How to Apply for a U.S. Student Visa: 8 Key Steps

Attending college in the United States, whether at the graduate or undergraduate level, offers many strategic benefits to international students. But, studying in the U.S. requires more than simply making the decision to do so: There is a process that must be followed. One of the most important—and often one of the most intimidating—parts of that process is applying for a student visa that will allow you to study in the United States. 

Are you considering attending a U.S. college or university to earn your degree? Below, we explore the different types of student visas available to you, outline the key steps involved in applying for your student visa, and offer some tips that can help you make the process easier and less stressful.

Determining which student visa is right for you

Before studying in the U.S. as an international student, you must apply for and receive a U.S. student visa. By receiving a student visa, you are allowed to temporarily reside in the U.S. for the purposes of completing your education. 

According to the U.S. Department of State, there are three different types of U.S. student visas available to international students, each better suited to different circumstances: the F-1 visa, the M-1 visa, and the J-1 Visa.

F-1 Visa

The F-1 visa is the one most international students will need to attend either high school or college in the U.S. This includes language training programs and applies to both graduate and undergraduate studies. If you would like to earn your degree from a U.S. institution, this is the visa for you.

M-1 Visa

The M-1 visa is required for international students who will be attending a vocational or other nonacademic institution, such as a trade school. These programs are typically career-focused and are often short-term. 

J-1 Visa

The J-1 visa is required for any international student who wishes to enter the U.S. in order to participate in an exchange visitor program, such as those who are spending a semester studying abroad or interning in the U.S. If you want to spend a semester or two studying abroad in the U.S., this is the visa you should apply for.

It is important to note that international students cannot study in the U.S. with a visitor visa or as a part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

Steps to Applying for a U.S. Student Visa

1. Apply for—and be admitted to—an American university.

In order to apply for your U.S. student visa, you must first apply to and be accepted by a U.S. college or university. 

This means that as soon as you know you would like to study in the United States, you should begin researching potential universities and find the school that best aligns with your personal and career goals. We typically recommend choosing a program that features industry-sourced faculty, challenging academics, and plenty of opportunities for experiential learning, such as co-ops and internships

Learn More: How to Organize  Your Grad School Search

It is also important to note that the school must be certified by the Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP). You can search a database of these schools here

Once you have been admitted to a U.S.-based university, you can begin the visa application process. You must receive your visa before your program officially starts, but the earliest that you can receive your visa is 120 days prior to the program’s official start date. 

2. Obtain a Form I-20 from your college or university.

Upon acceptance to a university, international students seeking their F-1 visa will receive a Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status (typically referred to as a Form I-20) from their school. 

This form will be signed by your designated school official (DSO) and must also be signed by you. A parent signature is required for students under the age of 18. If you intend to bring any eligible dependents with you during your academic studies (such as children), you must receive a Form I-20 for each of them as well. 

3. Submit the I-901 SEVIS fee payment.

After receiving your Form I-20, you will be required to pay the I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee. At a cost of $350 for F-1 and M-1 visa applicants, this fee is required of all student visa applicants and is used to cover the costs of processing each application. 

Unless you reside in a few select countries (Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, or Kenya, or Nigeria), you can pay the I-901 SEVIS fee online using a credit card by visiting Those residing in one of the countries listed above will be required to pay by money order, certified check, or Western Union money transfer.

To pay the I-901 SEVIS fee, you will need to provide the following information, so be sure to gather any required forms before beginning the process:

  • Your name, address, and date of birth
  • Your email address
  • Your country of birth and your country of citizenship (if different)
  • The School Code listed on your Form I-20
  • The SEVIS Identification number provided on the Form I-20

Because you must bring proof of payment to your visa interview appointment (a step you’ll take later in the process), it is important that you print your payment confirmation page. It is also important to keep in mind that the I-901 SEVIS Fee is different from your visa application fee, which you will be required to pay later in the application process. 

4. Find the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

Once you have paid the I-901 SEVIS Fee, you can begin preparing for your visa interview. Since this interview must take place at a U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country, you should start this preparation by identifying the location closest to you. Depending on your country or region, the embassy may be a significant distance from your home, so you should choose a location that you know you will be able to reach for your interview.

