U.S. Student Visas: Overview and Important Information

Despite the rise of many study destinations, the United States still remains the top choice for international students.


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U.S. Student Visas: Overview and Important Information
Written by Jennifer Aranda.
Updated February 18, 2017 | United States of America

Interested in studying or undertaking training  in the United States? 

Both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (or DHS) and Department of State (or DOS) monitor school and exchange programs.  These agencies use date entered into an internet-based system, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, also known as SEVIS. 

F-1 and M-1 Student Visas

The F-1 student visa is for you if you intend to study an academic course. You will therefore be needing this visa if you are going to enroll and attend any of the following:

  • University or college
  • Secondary school (High School)
  • Private elementary school
  • Seminary
  • Conservatory (a music school or one devoted to other arts such as dance)
  • Other academic institutions such as a language training program

In contrast, if you are going to enroll in a non-academic or vocation program, you should apply for an M-1 student visa. 

You are expected to be a full-time student, regardless of the student visa category you apply for.  However, there are differences, notably in the validity of the visa.

  • An F-1 student visa is valid for the length of your study.
  • The M-1 student visa is valid for one year although you may apply for extensions for up to three years. The request is subject to approval though.

The F-1 visa will also allow you to work on campus and in some situations (provided you meet eligibility requirements) you may even work off campus.  With the M-1 visa however, you cannot accept employment except for a maximum of six months practical training.

Spouse and Dependent Children of F-1 and M1- Visa Holders

Will your spouse and unmarried, minor children (younger than 21 years) accompany you while you study in the United States?  If they will , they may apply for F-2 or M-2 visas, depending on your course of study. 

Some of the conditions attached to your dependents' sojourn in the United States are as follows:

  • Your minor children will be permitted to attend school;
  • Your dependent spouse may be allowed to study part-time recreational or vocational courses offered by an SEVP-certified school.  If your spouse wants to study full-time, s/he must apply to change to an F-1 visa status;
  • Unlike you though, your dependent spouse is considered ineligible to work either part-time or full-time or even practical training;
  • And finally, your dependents must leave the United States when you do so.

A last word on the work of your dependent spouse.  The only "work" your spouse may accept is if the position has always been and will always be a volunteer position.  If your spouse is interested in working, s/he must apply to change status to a visa category that will allow this.  Moreover, your spouse will have to begin work only if the application to change status is approved.

SEVIS Form I-20

Once you have been accepted to a program, your academic provider will enter your details in the SEVIS.  You and all of your eligible accompanying family members, will then be issued a Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status).

Your Form I-20 must be endorsed for Optional Practical Training or OPT so you can remain in the United States longer after graduation.  When authorized, OPT is temporary employment that is directly related to the eligible F-1 student's area of study.

And if you would like to work after the OPT period is over, you should apply to USCIS for an Employment Authorization Document or EAD.

You may remain in the United States for a total of 36 months if you complete an eligible program of study classified as either Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math otherwise known as STEM PROGRAMS.

The SEVIS Form I-20, while important, is only one of the documentary requirements to apply for a U.S. student visa.  You may also want to visit our Frequently Asked Questions segment on U.S. student visas if you have a specific inquiry regarding the application procedure of this non-immigrant visa.

Got a question? Let us know - we're here to help.

About the Author

Jennifer Aranda

Jennifer Aranda

Jennifer S. Aranda is the COO of IVC Immigrant Visa Center, Inc.

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