How to Get an F-1 Visa

The process of getting a student visa takes work and time but it’s not as challenging as it may seem—75% of applicants each year receive the F-1 visa for full-time students. The most important thing you’ll need is time as the approval process can take anywhere from 3-6 weeks. But with a bit of planning, the right paperwork, and some cash for fees, getting a visa is painless and straightforward. Prospective students will need an F-1 visa to attend school full-time in the US. F-2 visas are available for dependents like spouses and children, while the less common F-3 visas are available for students who live in one country while studying in a nearby, usually bordering country (i.e., Mexico/US or US/Canada). Below is a detailed outline of the visa application process for students who have already been accepted to study in an American university.

Start Early

It’s recommended that you apply for a student visa up to six weeks prior to your travel plans; start earlier if you can. Don’t purchase plane tickets or make other firm plans to be in the US until your application has been approved. Waiting for a visa can hinder these plans or cause unnecessary distraction so apply as soon as you receive your I-20 form from the school where you’ll be studying. (Note: although F-1 student visas may be issued as early as 120 days before you plan to study, you cannot enter the US until 30 days prior to your first day of class.) While you wait for your I-20, consult the website of your nearest US embassy or consulate. The visa application process varies across different embassies and it’s best to visit their website to determine the proper order of operations. You may be able to start without all of the necessary documents.

Complete an Online Visa Application

Fill out the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application Form DS-160 online. Fill out all personal information, especially your name, EXACTLY as it appears on your passport. If there’s any difference, it will delay the application process. To complete the form, you will need a photo of yourself that meets these requirements. Once completed, print out the confirmation page, which should have a barcode on it. You’ll need this for your visa interview.

Book Your Visa Interview

Your interview is the most important part of the application process. Schedule an in-person interview at least 9 calendar days in advance with your embassy. Typically, you will pay a nonrefundable application fee of US $160 before your interview, however, you may be asked to pay this fee at your interview, depending on your embassy. Lastly, there’s a few things you’ll want to make sure to bring…

Collect Your Paperwork

Here’s what you’ll need to bring to your visa interview:


  • A Valid Passport—Your passport must be valid for at least six months AFTER the final date you plan to study in the United States.

  • Nonimmigrant Visa Application—Your Form DS-160 confirmation page.

  • Receipt for application fee—If you pay this fee before your interview.

  • Photo—You’ll likely upload your photo while completing the online Form DS-160. But if the upload fails, bring one printed photo that meets the requirements above.

  • Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status—This is the Form I-20 you’ll receive from the school offering you admission.

OPTIONAL (check with your embassy)

  • Transcripts, diplomas, degrees, or certificates from past schools.

  • Standardized test scores.

  • Your written intent to depart the United States after your studies.

  • Proof of how you’ll pay all educational, living, and travel expenses.

And…You’re Ready!

With your documents in hand, show up to your interview dressed nicely, but not formally. Show up well rested and prepared to answer questions regarding your intention to study in the US. Remember: one of the reasons for this interview is to screen people who intend to abuse their student visa status for access to employment or leisure. If you’re legitimately applying for a student visa with plans to study full-time in the US, be honest and sincere to the interviewer. Be prepared to answer questions about what you plan to study and what your plans are for after graduation. Again, sincerity and honesty will serve you best to avoid suspicions that you plan to do anything but study through your visa.

Once your interview is complete, your application may require up to 60 days of further processing. Chances are, if you’ve followed all the steps above, you’ll get the F-1 student visa you need. Good luck!