You should start by identifying the location because you will need to list this embassy when you submit your DS-160 Application Form (below). If you don’t know which location you will be applying to, you may make a mistake while completing your form, which you will then need to correct.

You can search the U.S. Department of State’s database to find the embassy closest to you. 

5. Complete the Form DS-160 visa application.

Form DS-160 is also known as the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application Form, and it is something that you must complete in order to apply for your student visa. Your answers on this form must be submitted in English.

It is critical that you answer each question on this form completely, accurately, and truthfully, or else you may need to correct your file, adding additional time to the process that you may not have. For this reason, be sure that you have gathered your passport, a visa photograph, and your completed Form I-20. 

Other information you may be required to supply (depending on the agreement your country has with the U.S.) includes your travel itinerary, the dates of your last five visits to the U.S. (if you have visited in the past), and/or a record of your other international travel history. 

As noted above, you will indicate which embassy or consulate you plan to visit to conduct your visa interview on this form.

After completing Form DS-160, be sure to print the barcode page, as you will need to bring this with you to your visa interview. 

6. Schedule a visa interview at your chosen consulate or embassy.

Upon completion of Form DS-160, you should contact the U.S. embassy or consulate which you indicated on the form and schedule your visa interview. Because wait times can vary substantially from country to country and from embassy to embassy, it is important to contact them as quickly as possible to ensure that you will be seen. Depending on how far you will need to travel to attend the interview, you may need to make travel arrangements, so be sure to factor this into your budgeting and scheduling.

After scheduling your interview, you will be required to pay the Visa Application Fee. Some embassies will require you to pay this fee before attending your interview, while others may not. If your embassy does require you to pay beforehand, be sure to bring proof of payment to your actual interview. This fee is $160

7. Attend the interview.

The visa interview is the final procedural step involved in obtaining your student visa, and it is also one of the most important. 

When you attend the interview, be sure to bring any forms or documentation which may be required, including your:

  • Passport
  • Visa photo
  • Printed DS-160 barcode page
  • Printed I-901 SEVIS Fee confirmation page
  • Visa application fee payment confirmation page
  • Form I-20

Specific embassies may require additional documents, so be sure to determine what else you may be required to bring before your visit.

And what about the interview itself? 

“The questions that they are going to ask you will mainly be focused on your reason for wanting to enter the United States,” says Allison Hogan, assistant director of customer service for the Office of Global Services at Northeastern University. “They might ask general questions about what university you will be attending, what degree you will be pursuing, where you will be staying, and so on, so that they can better understand your purpose for traveling to the U.S.”

The more detailed and accurate you can be in your answers, the better: “The more information you are able to give, the faster the process will go and the less likely you are to hit roadblocks along the way.”

Following the interview, if you have been approved for a visa then you will be required to leave your passport with the embassy, which will later return it to you with your student visa. 

8. Pay the visa issuance fee.

Depending on your country and the reciprocity agreement that it has in place with the U.S., you may be required to pay an issuance fee in order to finally receive your visa. This fee, if required, will vary by country. 

Some final advice to help you through the visa process

While the process of applying for your U.S. student visa can be a long and sometimes complicated process, there are steps that you can take to increase your chances of success. Hogan specifically recommends that applicants practice patience.

“If you really want to study in the U.S. and earn a particular degree, you should absolutely go for it,” she says. “Just make sure that you are being very careful in following all of the steps and instructions so that the process goes as quickly as possible.”

She notes that applicants should be sure to make use of all of the resources available to them from the college or university that they will be attending, which can be substantial.

“We are constantly learning from our students about what the process of applying for a visa is like and how it differs from country to country,” she says. “ With everything we learn from our students, we are better equipped to guide people through the process.”

Jessica Perolio, director of Academic Services and Student Support at Northeastern’s Office of Global Services, agrees, adding, “Because we have such a large international student population, there is a really robust structure of resources that Northeastern offers to students. We are able to assist students in areas beyond the application process like finding housing, adjusting to academics and cultural differences, and other aspects of transitioning to American student life.”

Are you an international student interested in studying at Northeastern University? Contact the Office of Global Services to speak with a member of the team who can answer your questions.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2019. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.