Eligibility for an F-1 Student Visa

Prospective F-1 students will have to show school admission, financial capacity, and more.

Knowing that you want to study in the United States, or even gaining admission to a school is not enough by itself to qualify you for a student visa. For an academic (F-1) visa, you’ll also need to satisfy the U.S. consulate or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that you:

  • have been admitted to a U.S. school that has been approved by USCIS
  • are a “bona fide” student
  • are qualified and ready for your planned course of study
  • are planning only a temporary stay in the United States, and
  • are able to pay for your studies.

We’ll discuss all of these below.

You Have Been Admitted to an Established, USCIS-Approved School or Program

You can’t get a student visa unless your intended school or program has already been approved by USCIS to receive foreign students. Most established schools have received such approval. The school itself should be able to confirm this for you.

In order to come on an F-1 visa, the school must be a college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic elementary, secondary, or high school, or some other academic institution or language training program.

You Are a Bona Fide Student, and Nothing Else

Since students stay longer and learn more skills than people on many other types of visas, the U.S. government’s suspicion that you want to stay permanently is particularly high. You will have to convince the government that you are a bona fide (real) student, whose intention in coming to the United States is not to get a job, find a spouse, or even just enjoy the scenery. You won’t be given a visa unless you can show that you’re ready and able to “hit the books” and study.

You Are Qualified to Pursue a Full Course of Study

The requirement that you are “qualified” to study is loaded with meaning. You must have the appropriate background, including study, training, or experience, for the program that you will be entering. Also, you must be sufficiently proficient in English to complete your studies (unless you plan to come for the sole purpose of studying English).

Showing Your English Proficiency

You’ll have to prove your proficiency in English twice. First, you’ll have to prove it to the school that admits you. It may require you to take an English test in your home country, such as the “TOEFL” (Test of English as a Foreign Language).

Second, you will have to prove it to the U.S. government officer who decides whether to grant you the F-1 visa. The government knows that the school has tested your English already, but seems to want to double-check it; perhaps because the consulate or USCIS has a chance to meet you personally, whereas the school might not.

If your English is not quite good enough for American classroom study, there are alternatives. You may qualify for a visa by showing that English classes will be part of your curriculum—and that the classes will enable you to catch up quickly. Some schools offer special programs to get you up to speed, for example in the summer before the start of formal classes. If, however, it looks like you’re going to be spending so much time learning English that you can’t maintain the rest of your studies, your visa is likely to be denied.

Definition of a “Full Course of Study” for F-1 Students

For F-1 students, a “full course of study” means that you cannot be a part-time student. Your study must “lead to the attainment of a specific educational or professional objective.” This objective can be a degree, such as a Bachelor’s, Master’s, Ph.D. or other certification. However, you don’t actually have to complete that degree in the United States. You could come to the United States to take a semester of college courses as your “objective,” so long as your study is full time during that one semester. The following types of study are acceptable:

  • Postgraduate or postdoctoral study at a college, university, conservatory or religious seminary.
  • Undergraduate study at a college or university; at least 12 credit hours per term (for schools on the semester or quarter system), except during the last term if fewer hours are needed to finish.
  • Study at a post-high school institution (such as a community college) that awards “associate” or comparable degrees.
  • Study in a language, liberal arts, fine arts or other non-vocational training program; at least 18 actual hours of attendance per week, 22 hours if most of the study time is spent in a laboratory.
  • Study at a high school (9th through 12th grade) or elementary school (first through 8th grade); at least the number of classroom hours per week that the school requires for normal progress toward graduation. But be sure to read the article, “Using an F-1 Visa to Enter a U.S. Elementary or High School,” which explains the limitations on using this visa for public schools. (See also 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(6).)

You will be allowed some breaks in your study regimen. These include time for school vacations, illness and exam preparation periods, but not for personally scheduled vacations that take you out of class. Also, the rules covering minimum hours at school can be changed if your school authorizes you to take fewer study hours for academic or medical reasons (including pregnancy).

Your Stay in the U.S. Will Be Only Temporary

The toughest part of getting a student visa is persuading a consular or USCIS officer that you plan to return home when your temporary stay is over. It’s especially tough because the law forces the person reviewing your application to presume that you want to stay in the United States even before having met you. It will be entirely up to you to convince the official otherwise.

You will have to show evidence that your true, long-term residence is in a foreign country, and that you have ties to that country that will naturally pull you home when your studies are completed. These ties could include your family, a home, a job or any other personal situation or obligation.

You Are Able to Pay for Your Studies

You must show that your education will be fully financed and all your day-to-day living expenses (including the expenses of your spouse or children if they plan to come with you) will be paid without your having to work in the United States. (If your family will not be coming with you, and you normally support them, you may also be asked how they will be supported while you are away.) Although some students will be permitted to work during their student years, you cannot rely on this work to prove your visa eligibility. In fact, you probably will not know until you get to the United States what type of work you’ll be able to get. The permitted work will probably be low-paying or a small part of your study program in any case.

Your financing can come from your own resources or from family, friends or scholarships.

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