Generally, a citizen of a foreign country who wishes to enter the United States must first obtain a visa, either a nonimmigrant visa for temporary stay, or an immigrant visa for permanent residence. You must have a student visa to study in the United States. Your course of study and the type of school you plan to attend determine whether you need an F visa or an M visa.
|To enter the United States to attend:||You need the following visa category:|
|University or college||F|
|Private elementary school|
|Another academic institution, including a language training program|
|Vocational or other recognized nonacademic institution, other than a language training program||M|
Students cannot travel on the Visa Waiver Program or with Visitor Visas
A student visa (F or M) is required to study in the United States. Foreign nationals may not study after entering on a visitor (B) visa or through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), except to undertake recreational study (non-credit) as part of a tourist visit. For more information on the VWP, see Visa Waiver Program.
For short periods of recreational study, a Visitor (B) visa may be appropriate
A visitor (B) visa permits enrollment in a short recreational course of study, which is not for credit toward a degree or academic certificate. Learn more about Visitor Visas.
Study leading to a U.S. conferred degree or certificate is never permitted on a visitor (B) visa, even if it is for a short duration. For example, a student in a distance learning program that requires a period of time on the institution’s U.S. campus must obtain a student (F or M) visa prior to entering the United States.
Student Acceptance at a SEVP Approved School
The first step is to apply to a SEVP-approved school in the United States. After the SEVP-approved school accepts your enrollment, you will be registered for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and must pay the SEVIS I-901 fee. The SEVP-approved school will issue you a Form I-20. After you receive the Form I-20 and register in SEVIS, you may apply at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate for a student (F or M) visa. You must present the Form I-20 to the consular officer when you attend your visa interview.
If your spouse and/or children intend to live with you in the United States while you study, they must also enroll in SEVIS, obtain individual Form I-20s from the SEVP-approved school, and apply for a visa (but they do not pay the SEVIS fee).
Visit the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) website to learn more about SEVIS and the SEVIS I-901 Fee.
Visit the Department of State EducationUSA website to learn about educational opportunities for undergraduate and graduate study, and an overview of the application process. You can also visit the DHS Study in the States school search page to search for SEVP-certified schools.
There are several steps to apply for a visa. The order of these steps and how you complete them may vary by U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Please consult the instructions on the embassy or consulate website.
Interviews are generally required for visa applicants with certain limited exceptions below. Consular officers may require an interview of any visa applicant.
If you are age:
Then an interview is:
13 and younger
Generally not required
14 - 79
Required (some exceptions for renewals)
80 and older
Generally not required
You should schedule an appointment for your visa interview at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the country where you live. You may schedule your interview at another U.S. Embassy or Consulate, but be aware that it may be more difficult to qualify for a visa outside of the country where you live.
Wait times for interview appointments vary by location, season, and visa category, so you should apply for your visa early. Review the interview wait time for the location where you will apply:
New Students – Student (F and M) visas for new students can be issued up to 120 days in advance of the start date for a course of study. However, you will not be allowed to enter the United States on your student visa more than 30 days before the start date.
Continuing Students - Student (F and M) visas for continuing students may be issued at any time, as long as the student is currently enrolled at a SEVP-approved school or institution and in SEVIS. Continuing students may enter the United States at any time before classes start.
Gather and prepare the following required documents before your visa interview:
A consular officer will interview you to determine your qualifications for a student visa, and may request additional documents, such as evidence of:
Review the instructions for how to apply for a visa on the website of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate where you will apply.
A consular officer will interview you to determine whether you are qualified to receive a student visa, or if another category is more appropriate for your purpose of travel. You must establish that you meet the requirements under U.S. law to receive a visa.
Ink-free, digital fingerprint scans are taken as part of the application process. They are usually taken during your interview, but this varies based on location.
After your visa interview, the consular officer may determine that your application requires further administrative processing. The consular officer will inform you if this is required.
After the visa is approved, you may need to pay a visa issuance fee (if applicable to your nationality), and make arrangements for the return of the passport and visa to you. Review the visa processing times to learn more.
A visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. A visa only allows a foreign citizen to travel to a U.S. port-of-entry (generally an airport) and request permission to enter the United States. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials at the port-of-entry have authority to permit or deny admission to the United States.
After you present your passport, visa, and Form I-20 at the port-of-entry, a CBP official will make this decision. Once you are allowed to enter the United States, the CBP official will provide an admission stamp or paper Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record.
Learn about procedures for students (with F or M visas) entering the United States on the CBP website under Arrival Procedures for Students or Exchange Visitors. Learn about admissions and entry requirements, restrictions about bringing food, agricultural products, and other restricted/prohibited goods, and more by reviewing the CBP website.
Foreign students in the United States with F visas must depart the United States within 60 days after the program end date listed on Form I-20, including any authorized practical training.
Foreign students may request an extension through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website (see the USCIS Extend Your Stay page). Additional information to maintain student status is on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement SEVP website under Maintaining Your Immigration Status While a Student or Exchange Visitor.
Failure to depart the United States on time will result in being out of status. Under U.S. law, visas of individuals who are out of status are automatically voided (Section 222(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act). Any multiple entry visa that was voided due to being out of status will not be valid for future entries into the United States.
If your plans change while in the United States (for example, you marry a U.S. citizen or receive an offer of employment), you may be able to request a change in your nonimmigrant status to another category through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). See Change My Nonimmigrant Status on the USCIS website to learn more.
While you are in the United States, receiving a change of status from USCIS does not require you to apply for a new visa. However, once you depart the United States you must apply for a new visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the appropriate category for your travel.
Students on F or M visas are not permitted to enter the United States earlier than 30 days before the start date of their program. If you wish to enter earlier than 30 days before your start date, you must separately apply and qualify for a visitor (B) visa.
After you are admitted to the United States by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials in visitor (B) visa status, you must separately apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a change of status to student (For M) status prior to the start of your program. You may not begin your course of study until the change of status is approved, and you may encounter lengthy processing times. You may also depart the United States and re-enter on your student (F or M) visa.
Students who are authorized Optional Practical Training (OPT) must have a Form I-20 endorsed for OPT, and apply to USCIS for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). When authorized, OPT is temporary employment that is directly related to the eligible F-1 student's area of study. To learn more about OPT, please visit the USCIS Website and the ICE International Students webpage.
You may reapply if you believe you have additional evidence of your qualifications for a student (F or M) visa, or you believe your circumstances have changed. Review Visa Denials to learn more.
Citizens of Canada and Bermuda do not require visas to enter the United States as students, although they must present a valid Form I-20 at the time of admission. For more information see information for Citizens of Canada and Bermuda.
Additional resources for Canadian visitors to the United States can be found on the U.S. Embassy and Consulate websites in Canada.