In order to enter the United States for any study or educational exchange program, international students need to have a visa issued by the U.S. Department of State. There are three primary types of visas depending on the purpose and type of study program or exchange.
- F-1 visas are typically for students who will be attending an accredited university to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree or for students who will be attending English language programming. However, F-1 visas are sometimes issued to students attending a community college.
- M-1 visas are typically for students enrolling in a community college or vocational, technical, or non-academic training program.
- J-1 visas are typically for students who are part of an exchange program, such as one sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
Students’ spouses and children (under 21) can accompany them to the U.S. However, they also need to apply for a U.S. visa (F-2, M-2, J-2) using official documents from the students’ place of study. In the visa application process, additional documentation, such as marriage licenses and evidence of availability of funds to support the family to live in the United States can be requested.
The visa application process can start as early as four months (120 days) prior to the start of the study or educational exchange program. To begin, visa applicants need to coordinate with the designated school official (DSO) at the university they plan to attend or their program sponsor to submit the I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee (200 USD). After that, applicants can complete a DS-160 Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application and schedule a visa interview at the U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country. There is a visa fee (160 USD) when the interview is scheduled.
Prior to the interview, F-1 and M-1 visa applicants need to have an I-20 Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status Form from their university for themselves and each dependent they plan to bring with them to the United States. Only universities that are certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) are able to issue I-20 Forms. Likewise, J-1 visa applicants need a DS-2019 Form for themselves and any dependents issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) prior to their interview.
During the visa interview, a consular officer verifies the applicant’s documents (I-20 document for F and M visas or DS-2019 document for J visas) and could ask the applicant questions about their plans to return home after completing their study program in the United States. If all goes well, the applicant will be issued a U.S. visa. Depending on the country, there could be a visa issuance fee.
Once students arrive in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security at the U.S. border inspects student visas and has the authority to grant or deny entry. While the student is in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (not the Department of State) enforces immigration regulations.
Documents for Presentation at Border
Students can arrive in the United States up to 30 days before their program of study begins. That date should be listed on their I-20 form which is shown at the U.S. port of entry to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer with their student visa. In their carry-on luggage (not their checked baggage), students should have these documents ready to show the CBP:
- University acceptance letter and recent tuition receipts
- Evidence of financial support (such as bank statements, documentation from a sponsor, financial aid letters, scholarship letters, or a letter from an employer)
- Contact information of their designated school official (DSO) (phone number, email, address)
- Form CBP I-94 Arrival/Departure and Form CBP 6059B Customs Declaration which are provided by a flight attendant during the flight or can be completed by the student beforehand.
The CBP will review the documents and ask some routine questions about the student’s study in the United States. When the inspection is complete, the CBP will stamp the student’s passport and CBP 6059B form. They will keep the Arrival portion of the CBP I-94 form and return the Departure portion to the student.
It is important to know that the CBP has the authority to admit or deny international students’ entrance into the United States. If any of the student’s documentation cannot be verified, the student may proceed to a secondary inspection.
Documentation during Study
While students are in the United States, they should ensure that their passport is always valid for at least six months into the future. Also, if they have a J visa, they should ensure that the information on their DS-2019 Form is always correct. If students want to work in the United States, it must first be authorized by their designated school official (DSO). In addition, student must adhere to any programming and scholarship policies in order to remain in good standing.
What to Pack from Home
Most anything from warm winter clothing to halal food to electronics is available for purchase in the United States. However, suggested items to pack from home include:
- Prescription medicine (prescribed by the student’s doctor)
- Extra glasses/contacts
- Photos of family and friends
- Power plug converter (Note, in the United States, power plugs and sockets are Type A and Type B and standard voltage is 120 V and the frequency is 60 Hz). These may also be purchased in the United States.
Airlines do have restrictions on the amount of weight and items that can be transported in carry-on and checked luggage. Students should check in advance on their airline’s website and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration website to ensure they follow the luggage guidelines and do not pack any prohibited items (such as weaponry, illegal drugs, fireworks, flammable liquids, or hazardous materials of any kind). Also, liquids should primarily go into checked luggage. Travelers can have only one, clear, quart-sized bag of liquids, with each liquid a maximum of 100 milliliters (3.4 ounces) in their carry-on luggage. Note that many food items (fruits, vegetables and most meats, poultry, fish, plants and seeds) are not permitted to enter the United States. Failure to declare food items when entering the United States can result in a large fine.
In addition to packing documents to present at U.S. Customs and any money or valuable items in their carry-on luggage, students should also consider packing a light jacket, reading and writing materials, toiletries to freshen up during the flight, and a change of clothing, in case their checked luggage is delayed.
What to Expect at the Airport
Students should arrive at the airport in their home country at least three hours before their flight is scheduled for departure. When they check in, they should ensure their luggage is checked to their final destination and keep any baggage claim tickets in a secure location. Students should expect their carry-on and checked luggage to be searched by airport security when they check-in as well as when they arrive in the United States. In addition, airport security may want to search their person or ask questions about their travel. This is normal. Travelers may request to be searched by security personnel of their same sex.
On arrival, if any of the student’s checked baggage is damaged or does not arrive with the rest of the baggage, they should notify airline personnel in the baggage claim area. Missing luggage usually arrives on the next flight. Other luggage could take a number of days to be returned. Usually, airports will deliver the lost luggage to the traveler’s home at no cost, if it has already gone through U.S. Customs inspection.
As students are leaving the baggage claim area, they will present their visa and CBP 6059B form to a Customs officer. There could be an additional random luggage screening or students could be directed to proceed to the exit. If the student has a connecting flight to their final destination in the United States, they will need to recheck their luggage at a transit desk before proceeding to their flight’s departure gate.