Traveling to a foreign country, no matter the purpose, usually requires the traveler to obtain permission, in the form of a visa, before entering the country. The type of visa issued determines how long the traveler can stay in the country and whether she can obtain employment, and sometimes places restrictions on locations within the country the traveler may visit. The United States issues numerous types of visas, including the F-1, or student visa, which specific to nonimmigrant persons wanting to obtain an education in the United States.
An F-1 student visa covers individuals enrolled full time in an accredited academic institution, such as a college, vocational school, or high school. The visa permits a full-time student to enter the United States 30 days prior to the start of classes and remain in the United States for the time the educational institution determines it will take the student to complete the program of study, plus an additional 60 days. The F-1 visa also allows the student to obtain on-campus employment and work up to 20 hours per week. Prospective students apply for the F-1 student visa through the institution they plan on attending.
Before beginning the F-1 student visa application process, you must meet certain criteria that begin with acceptance at an accredited educational institution approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Additional criteria include full-time enrollment status; proficiency (or working toward proficiency) in the English language; a verifiable foreign address; sufficient financial support; and proof, such as family ties, property ownership or an offer of employment, that you intend to return to your home country after completing your studies.
Most prospective students complete the application process via the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country where they currently live. The educational institution issues a form indicating you are an accepted student and the I-20, or initial F-1 visa application after determining F-1 eligibility. The next step involves collecting additional documentation and scheduling a student visa interview, where an embassy or consular officer will verify information and collect required application fees.
Additional documentation includes Form DS-156, DS-157 (for males age 16-45 only), a valid passport, an additional photograph and proof of financial support. The wait time to receive an F-1 student visa varies depending on the country where you live, but the Department of State provides a section on its website where you can get an estimate.
While an F-1 student visa is specific with regard to length of stay, there are provisions for extending your stay past the time you complete educational requirements. One option is an OPT, or Optional Training Program, where you can enroll in and remain in the United Sates for 12 additional months to gain "on-the-job" experience. Alternatively, if you obtain a bachelor's or master's degree, you can seek employment with a company that will sponsor you though an H1-B work visa.
While you can apply for an F-1 student visa as soon as you receive documentation from the educational institution you plan to attend, the embassy or consulate cannot issue the visa more than 120 days prior to the registration date listed on the I-20 form. In addition, you may not enter the United States until 30 days prior to the start of classes. The F-1 student visa is quite specific with regard to maintaining full-time enrollment, and if you are away from classes for more than five months, the visa becomes invalid and you need to reapply.
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