Guide to Attaining a F or M Student Visa

The U.S. offers some of the finest and most prestigious universities and schools in the world. However, for some people the process of attaining a visa might be a daunting and tedious task. For any student from outside the U.S. that is interested in continuing their education in the U.S. Here is a guide that may help.

International students who wish to study full-time at a college, university, or secondary school in the U.S. will need a visa. (6) Nonimmigrant visas are categorized in two groups called: F and M visas. The F-1 visa allows students to enter the U.S. as a full-time student at an accredited college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic high school, elementary school, or other academic institutions. (6) The student must be enrolled in a program that is authorized by the U.S. Government to accept international students and results in a degree, diploma, or certificate. (6) 

The M-1 visa is for students in vocational or other non academic programs that do not include language training. (6) To be considered for either of these two categories of visas, the student must meet the following criteria: 

  • Must be enrolled in an academic program, a language-training program, or a vocational program. 
  • The school the student plans to attend must be approved by the Student and Exchange Visitors Programs (SEVP) and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE).
  • The student must attend full-time. 
  • The student must have a strong understanding of the English language, or be enrolled in courses to strengthen their understanding of the language.
  • The student must have adequate funds to support themselves during their time studying in the U.S. (i.e. enough money for food, housing, transportation and academic resources) 
  • The student must keep a residence abroad that they do not intend to give up. (The student must plan on moving back to their native country when their education is complete.) (6) 

Steps to getting a F or M visa 

1. The student first must apply to a SEVP approved school in the U.S. If accepted by the school, the student will then register in the Student and Exchange Visitor Exchange System (SEVIS) and must pay the SEVIS I-901 fee. (7) It is generally $350, but can vary. (2) The approved school will issue the student a Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. (5) Once complete and the student is registered in SEVIS, they can apply at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate for their F or M visa. 

2. Complete the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160, and print the form confirmation page. (It will be needed for the student’s interview.) The student must upload a recent (within six months) photo to complete the form. (7) 

3. The student must schedule an interview if they are between the ages of 14-79. (Students 13-years-old or younger and 80-years-old or older, generally do not need to be interviewed.) The interview should be scheduled at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the country where the student lives. The student may schedule an interview outside of the country they live in, but it may be more difficult to qualify for the visa. (7) 

4. Prior to the interview the student must pay all the applicable fees. (All fees are non-refundable and must be paid before the interview.) (7) 

5. The student must gather their required documents. These include: a valid passport for travel to the U.S. (It must be valid for at least six months beyond the student’s expected time in the U.S.) (7) A printed copy of their Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160, confirmation page and the application payment receipt. (4) A printed photo that was uploaded online for the Form DS-160. Their Form I-20: for F-1 the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status for Academic and Language Students, or for M-1 Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status for Vocational Students. (This will be sent from the school to the student, and must be signed by the school’s official.) (7) 

Additional documents may be required such as: transcripts, diplomas, degrees, or standardized tests scores required by the school the student plans to attend. 

Documentation expressing the students intent on leaving the U.S. after they complete their education. Documentation of how the student will pay for the education (i.e. tuition, books, housing, food, etc.) (7) 6. Attend the interview where a consular officer will determine if the student is qualified to receive a student visa, by determining if the student meets the requirements under U.S. law. The student’s fingerprints will be taken digitally. (7) 

After the interview, it may be determined that further processing is required. However, if the visa is approved, the student may pay an additional issuance (distribution) fee if it is required based on the student’s nationality. Then, arrangements will be made for the student to receive their visa and the return of their passport. (7) 

Entering the United States 

A visa does not guarantee entry into the U.S. — it only allows a foreign citizen to travel to a U.S. port-of-entry and request permission to enter. (7) The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have the authority to allow or deny admission to the U.S. After the student presents their passport, visa and Form I-20, the CBP official will determine if the student can enter the U.S. If the student is granted admission, the official will give them an admission stamp or paper Form I-95, Arrival/Departure Record. (7) 


During their first academic year in the U.S., F-1 students are not allowed to work off-campus. However, they are allowed to work on campus under certain circumstances. (6) After their first year, F-1 students are allowed to work in three different off-campus employment categories:

  • Curricular Practical Training (CPT) 
  • Optional Practical Training (OPT)
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension (OPT)

In order to work in any of these categories it must be directly related to the student’s course of study and they will need to provide a new Form I-20. (6) M-1 students can only enroll in practical training programs after they have completed their studies. For both F-1 and M-1 students, any off-campus training employment must be related to their area of study, and authorized by their school’s designated official in charge of maintaining SEVIS and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). (6) 

Extending Student’s Stay 

Students with F visas must depart from the U.S. within 60 days after the end date of the program listed on their Form I-20. (7) However, they may request an extension through the USCIS. The USCIS recommends that the student applies immediately after they decide they would like to change their status. (3) However, they must receive approval from the USCIS, so they should not assume that they can stay until they receive approval. If they overstay their nonimmigrant status, they will be removed from the U.S. and perhaps barred from returning. (3) The authorized status and the date the student’s status expires is located on the lower right-hand corner of their Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record. (3) It is important for the student to be aware of when they are lawfully required to depart the U.S., so they can make the proper arrangements if they intend on staying longer. Students in the U.S. do not need to apply for a new visa, but once they leave the U.S. they must apply for a new visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. (7) 

Works Cited 

1. “Arrival/Departure Forms: I-94 and I-94W.” Arrival/Departure Forms: I-94 and I-94W | 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Accessed June 13, 2020. 

2. “I-901 SEVIS Fee Frequently Asked Questions.” ICE. Accessed June 13, 2020. 

3. “If You Are Thinking about Changing Your Nonimmigrant Status...” USCIS, September 

2, 2009. 

4. “Paying the I-901 SEVIS Fee.” Study in the States, October 30, 2019. 

5. “Student Forms.” Study in the States, May 23, 2019. 

6. “Students and Employment.” USCIS, September 4, 2009. -employment. 

7. U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State. Accessed June 13, 2020. 

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