International students, it’s that time of year again. Although statistics show that applications from international students for U.S. universities are down considerably compared to last year, there will still be a significant number of you enrolling this fall. But in order to get things started at your chosen college, you will need to enter the U.S. with a valid visa. Don’t goof up the visa process – it could cost you much time, money and frustration!
If you’re heading to the U.S. for school this autumn, you should be in the process of applying for your visa and paying for it well in advance – in May and June, if you’re starting classes in the fall. By the end of August you should be receiving your visa if you haven’t already. The idea is to get it in the mail just before you move to the U.S. – but usually not more than 30 days before your term or quarter is scheduled to start.
Depending on what country you’re coming from, the process can take longer than others. Therefore it’s important to plan for the timing, as well. Below I’ll cover just a few important points about receiving and managing your student visa status based on my experience and what I know from others. As far as I know, most of this applies regardless of whether you’ll be an undergrad or whether you’ve made the sometimes very difficult decision to go to grad school.
Getting A U.S. Study Visa FAQ
Here are some basic questions you might have about getting your study visa set up. If you have others, let me know and I’ll try to answer them. I realize that even though your international student office will have all of this information, that office isn’t always open when you need it – or if it is, they might be too busy to take your request immediately. Don’t take this article as a substitute for their advice, which will be school-specific and country-specific for you, but this is a quick guide based on what I do know.
Is It Difficult To Get A Visa? The short answer is no. It just takes patience, making sure you follow the rules and guidelines correctly, and making sure you make all the deadlines your school requests from you. Depending on what country you are from, you will also have to sit a short visa interview. Be sure to bring what they ask for and give the information they need.
How Long Does It Take To Get A Visa? It can take anywhere from 2-5 months, depending on what country you are from and how good you are at making all the deadlines set. You should write all the important dates on a calendar and count backwards from the time when you hope to move to the U.S. You will need to set aside the right amount of time for your interview, for paying the SEVIS fee and for receiving everything in the mail in good time for your trip. Be careful before buying your plane tickets – you’ll need to be sure you’ll have your visa at that point.
Should I Get a J-1 or an F-1 Visa? These two are quite similar. The visa which is considerably different is the H1-series of visas. But I have spoken with people in the same program who had a J-1 and the other had an F-1. Check the fine print in regard to employment options and bringing over dependents, but other than that, these two are very similar. The F-1 appears to be the more common choice.
How Much Does The Visa Cost? Yep, you have to pay for this, too. Once you have permission for the Visa, you’ll have to pay a $100 SEVIS fee in order to receive it. You’ll need to leave some time for the payment and getting your receipt before you can enter the U.S.
How much money you need to prove you have in order to get the visa? You need to be able to show that you have enough to make up the difference once your school calculates the tuition and any fellowship you might be receiving. The school will probably mail you a form which shows the total estimated costs, what they will be covering, and then what is left over for you to make up. Don’t sweat the numbers. As long as you can show you have a bit more than the amount they define as “left over,” you will be fine.
How do I prove I have the necessary money? You should be able to send in photocopies of your bank statements and portfolio statements. It’s ok if your funds are spread out over many accounts. Just send in all the photocopies. You can block out or scratch out key account numbers, if you want, for privacy.
Do Canadians Need a Visa? Yes. Contrary to what it seems some Americans sometimes think:), Canada is a separate country with its own culture and systems of government. Thus, as a Canadian student, you will be a foreign student for administrative purposes in the U.S. For Canadians, the process isn’t long at all, for example – you’ll receive a student visa “status,” but you won’t need to go through an interview for it. You also won’t receive the physical “paper” visa – you will just get an I-94 card which gets stapled into your passport. Thus, when you speak with some officials, they will refer to you as not “having a visa,” but don’t worry, you do. And you will have to abide by its rules!
Does the visa make it difficult for Canadians to travel across the border? Not that I have heard of or experienced. The first time you cross the border (when you are officially “moving” to the U.S.), you will show your SEVIS receipt and pick up your I-94 card at the same time. There is also a $6.00 processing fee for this. Other than that, however, there is no difference between this crossing and any other you are used to. For all future crossings, however, you will always need your passport and school papers with you each time you travel back and forth. Do not lose your I-94 card and do not let any customs officer tear it out!
What Happens if You Lose Your Visa? Or If They Tear it Off At the Border? First, do not let any customs officer tear your visa off if you have a “multiple-entry” visa. You need the same card to come and go multiple times. If your visa does become lost, or accidentally torn out, call your international affairs office (or whoever at your university was responsible for issuing the visa) and ask them for advice. If it happens while traveling, it is *possible* that you can talk to the customs officer and get it replaced at the same time, but I would not leave it that late. You could risk missing your flight. It is a major deal if you lose your visa, so keep a close eye on it.
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