It’s easy to see why you’d choose America as your desired study abroad destination. It’s the most influential country in the world – the dominant centre of commerce, finance and media. It also has many of the top universities in the world. But before you begin your American journey, you need apply for and obtain an appropriate student visa.

The U.S. visa application process can seem fairly baffling to first-time applicants (you may contrast it with the UK process here). You have to complete forms laden with confusing acronyms and numbers. You have to submit an intimidating stack of documents. And there’s a face-to-face interview to attend as well.

Still, there’s no reason to freak out at any stage. Once you understand it, the system is quite straightforward and clear (and we’re here to help clarify the most important aspects). But before you start sweating all the details, you need to grasp the basic structure of the U.S. student visa system.

There are three types of U.S. visas relevant to students. You apply for each in roughly the same way – applying online and scheduling an interview. But each student visa type serves a different purpose and is appropriate for a different sort of student. Read on to figure out which one applies to you:

F-1 visa


Are you attending a college or university in the U.S? Then this one’s for you. Suitable for most international students, it’s good for undergraduate, postgraduate, or doctoral study. Students looking to study English at an English language institute should apply for this as well.

M-1 visa

This is for students who want to pursue non-academic or vocational study or training in the U.S.

J-1 visa


Are you going to the U.S. on a study- or work-based exchange program? Then this is the visa you’ll want. You could be a student earning credit hours in the U.S. as part of your degree program. Once done, you’ll return home to obtain your degree or continue your studies. Or you could be an intern pursuing hands-on work experience in U.S. industry. Alternatively, you could be a visiting professor due to give lectures at a university for a set time period.

Revenge of the acronyms and numbers – SEVP, SEVIS, and I-20

Obviously, before you can apply for a F or M student visa, you must prove you’ve been accepted at a recognised U.S. education institution. You’re going to be hearing and reading about SEVP a lot. SEVP merely stands for Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). And you have to be enrolled in SEVP-approved school or program to be eligible for a student visa. Dodgy outfits don’t count. How do you know which schools are SEVP-approved and which are not? Easy. You can check via this Department of Homeland Security page.

Once you have been accepted by a U.S. college or university of your choice, you will be registered in the database of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). You will need to pay the SEVIS I-901 Fee. Your university/college will then give an I-20 form, which is essentially physical proof that you’re eligible for a student visa. Hold on to that form – it could be described as your student passport.

But that’s not the end. You still have an interview to attend. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on interview tips and the other remaining aspects of the visa application. For now, we hope you gained a better understanding of the U.S. student visa system.

Image via Flickr.

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