Possibly the most common visa after tourist for entry into the United States is the F-1 Visa granted to allow entry into the United States for full time academic or language student enrollment in a program leading to a degree or certificate. The visa can normally be issued quickly, allows transfer from one school to another or to switch academic programs (with notification to the INS) and even allows part time work on campus. Accompanying relatives can also obtain appropriate visas and one may travel in and out of the United States until completion of the studies. If one wants to attend school in the United States and have a relative accompany during the time in school, the visa is not difficult to obtain.
The Basic Visa Procedure and Requirements:
While scrutiny of the visa applicants has been increased since the terrorist attacks of September 11, this visa remains an excellent way to enter and remain in the United States and take advantage of the excellent universities and colleges available. It is vital to note, however, that one must remain in the school and actively take the programs in order to remain subject to the visa and INS has investigated and deported students who enrolled in a school but then failed to adequately attend the classes or take the examinations. It is probably a good idea, in this new world of increased legal scrutiny, to obtain competent legal advice for filing for the application and adhering to the requirements. Failure to abide by the rules can result in deportation and banning from the United States entirely for five years.
There are drawbacks. One must first be accepted as a student by an approved school in the United States before one can apply for the F-1 status, though this application can be made while still in the United States under a tourist visa. (Commonly, prospective students come and visit the campuses while on a tourist visa, and, if admitted, remain in the United States to apply for the F-1 Visa.) Be sure to let INS know, when you get your tourist Visa, that you are going to look for schools since they may object later on if you seek to alter a tourist visa to a student visa.
One can not work legally off campus without special permission and must attend only the school for which the visa was approved. While accompanying relatives may stay in the United States with the student, said relatives can not work. There are also restrictions on attending public elementary or secondary (high) schools since the United States does not wish to have its public high schools accessible to any foreign student who wishes to attend. The thrust of the visa is to allow attendance at a college or university and it is expected the student will pay full tuition unless receiving a scholarship from the school.
There are no quota restrictions. Applications filed at consulates are usually approved within a week, often within two days. Applications filed in the United States may require several months to be approved.
The duration of the visa depends on how long you retain student status and that, in turn, depends on the program you are in. One receives a I-94 card upon entry into the United States and normally it is stamped “D/S” for duration of the student status. That means the visa holder may remain in the United States in a student status for as long as it takes to complete the education objectives PROVIDED the student finishes within what the INS and school consider a “reasonable period of time.”
Practically speaking, the visas are issued for the estimated length of time it will take to complete the program. Consulates use their own judgment in deciding the expiration time for the visa.
Once in the United States, the student may remain in student status without requesting an extension for up to the date indicated on the documentation from the school plus sixty days PROVIDED the student maintains a full time student status and does not become inadmissible or deportable.
Extensions beyond the time limit of the visa are possible and are applied for at the school. To receive an extension, the student must demonstrate that he or she remains enrolled in the program and has good cause for not completing the program in the time previously specified.
Criteria for F-1 Status:
- One must be already accepted by the school and have enough money to study full time without working.
- One must be able to speak, read and write English well enough to understand the course work or, alternatively, if the school has special tutoring in the native tongue, this may overcome language barriers.
- The applicant must prove that he or she intends to return to the home country after completion of the studies.
Each approved school has a person on staff known as the designated school official (DSO) who has primary responsibility for interacting with the student.
One can alter one’s course of study within the same school without notifying the INS so long as the course would have qualified in the first place.
One can not alter schools without applying to the INS for permission.
One can not work outside the school without a special application to the INS showing need.
If illness or remarkable circumstances require a lesser class load, that is allowed and no special application need be made to the INS but the INS does have the right to challenge such a reduction in class so it is wise to get a written approval from the DSO indicating that it is medically necessary for a reduction in class load.
Be Careful: Violation of the Rules Can Bar You from the United States:
Many of the regulations regarding student visas bear stiff penalties if violated, including barring admission back into the United States for five years. Further, under new regulations, an INS inspector at the airport may summarily bar entry to anyone requesting admission into the United States and there is no judicial review of that decision if the inspector thinks the applicant is lying about anything connected with entering the United States OR if the applicant does not have proper documentation to support entry into the United States in the category requested.
If the inspector so excludes an applicant, the person may not be admitted into the United States for five years.
It is thus vital to fully understand the conditions of your visa and make complete and full disclosure of all vital information. Legal advice is strongly recommended, as well as a full briefing of the applicant as to the requirements so that any examination at the border will not result in this barring of entry due to confusion or panic.
Green Card Possible?
There is no inherent advantage in applying for a Green Card while on a student visa, though it is certainly allowed. Recall, however, that the rationale of the student visa is to be in the United States on a temporary basis only and if one applies for a Green card the INS may require proof of two things: that you did not enter the United States intending to apply for permanent residency AND that you will leave once your studies are completed if you do not get a Green Card. This is not easy to prove and the INS has the right to retract your student visa if you fail to demonstrate both intentions.
On the other hand, obtaining a degree of higher education may certainly improve your chances of a Green Card under the various other categories of applications, discussed elsewhere.
Assuming you can be admitted to the correctly qualified school and can afford it, it is relatively easy to obtain the F-1 Visa and, as in so much in life, one must simply carefully and accurately follow the application process and conform to the specific rules. Failure to do so may not only eliminate the chance for an F-1 status, but may eliminate any chance under any Visa to enter the United States for five years. Nevertheless, if done correctly, this is by far the easiest visa to obtain aside from tourist or temporary business visa.