Study Guide to Expats – Los Angeles
Student Visas (F-1 or M-1)
If you are visiting the USA on a tourist visa and want to take a short course of less than 18 hours a week then you can do so on a tourist visa (B-2). However if you are planning to take on a full time course then you need to apply for an F-1 (academic studies) or M-1 (vocational studies) student visa. These student visas usually allow multiple entries and are issued by the U.S. consulate or embassy located in the home country of the student.
In most countries student visa applicants need to be interviewed by U.S. consular officers and many consulates have their own procedures and policies for issuing student visas. Students must consult their home country Embassy websites for more details.
Documents required for a student visa application
1. Form I-20 A-B Certificate of Eligibility for Non-immigrant (F-1) Student Status for academic and language students or Form 1-20 M-N Certificate of Eligibility for Non-immigrant (M-1) Student Status for vocational students. The I-20 form is generated by SEVIS the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System which is an online system that maintains a constantly updated database on students and their dependents. Your school is responsible for entering your information into SEVIS for the generation of the I-20 form. Students will also have to pay the I-901 fee if applicable.
2. A completed and signed DS-156 Non-immigrant Visa application form. The current DS-156 form which is in use bears the date of March 2006 and is the electronic “e-form application.” However this form is being slowly replaced by the new DS-160 Online Non-immigrant Visa Electronic Application which is already in use at certain consulates and embassies. This DS-156 form must also be accompanied by a DS-158 form and in some cases a DS-157 form.
3. A valid passport for travel to the United States, your passport should have a validity date of at least six months beyond the applicant’s intended period of stay in the US. If your children are traveling on your passport individual visa applications have to be made for them as well.
4. One (1) 2×2 photograph the specifications of which are listed on the USCIS website
5. A MRV receipt which indicates payment of the visa application fee, a visa issuance fee and a separate SEVIS I-901 fee is required. All F visa holders have to pay the MRV fee including dependents while the principal F-1 holder has to pay the SEVIS fee.
6. Students who are authorized for Optional Practical Training must have an I-20 endorsed for OPT.
Note: Student applicants have to provide several additional documents like:
1. Transcripts and diplomas from previous institutions attended
2. Standard test scores which are required for US college admission like TOEFL, SAT, GRE, GMAT.
3. Financial evidence that shows you or your parents has sufficient funds to fund your tuition and living expenses for the duration of course.
4. If your family is accompanying you on derivative visas then evidence like marriage and birth certificates have to be supplied to establish proof of your relationship.
When you enter the U.S. with a student visa, you are usually admitted for the entire duration of your intended course of study. This means even if your F-1 visa expires in your passport you can continue to remain the US while you are a full time student in the USA and have a valid I-20. This I-20 form is a document that is issued by colleges, universities and vocational schools that provide supporting information for the issuance of a student visa. The form also includes the SEVIS number which is tracking number for the student and program.
While you are on an F-1 visa you are permitted to work on campus for 20 hours a week without an Employment Authorization document. Additionally students who are on F-1 status can bring their dependents to the US on a F-2 visa but these F-2 dependents are not allowed to work or enroll in study course. After the completion of studies an F-1 visa holder can apply to work off campus in the US for a period of 12 months (which is extendable for a period of an additional 17 months under certain conditions) in a program known as Optional Practical Training program which is approved by the USCIS. The F-1 visa holder can apply for this work authorization via form I-765, 90 days before graduation but no later than 60 days after graduation or 60 days after the expiry of the 1-20 whichever is earlier. Students who have M-1 visa status can also apply for Optional Practical Training but this is limited to one month of training for every four months of study but it is limited to a maximum of 6 months.
After the period of Optional Practical Training has ended, the candidate can be sponsored for an H1B visa by a US employer but has to return to his/her home country to apply for the visa.
Change of Status
Once you have entered the US on a particular visa it is possible to change status under certain circumstances, e.g. if you have arrived on a B2 visa but want to enroll in a graduate school or a university where you have been accepted. In this case you can file an I-539 with the USCIS in order to change your status to that of a student (F-1) without leaving the U.S.
However if you want to change your status from a B2 (ordinary visitor) to an H (worker), L ( transfer worker) or O (extraordinary ability) you cannot file the application yourself. In these instances your prospective employer has to first file the form I-129 and you have to return to your home country to make your visa application at the appropriate consulate or embassy.
Additionally if you are changing status to F (students), M (vocational students) or J (exchange scholars) or even B (visitors) categories from any of the work visa categories you can file the requisite form I-539 on your own. However J visa holders have to have a waiver before they change status and M visa holders can’t switch to F categories.
Additionally those foreign nationals who have been in the Exchange Visitor Program (J visa) are subject to a two year home country physical presence requirement. You are subject to this requirement if you have been in a government funded exchange program, you have entered the United States to receive graduate medical education or training or you have participated in a program that imparts specialized skills which are needed for the development of your home country. The 2009 skill list is at http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/types/types_4514.html. (This list is still the latest version and will be updated soon.)
J visa holders who are subject to this requirement cannot change their status to H, L, K (marriage visa) or apply for immigrating to US unless they have returned to their home countries for at least two years in order to fulfill the conditions of this requirement. However the J visa holder is able to apply for a waiver of this requirement under five different conditions, the details of which are available at http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/info/info_1296.html
Further you must apply for change of status before your current visa status expires. You might experience huge backlogs in certain visa categories but if you have applied to the USCIS and your case is in a pending state you will remain in a legal status even if your current status expires before you receive an approval. However if your visa status has expired and your I-539 is denied, you can face problem and complications. It is then advisable to actually return to your home country and make another visa application under the new visa category if you want to change status.
Countries exempt of student visas
Nationals of Canada and Bermuda are exempt from applying for F-1, F-3, M-1, M-3 or J-1.
Nationals of Bahamas as well as British subject residents in the Bahamian, Cayman, Turks or Caicos Islands are exempt from applying for F-1, F-3, M-1, M-3 or J-1.
Dependents of F-1 or M-1 holders
Spouses and children of F-1 or M-1 holders can apply for F-2 or M-2 respectively. F-1 or M-1 is valid only duration of F-1 or M-1 visa. F-2/M-2 holders are not allowed to work. Multiple entries are allowed as long as one has the SEVIS Form I-20 in traveler’s name (one for each) and the valid passport while the F-2/M-2 as well as the F-1/M-1 holder’s visa is active.
Canadian or Mexican national commuter students
F-3 (academic studies) and M-3 (vocational studies) visas allow Canadian or Mexican nationals to come to the US and take courses either part time or full time. The dependents of these visa holders are not entitled to F-2 or M-2 visas.
Once the acceptance from the attending school is received and SEVIS I-901 fee are paid (applicable for F-1/M-1 only), it should not be hard to obtain these visas. The processing time can vary, but 2 weeks to 2 months in most cases.