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Study in the States: How to Qualify for an F-1 Visa

Citizens of foreign countries who want to enter the United States must first obtain either a nonimmigrant visa for temporary stay or an immigrant visa for permanent residence. In order to study in the United States, an international student must have a student visa (a nonimmigrant visa). The course of study and the type of school the international student plans to attend determines whether an F or M visa is needed. The F-1 visa is a student visa given to international students enrolling in academic programs at a university, college, high school, private elementary school, seminary, conservatory or another academic institution, including an English language program. An M-1 visa is similar to the F-1 visa but is for students enrolled in non-academic or vocational studies such as mechanical studies, technical studies, cooking classes, language programs, flight school or cosmetology programs. While some requirements apply to both the F-1 and M-1 student visa, each has its own list of rules and criteria. 

In order to qualify for an F-1 visa, the international student must meet the following requirements:

  1. Must be a bona fide student qualified to pursue a full course of study and must have a SEVIS Form I-20 issued by a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) approved school;
  2. Proficient in English or enrolled in classes leading to English proficiency;
  3. Must have evidence of sufficient funds available for self-support during the entire proposed course of study;
  4. Must maintain a foreign residence which the international student has no intention of giving up; and
  5. Must seek to enter the U.S. temporarily and solely for the purpose of pursuing such a course of study at an established institution of learning or other recognized place of study in the U.S.

(1) Bona Fide Student Status

In order to apply for an F-1 student visa, an international student must apply and be accepted by an SEVP accredited school. Only schools certified by SEVP can accept international students so it is important to ensure the international students’ school of choice is accredited.

International students should begin researching study options at least 12-18 months prior to the academic year the international student wants to attend a U.S. university as application and financial aid deadlines can affect the timing of the visa process.

(2) English Proficiency

International students must either be proficient in English or must receive training to become proficient in order to qualify for the F-1 visa. Despite this, schools may explain why English proficiency is not a requirement for the program the student is enrolled in. This is program specific and will be noted on the students’ I-20.

If an international student does not meet all of the standards for admission, such as English proficiency, they may be conditionally admitted into their program of study. The students’ conditional admission is contingent upon the student successfully meeting a school-specified set of supplemental conditions intended to fully qualify the student for the program. The student will not be issued an I-20 until all of the conditions are met.

Students who are not yet proficient enough in English to enroll in full-time study have the option of entering into a pathway program. A pathway program is a “postsecondary program of study combining credit-bearing and development ESL coursework to prepare a student who is unable to meet the English proficiency standards for admission. Such a program leads into an SEVP-certified degree program.”[1] The school must guarantee admission to a degree program at the school for students who successfully complete the pathway program.

(3) Financial Eligibility

The international student must show they have sufficient funds to cover their expenses and successfully study in the U.S. without resorting to unauthorized employment for financial support. This does not mean the student must have immediate possession of the funds to cover the entire period of their intended study but the student must show they can meet all expenses for at least the first year of study. The student must then be able to prove there will be funds available for each year of study either from the same source or another identified financial source.

While international students are required to show their financial eligibility before being issued an F-1 visa, this does not mean they are unable to apply for scholarships or financial aid while in the U.S. International students are encouraged to apply for financial assistance for their studies. More information regarding the various scholarships and financial aid options for international students can be found on the U.S. Department of States Education USA website here:

(4) Maintaining a Foreign Residence

International students must possess a residence in a foreign country they have no intention of abandoning. The student must demonstrate permanent employment, meaningful business or financial connections, close family ties, or social or cultural associations that indicate a strong inducement to return to the country of origin.[2] While many assume this means the student must maintain a residence in their home country, this is in fact not the case. For example, “an alien who has been living in Germany may meet the residence abroad requirement by showing a clear intention to establish a residence in Canada after a temporary visit in the United States.”[3] The student does not have to maintain an independent household in the foreign country as long as they customarily reside in the household of another that they deem to be their residence. This is often the case with individuals who live with family members. While the international student may not be the owner of the residence, it is the place where they live and where they consider home and is thus deemed their residence.

If a consular officer is not satisfied that the students present intent is to depart the U.S. at the end of their studies or OPT, the officer must refuse to issue the visa.[4] The possibility that the student may apply to change or adjust status in the future is not grounds for refusing a visa application if the consular officer is satisfied their current intent is to leave the U.S. at the end of their studies/OPT.

When determining intent, the fact that the student plans to study a subject for which there is “no or little employment opportunity in his country of residence is not a basis for denying the visa … nor … is the fact that the country of residence can provide for equivalent quality courses in the same subject matter.”[5] International students may choose to study in the U.S. for many different reasons and the consular officer is not permitted to analyze the reasons why the student chose the school or field of study they did as it relates to their intent.

(5) Intention to Stay Only Temporarily

Unlike immigrants, nonimmigrants enter the U.S. for a temporary period of time and are restricted to activities consistent with their visa. Nonimmigrants generally must represent that their stay in the U.S. is temporary. There is a presumption that all persons seeking entry to the U.S. are immigrants unless they can prove they are entitled to a nonimmigrant visa classification.[6] This presumption applies to both F and M applicants. In order to overcome the immigrant presumption, the nonimmigrant must provide evidence that they are entitled to nonimmigrant status and that their intended activities are consistent with the status for which they are applying. For international students this requires they intend to engage only in activities allowed for the F-1 visa classification. As the primary purpose of the F-1 visa is to complete a program of study, the international student must show that they intend to pursue a full course of study at an SEVP certified school. F-1 visa holders should not take any action that detracts from that purpose.

While this requirement may not appear to be as difficult to satisfy at the outset, F-1 visa holders should ensure during their time in the U.S. that they are continuing to fulfill the purpose for why their student visa was issued. Employment opportunities frequently seem to be at odds with the purpose of the student visa when students engage in unauthorized employment or enroll in a university with the sole purpose of obtaining work authorization.

International students must apply and be accepted at an SEVP accredited school before applying for their visa at the U.S. consulate abroad in order to enter the U.S. Some individuals who are already in the U.S. may be eligible to apply to change their status to F-1. Whether they are located in a foreign country or are in the U.S. at the time they want to obtain an F-1 visa, the international student must still satisfy the requirements discussed above to be eligible for an F-1 visa.

For more information or assistance on F-1 status maintenance, employment issues such as CPT, OPT, STEM OPT, F-2 dependents, change of status, and other matters related to the F-1, please contact our firm or another qualified immigration attorney.

[1] SEVP Policy Guidance S7.2: Pathway Programs for Reasons of English Proficiency (Oct. 28, 2016), AILA Doc. No. 16102842.

[2] 9 FAM 401.1-3(F)(2)(b)

[3] 9 FAM 401.1-3(F)(2)

[4] INA § 214(b)

[5]  Cable, DOS, 05-State-180015 (Sept. 28, 2005) ¶5, AILA Doc. No. 051101159 FAM 402.5-5(E)(2)(a)

[6] INA § 214(b), 8 U.S.C. § 1184(b)

By: Staff Attorney