The Immigration and Nationality Act provides two nonimmigrant visa categories for persons wishing to study in the United States. The “F” visa is reserved for nonimmigrants wishing to pursue academic studies and/or language training programs, and the “M” visa is reserved for nonimmigrants wishing to pursue nonacademic or vocational studies.
Foreign students seeking to study in the U.S. may enter in the F-1 or M-1 category provided they meet the following criteria:
- The student must be enrolled in an “academic” educational program, a language-training program, or a vocational program;
- The school must be approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS);
- The student must be enrolled as a full-time student at the institution;
- The student must be proficient in English or be enrolled in courses leading to English proficiency;
- The student must have sufficient funds available for self-support during the entire proposed course of study; and
- The student must maintain a residence abroad which he/she has no intention of giving up.
The first step for a prospective nonimmigrant student is being accepted for enrollment in an established school which is SEVP certified. In general, for academic students attending a university, college, high school, private elementary school, seminary, conservatory or other academic institutions, including a language training program, an F visa is the appropriate category. For students attending vocational or other recognized nonacademic institutions, other than a language training program, an M visa is generally the appropriate category.
If you are going to the U.S. primarily for tourism, but want to take a short course of study that is recreational, and the course is less than 18 hours per week, you may be able to do so on a visitor (B) visa. If your course of study is 18 hours or more a week, you will need a student visa. When traveling to the U.S. to attend seminars, conferences or a program of study for academic credit then you will need a student visa.
The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is designed to help the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of State better monitor school and exchange programs and F, M and J category visitors. Exchange visitor and student information is maintained in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS is an Internet-based system that maintains accurate and current information on non-immigrant students (F and M visa), exchange visitors (J visa), and their dependents (F-2, M-2, and J-2). SEVIS enables schools and program sponsors to transmit mandatory information and event notifications via the Internet, to the DHS and Department of State (DOS) throughout a student or exchange visitor’s stay in the United States.
All student applicants must have a SEVIS generated I-20 issued by an educational institution approved by DHS, which they submit when they are applying for their student visa. Your school is responsible for entering your information for the I-20 student visa form into SEVIS. The consular officer will need to verify your I-20 record electronically through the SEVIS system in order to process your student visa application. Unless otherwise exempt, all F-1 or M-1 principal applicants must pay a SEVIS I-901 fee to the DHS for each individual program.
The Immigration and National Act is very specific with regard to the requirements which must be met by applicants to qualify for the student visa. The consular officer will determine whether you qualify for the visa. Additionally, applicants must demonstrate that they properly meet student visa requirements including:
- Have a residence abroad, with no immediate intention of abandoning that residence;
- Intend to depart from the United States upon completion of the course of study; and
- Possess sufficient funds to pursue the proposed course of study.
Useful information for Schools: Obtaining Approval to Receive Nonimmigrant Students
Petition for Approval, Form I-17, must be filed with the district office with jurisdiction for the the locality where the school is located. There are two types of foreign students, F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrants. A school may be approved for F and/or M students, as described below. However, an individual student’s classification depends on his/her principal educational goals.
F-1: Approval for attendance of academic students may be solicited by an accredited college or university that awards bachelors, masters, doctorate or professional degrees; an accredited community or junior college that provides instruction in the liberal arts or the professions and awards associate degrees; a seminary; a conservatory; an academic high school; a private elementary school; or an institution that provides language training, instruction in the liberal arts, the fine arts or the professions, or instruction in one or more of these disciplines.
M-1: Approval for the attendance of non-academic students may be solicited by a community college or junior college that provides vocational or technical training and awards associate degrees; a vocational high school; a trade school or a school of nonacademic training other than language training.
Current USCIS regulations recognize the following as approved schools
- A school operated as a public educational institution by federal, state, or local government; and
- A school accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency.
If an institution of higher education does not fall into one of these two categories, it must submit evidence that its course credits are accepted by at least three accredited schools.
If a private elementary or public or private secondary school does not fall into one of these two categories, it must submit evidence that it satisfies the compulsory attendance requirements of the state in which it is located and that it qualifies graduates for acceptance by approved schools at a higher educational level, and in the case of a private elementary or secondary school, that it is accredited by an accrediting organization, certified by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Non-Public Education.
Petition for approval (Form I-17) is filed in duplicate with the district director in the school’s locality. The following requirements must also be met:
- The Form I-17 must be signed by an officer of the institution who has authority to sign contracts; and
- The petitioning school must submit certification indicating that it is licensed, approved, and/or accredited.
All applications submitted by schools and institutions wishing to accept nonimmigrant students, should be mailed to the “Attention of the USCIS Schools Officer” at the USCIS District Office having jurisdiction over the geographic area in which the institution is located.