How does a foreign national obtain a student visa in the United States?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 6, 2012

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Most colleges and universities have foreign student counselors to assist prospective students. How you apply will depend on several factors, including: the type of programs available at the school you want to attend; your financial situation; your family situation; the type of education you intend to pursue.

Types of Student Visas

Generally, two main types of student visas are used by colleges and universities. Some colleges focus on F-1 or M-1 student visas; the focus of this type of program is whether you meet that college’s requirements for admission. For example, a particular university may require a certain grade point average and three letters of recommendation. Before you can receive the application for an F-1 visa or M-1 visa, you must satisfy that institution’s requirements. Other colleges focus on J-1 student visas. To get a J-1 visa, the college or university must be an approved Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIS) program sponsor. To be eligible, you must demonstrate that your financial situation is such that you are fully supported by funds other than those from your family. For example, you earned a scholarship that covers your tuition and living expenses. If you cannot demonstrate full support, you may need to look for a college with an F-1 or M-1 program.

Even if you did qualify for a J-1 student visa, you may still want to consider applying for an F-1 or M-1 visa. If you are married and have children under 21 years of age, they may be able to apply for F-2 or M-2 visas. These visas provide a means for families to remain together while one spouse is attending college. 

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What Are You Going to Study?

The last main factor to influence the your student visa you is the type of education you intend to pursue. If you are seeking a four-year degree through an accredited post-secondary educational institution, and you have funds to support yourself outside of your family, you should be able to qualify for a J-1 student visa. F-1 student visas are similar in that they generally apply to students seeking to attend a college or university, including those offering two-year programs. M-1 student visas are directed to those students seeking a vocational education, for example a trade school. 

Trying to figure out exactly which student visa is best for your situation can be a bit daunting. Fortunately, most schools that participate in these programs designate an individual to assist non-immigrant students as they work their way through the process. You can also seek the assistance of an attorney who specializes in immigration law to help you identify any opportunities or pitfalls applicable to your personal situation.

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