Citizens of foreign countries (with some exceptions noted below) are required to obtain a student visa to study in the United States. A student visa can be F-1 or M-1, depending on the type of study and the school the foreign national will attend. To attend a university, college, high school, private school, seminary, conservatory, or any institution where students receive a degree, you must have an F-1 visa. To participate in a non-academic class, such as a foreign language program, a foreign national must obtain an M-1 visa.

Study on a B-1 tourist visa

A foreign national entering the US on a B-1/B-2 visa cannot study in the US and must obtain an F-1 or M-1 student visa. Citizens of a country participating in a program called the Visa Waiver Program cannot study on a B-1 visitor visa either. Students taking distance learning classes leading to an academic degree that requires physical presence in the United States for a specified period must also obtain an F-1 visa. However, a visitor visa allows you to sign up for short recreational activities.

Student Visa Application Process

Before applying for an M or F student visa, you must be accepted into a school that is approved by the SERV program. Once you are accepted into a SERV school, you must complete an I-901 (SEVIS) payment. Your school will then issue an I-20 form for you, which you must present at your interview at the U.S. embassy abroad. Your family members can also travel with you, but they must each receive a separate Form I-20.

After receiving Form I-20, you must complete the online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160. Once you complete the form, you will need to print a confirmation page to present to the consular officer during your interview, which you must schedule in advance. Only applicants who are between 14 and 79 years of age must be interviewed. Before you begin completing your visa application, you should carefully review the visa application instructions on your consulate or embassy webpage as each consulate may have additional requirements for the visa application process.

Please note that you cannot arrive in the US more than 30 days before the start of your studies.

Citizens of Canada and Bermuda are not required to apply for a student visa to study in the United States, but they are required to have Form I-20 upon entry into the country.

You can also obtain F-1 or M-1 visa status while in the US by filing Form I-539, Application for Extension/Change of Status with USCIS. Changing visitor status to a student visa is generally not recommended because USCIS may deny an application based on suspicion that the applicant intended to study when applying for a visitor visa and did not disclose his or her intentions at the interview. To avoid this outcome, you must provide a detailed letter of explanation to USCIS along with your Form I-539 and supporting documentation as to why you decided to study only after you arrived in the United States. However, such an explanation may still not be enough to obtain a favorable decision and you may be forced to leave the country and apply for a student visa through consular services.

Working while on an F visa

Generally, an F visa holder is not permitted to work in the United States. Employment without authorization is a violation of the student visa and prevents the person from continuing their stay in the United States and re-entering the country. If permitted by the visa holder’s school, the F-1 student may work on a teaching placement (CPT) during his/her study period. CPT employment must be an integral part of the curriculum, and the student’s position must be directly related to his or her major activity.

An F visa holder can also work under Optional Practical Training (OPT). ORT is a form of temporary employment during or after the completion of the visa holder’s studies. M-1 visa holders are not allowed to work under OPT while studying – only after completing their professional program.

After completing your studies

Once the program is completed, the F-1 visa holder will have 60 days and the M visa holder will have 30 days to remain in the United States beyond the authorized period of stay. This date (authorization expiration) appears on Form I-94 and/or Form I-20. If you intend to reside in the country beyond 60 or 30 days after this date, you must either extend your student visa, change your visa status to another visa category, or begin applying for a green card. Otherwise, you will lose your status. For example, you can go from an F-1 or M-1 to a J-1 or H-1B visa. Extension of a visa can be accomplished by transferring to another school or by changing the level of education.

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