F and M: International Students (including OPT and STEM extensions)

F and M: International Students (including OPT and STEM extensions)

If you’d like to become a full-time student in the United States, the two primary nonimmigrant visa options that are available to you are the F-1 visa (for Academic Students) and the M-1 visa (for Vocational Students). This is the primary visa option for students in private elementary schools, high schools, higher education institutions, seminaries, conservatories, language-training and vocational schools. Once granted, the visa will last for the entire duration of the program of study.

For non-credit, recreational study, a visitor visa  would be appropriate.

Visa Requirements

In order to enter the United States with either an F-1 or M-1 visa, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Be enrolled full-time in an “academic” program, a language-training program, or a vocational program of study
  • Be proficient in the English language or be enrolled in classes which will lead to English language proficiency
  • Demonstrate the ability to support yourself financially throughout the length of the program of study
  • Maintain a place of residence abroad that you have no intention of giving up.
  • Maintain “strong ties” to your home country in any form that includes, but is not limited to, a family, assets (land, house, vehicle, etc.), bank accounts, a job offer upon completion of the program of study, or others
  • Additionally, the institution offering the program of study must be one that is approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), and must be one that will provide you with a degree, diploma, or certificate at the end of the program of study
    • Use the Study in the States school-search tool to verify that an educational institution is SEVP-approved

Applying for an F-1/M-1 Visa

Before you can apply for an F-1 or an M-1 visa, you must be accepted to a program of study at an SEVP-approved institution. Admission standards will be different for each institution. After you are accepted and enrolled in the program, the SEVP-approved institution will register you in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and send you a Form I-20 to be used in your visa application.

Process Overview

  1. Apply to and be accepted into a SEVP-approved educational institution.
  2. Register in SEVIS, pay the SEVIS I-901 Fee.
  3. Your educational institution will send you your form I-20 in the mail. Verify that it is signed by the institution.
  4. Apply for an F/M visa at an embassy or consulate. Check the embassy or consulate website for full detail of the application process and required documents as they vary from one location to another. In some cases, the consulate or embassy may outsource parts of the visa application process to a third party.
  5. Complete the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (DS-160) and upload a photo that follows the photo requirements found here.
  6. Schedule a visa interview. A visa interview typically takes place at the consulate or embassy, but be sure to double check. There can be long wait times for visa interviews, so be sure to schedule your visa interview well in advance of your program start date.
  7. Pay the non-refundable visa application fee. Application fee may vary from one location to another.
  8. Attend the visa interview. If your visa is approved, pay the visa issuance fee and coordinate the return of your passport. It is possible that your visa may require further processing. The consulate or embassy will inform you if that is the case. You can check visa processing times here.

Required Documents

There are several documents that you are required to bring to your visa interview. In general, you will need to bring the following documents:

  • A valid passport
  • DS-160 Application Confirmation Page
  • Receipt for the payment of the visa application fee
  • Photos that meet the photo requirements
  • Form I-20, signed by your academic institution

Additional application documents may be required depending on the specific consulate or embassy. Documents that may be required include demonstrated academic transcripts and demonstrated ability to support oneself financially.

After You Have Received Your F-1/M-1 Visa

After you have your F-1/M-1 Visa, you may enter the United States on the earliest date of admission, which can be found on your I-20 document under “Earliest Admission Date.” Your earliest admission date will generally be 30 days before your program start date.

Maintaining Your Student Status on the F/M Visa

After you have been approved for an F/M Visa, it is important that you maintain your student status once you are in the United States. There are three main issues that can affect a student’s status in the United States: the need to reduce course load, the need to change academic programs or institutions, and the need for employment.

A Note on I-20 Travel Signatures: Students will need to renew the travel signature on their I-20 accompanying document every year in order to be able to travel in and out of the United States. While in the United States, be sure to make an appointment with your Designated School Official (DSO) in order to renew your travel signature and make sure that you can freely cross borders.

Employment Authorization

Except for on-campus employment, all other forms of employment will require one of the following employment authorizations. These forms of employment authorization become available to international students on the F/M after one full year of maintaining legal student status in the United States. If you are looking to pursue off-campus employment, different options for work authorization on the F/M visa are available.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

This type of employment is defined as employment which is an integral part of a curriculum. It allows students the option to accept off-campus employment as part of the curriculum of their program of study. CPT can be required, if a program of study necessitates that a student has some practical work experience as part of the graduation requirement. CPT may also be optional, if the work experience is not a requirement for graduation. It is important to note that CPT is only available to students prior to graduation and that engaging in CPT subtracts from the student’s 12-month Optional Practical Training (OPT) allowance. If a student engages in 12 months of full-time CPT, they will be forfeiting their OPT.

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

This type of employment is defined as temporary employment that is directly related to the student’s field of study. The difference between OPT and CPT is that OPT is completely optional and is not a part of the established curriculum of the student’s program of study. OPT is available both before and after the student completes their program of study (Pre-Completion/Post-Completion OPT). Applying for OPT is a lengthy process which could take several months. Within the OPT allowance, students remain on their student visas and maintain student status in the United States.

Contact an Immigration Lawyer Today

The United States has a lot of opportunities for international students. The F/M Student Visa is an integral part of full-time study in the United States. Scott D. Pollock & Associates P.C. is a team of attorneys and legal experts specializing in immigration law. If you have any questions or are needing assistance with any issue related to the F/M student visa, don’t hesitate to give our team a call, and we will be able to advise you in your immigration process. Contact a member of our team today at 312.444.1940.

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