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Applying for a visa

What is a visa?

The F-1 or J-1 visa stamp in your passport is permission to apply to enter the United States in that visa category. You enter the U.S. under the terms and conditions specified by the particular type of nonimmigrant visa that you hold. The visa does not determine how long you can remain in the U.S. – it may be viewed as a “ticket” to request entrance into the U.S.

Although your passport and I-20 or DS-2019 must remain valid while you are in the U.S., your visa (that is, the actual visa stamp in the passport) may expire while you are in the U.S. with no adverse effect on your status or employment eligibility.  If your visa expires while you are in the U.S. and/or its number of entries has been used, or if you have changed your nonimmigrant status while in the U.S., you will need to obtain a new visa only if you are traveling abroad. Visas can only be obtained outside of the U.S. at a U.S. consulate. (Canadian citizens are not required to have a visa stamp to enter the U.S.).  Please visit the U.S. Embassy/Consulate in your country (or the country at which you will be applying for a visa) to get processing times, appointment procedures, and required documents.

Which documents do you need to apply to a visa?

  • Visa application. Complete the form provided by the U.S. consulate in the country where the application will be submitted.  You will be charged a fee for the visa application.
  • Receipt confirming payment of the SEVIS fee, if applicable.
  • Valid passport. Your passport must be valid for at least six months when seeking admission or readmission to the United States, and should remain valid throughout your stay in the U.S.
  • Passport-size photos.
  • I-20 or DS-2019 form. If you are applying for a visa to continue studies at North Carolina State University, be sure that your advisor has signed the travel validation section of the form within the past six months.
  • Financial evidence detailing source and amount of funding.  Consular and immigration officers exercise considerable discretion in determining whether financial support exists and is sufficient to cover your entire period of stay.  Prepare documentation that is thorough, consistent, credible and varied. Please always check the requirements for proof of funding on your Embassy’s website before you apply for the visa – The requirements may differ from what NC State University asks of you.
  • Academic transcripts, confirmation of enrollment, and proof of English language proficiency may also be requested.
  • Evidence of continuing ties (such as family, career, or property) to your home country. Visa applicants are presumed to be “intending immigrants.” Your visa will be denied unless you satisfy the consular officer that you will return home. Unfortunately, there is no single explanation, document, or letter than can guarantee visa issuance.

Consular officers conduct quick interviews! Their initial impression of you is critical to your success. Keep your answers concise.  Be honest in everything you write on your visa application and say during the interview.  Anticipate that the interview will be conducted in English.  Don’t bring other people to speak on your behalf.  Be able to explain the reasons you want to study in the U.S. and remember that your main reason for coming to the United States is to study, not to work!  If your spouse and children are remaining behind in your home country, be prepared to explain how they will support themselves in your absence.  If they are accompanying you to the U.S., be prepared to show proof of adequate funding.  If you are denied the visa, ask the officer for a list of documents he or she would suggest you bring the next time you apply, and try to get the reason you were denied in writing. Maintain a positive attitude!  Do not engage the consular officer in an argument.

In some countries and for students admitted to certain areas of study there may be a lengthy security background check between the interview date and when the visa is issued.  Certain disciplines are considered “sensitive” by the State Department and are put on the Technology Alert List (TAL). The current TAL is not public information. The visa officer has the right to deny a student visa application for a number of reasons including suspicious-looking documents, poor English ability, immediate family members who have applied for permanent residency in the US, and most commonly failure to establish close ties to the home country.  OIS is not able to expedite security background checks at the embassy or to appeal to the visa officer in the case of a visa denial.  OIS cannot certify that students will indeed return to the home country upon graduation.

How, where, and when to apply for a visa

Apply for the visa at a U.S. consulate in your home country, unless circumstances or travel plans make this impossible.  It may be possible to apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate in a country other than your home country.  This is called a “third country national (TCN)” application.  Not all U.S. consulates accept TCN applications, and some allow TCN applications for limited situations; check with individual consulates, including those in Canada and Mexico, for TCN application policies.  It can be risky to apply in a country other than your home country.  For instance, if you apply for a new visa in Canada and encounter delays, you must remain in Canada for the length of the processing.  You will not be able to reenter the U.S. until the new visa is approved.  Generally, visa applicants will need to submit the necessary documents and schedule an appointment for an interview with a visa officer in the consular section of the Embassy. Appointments procedures vary from country to country, sometimes require a fee to be paid to a third party, and may take several weeks to arrange so applicants should schedule an appointment as early as possible.  Students applying for initial-entry F-1 and F-2 visas may be issued the visas up to 120 days before the academic program start date as noted on the I-20.  J-1 and J-2 exchange visitors may be issued visas at any time before the beginning of their programs.

Automatic visa revalidation

An exception to the rule requiring a valid, unexpired visa exists for students in F-1 and J-1 status who travel for fewer than 30 days solely to Canada or Mexico or islands in the Caribbean except Cuba.  Your visa will be considered to be “extended” (and “converted” to the proper visa category if you had changed status while in the U.S.) to the date of reentry, eliminating the need to obtain a new visa at a U.S. consulate before that particular re-entry.  This procedure is known as “automatic visa revalidation“.  Note that if you apply for a new visa while in Canada, Mexico, or islands in the Caribbean, you will not be able to return to the U.S. if the visa application is denied.  Some exceptions based on country of citizenship do apply.

Visa validity after a break in studies

If you have been outside of the U.S. for more than five months and were not registered full time while abroad, your F-1 visa will be considered invalid, even if it has not yet expired. Additionally, you will need to request a new I-20 or DS-2019 from OIS. If you are returning to resume study, you must obtain a visa and pay the SEVIS fee ($200 for F-1 students, $180 for J-1 students).

See the U.S. Department of State for more information about visas.