We’ll review these below.
You can’t start the immigration process until you have been admitted to an U.S. government-approved school. In addition, that school must have filled out and sent you a form called an I-20.
If you are applying to academic programs, start contacting schools at least a year before you plan to start your studies. Competition for entry to schools in the United States can be fierce, especially if they are big-name schools like Harvard or Stanford. You’ll probably want to submit between ten or more applications to a mix of schools, including some that you know you have a good chance of being admitted to.
Some schools will give you an answer right away, but most academic programs require at least a few months to make a decision about accepting you. Applications for undergraduate programs, for example, are usually due around January; and acceptances and rejections come anywhere between April and June of that year. It’s less easy to generalize about vocational programs. Some will follow an academic calendar, others are on shorter schedules of weeks or months. Just remember to start planning ahead with enough time to allow for an acceptance by your program as well as a visa decision by the U.S. consulate.
The I-20 is the school’s statement to the U.S. government that you have submitted all the correct paperwork and financial documents, the school has evaluated your application and it meets their standards and you have been accepted for enrollment.
If you are currently outside the United States, presumably living in your home country, contact your nearest U.S. consulate. It will likely be handling your visa application.
If you are currently in the U.S. on another visa, it’s possible that you can apply for a “change of status” without leaving the United States. See the article, “Can You Switch to a Student Visa From Another U.S. Visa?” for details.
Once you’ve identified the proper consulate, you’ll need to figure out its procedures for taking your application. In some countries, you can to go straight to the consulate, present your application and paperwork and receive your visa within a day. In other countries, the decision will take several weeks, even after a walk-in appointment. The State Department warns that the months of June, July and August tend to be especially busy with visa applications. Check with your local U.S. consulate via telephone or its website to see whether you can just walk in, or whether you need to make an appointment or mail in your application.
You’ll be responsible for filling out one form for your student visa application. If you’re applying from overseas, you’ll use the State Department Form DS-160. It’s available online on the State Department website. When finished, print out the barcode page. If applying for a change of status within the United States, use USCIS Form I-539.
You’ll also need to pay a fee, and to prepare documents showing that you qualify for a student visa, most importantly:
Next, if you're coming from overseas, follow up with your local consulate to arrange an interview. Realize that the interview at the airport or U.S. border is an important last step in the process. The border official will review all your paperwork and ask additional questions to make sure everything is in order – and has the power to send you home if it’s not.
If you're in the United States, the last step in the process will be for USCIS to send you a receipt notice. After that, it may or may not ask you to attend an interview. Your change of status should be approved at that interview.
What if classes have started and you still haven’t gotten an answer from USCIS? It’s best to start attending class. Otherwise, if your approval comes and you haven’t been attending school, you’ll find that you have violated your student status before getting to enjoy it—and you could be deported as a result. The school’s administrators will understand this dilemma, and should be able to make sure not to hold up your registration over your lack of immigration status.