information. As soon as students receive the I-20 from the school they wish to attend, checking the form for accuracy is job one. If there are any errors, students need to contact the international advisor at that college to receive a corrected version before taking next steps to secure a student visa.
Approximately 90% of the more than 1.2 million international students currently in the United States are in F-1 student visa status. The I-20 represents one of the most important documents needed to get an F-1 student visa. Students with their I-20 in hand must first pay a $200 SEVIS fee, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security uses to maintain the SEVIS database and to employ SEVIS staff. After paying the SEVIS fee, students get an electronic receipt that is required both to receive a student visa and to legally enter the United States. Next up is applying for a student visa.
The student visa interview
Step one is to apply for a student visa through the U.S. Department of State. The universal form that all intending F-1 students must complete is the DS-160. While the fee is $160 for this form, each U.S. embassy and consulate may add other fees to more closely match the fees charged to local applicants, as required by law, as is required by U.S. law. After completing the DS-160 form and paying whatever fees are due, students next schedule an interview, which they may request be held at the embassy or consulate nearest them. Students should consult the specific instructions of the U.S. embassy/consulate they would visit for securing an interview. A useful State Department site provides real-time updates on how long student visa applicants will have to wait for an interview.
How to best prepare
As students prepare for the interview, getting accurate information on what is required is hard to come by, especially if they rely only on stories they’ve heard about what to say and what not to say. Bottom line: students must demonstrate during their interview that they meet three criteria: (1) they are legitimate, serious students; (2) they have the resources to pay for their studies; and (3) they have a plan to return home after completing their degree and any legal work in the United States. This last one, called non-immigrant intent, is often where students fail. O’Rourke agrees: “Providing evidence that you plan to return to your home country . . . verbally in the span of a few minutes” is a major struggle for students.
Over many years, O’Rourke has seen a variety of common challenges international students face. His short article on common mistakes international students make during the visa process is a helpful place to start. To help students learn as much as they can about this process beforehand, O’Rourke recommends EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s network advising centers in 170 countries. These centers provide visa sessions with consular officers who also conduct some of the interviews, which can help demystify the process.
Hearing directly from consular officers and other embassy officials who are involved in the visa process is always a good move. If students can’t get to an in-person event at a center, many of the heavily student-trafficked consulates around the world offer videos or Facebook Live sessions on how they do student visa interviews. In the United States, NAFSA (The Association of International Educators) has produced a useful resource list of 10 points to remember when applying for a student visa that includes links to many of the videos recorded by U.S. embassy and consulates around the world.
Even with all the preparation, students will undoubtedly feel nervous on the interview day itself. By keeping in mind how long the journey has been and the advice that has been given, students should approach the interview with confidence. As O’Rourke remarks, “Do not stress out. If you worked hard for your college admissions, considered your future goals, researched your options, and found the right personal and financial (college) fit, you should have no problems completing your visa interview.”