Getting Your Student Visa

Overview - What is a Visa?

A visa is the physical stamp or sticker that is placed in your passport by a U.S. embassy. It is a travel document that is used only to seek entry into the U.S.  When someone wishes to come to the U.S. in F-1 or J-1 status, they must obtain a visa, or 'entry visa'. You can read more about visa vs. status on our website.  The information below explains the process of applying for and receiving your F-1/J-1 visa.


Who Needs a Visa?

Anyone who is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and wishes to become a student in the U.S. must obtain a visa and the appropriate status. In most instances, this is F-1 or J-1 status.

In almost all cases, if you are coming to the U.S. in F-1 or J-1 status, you will require an F-1 or J-1 visa. However, there are two exceptions:

Exception to the Visa Requirement:

There are two exceptions to the visa requirement:

  1. All Canadian citizens. Canadian passport holders do not require a visa (sticker in your passport) to enter the U.S. in F-1 or J-1 student status, but do require an I-20 or DS-2019. Students from Canada must follow all other F-1/J-1 procedures and immigration regulations. Canadians must present a valid I-20 or DS-2019 and SEVIS fee payment receipt at the airport or border to be admitted in F-1 or J-1 status.
  2. I-539 Change of Status students: if you are currently in the U.S. in a different status (such as H-4, A-2, or H-1B) and you will be changing your status to F-1/J-1 through submitting an I-539 Adjustment of status application, you can usually change your status to F-1 or J-1 and stay in the U.S. without obtaining a visa. However, if you are changing your status to F-1 or J-1 through travel, you will require an visa.  Contact OIA if you have any questions.
Visa and Entry Timeline - How Early Can Apply for my Visa?

You may apply for your visa up to 120 days in advance of the start date listed on your I-20 or DS-2019. You will be able to enter the U.S. up to 30 days before that start date. Attempting to enter the U.S. earlier than that could result in you not being admitted to the U.S. and having to return to your home country at your own expense.

Your I-20 should indicate the earliest date you can enter the U.S.:

i20 earliest admission date_1.PNG

How and Where to apply for your F-1/J-1 Visa:

There are several steps involved in applying for a visa:

  1. Choose a U.S. consulate or embassy where you plan to apply for your visa. You must apply for your F-1/J-1 visa through a U.S. embassy or consulate. We highly recommend applying for an embassy or consulate in your home country (passport country).  If you are considering applying for a visa outside of your home country, review our information on third party visa applications first.
  2. Schedule a visa appointment and submit any preliminary documents Every visa post sets its own hours, has its own way to schedule visa application appointments, and has its own lead time for visa applications (typically weeks rather than days). Go through your selected embassy's website to find more information about how to submit an application and scheduled an appointment. Visit the State Dept website to review estimated visa wait times for the post at which you plan to apply.
  3. Do your research. Know what to expect at the consulate by reviewing these helpful resources:
  4. Practice your visa interview. You will only have 2 or 3 minutes to make your case for the visa, and you should have thought about certain issues in depth. For example, you should be prepared to explain what you will study, what you plan to do after your studies are completed, why you want to study in the U.S. rather than your home country, why you will return to your home country after completion of your studies, and more.   The resources linked above in step 3 should help you prepare.

    It is important to note that F-1 and J-1 statuses are strictly non-immigrant statuses. This means you have to prove that you intend to return to your home country to live after finishing school. If you show that you have immigrant intent (i.e. you want to stay in the U.S. after your program and any subsequent F-1/J-1 work authorization ends), the visa will be denied. At your visa interview, you should truthfully answer all questions, but you should only answer the questions asked and not offer any additional information.
  5. Attend your Visa interview.  Come to your appointments with original copies of your required documents and any documents requested by the embassy/consulate:
    • Your passport (valid for at least 6 months after your entry into the U.S.)
    • Your Form I-20 or DS-2019 (signed by you)
    • Financial documents you used to qualify for your I-20/DS-2019
    • Copies of your academic credentials, such as your admissions letter, resume/CV, past transcripts/diplomas, etc
    • SEVIS fee receipt
    • Form DS-156, DS-157 and/or DS-158 (or DS-160) (found on your consulate's web site)
    • Any other document(s) required by your specific U.S. embassy/consulate's website

More information about the visa interview can be found below.

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Preparing for the Visa Interview

Once you have scheduled your visa interview, make sure that you have all appropriate documents with you at the time of your appointment;

  • Your passport (valid for at least 6 months after your entry into the U.S.)
  • Your Form I-20 or DS-2019 (signed by you)
  • Financial documents you used to qualify for your I-20/DS-2019
  • Copies of your academic credentials
  • SEVIS fee receipt
  • Form DS-156, DS-157 and/or DS-158 (or DS-160) (found on your consulate's web site)
  • Any other document(s) required by your specific U.S. embassy/consulate's website

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At the Embassy or Consulate

Once you are at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate, several things will happen:

  • Reviewing biographical information: The official will perform a "name check" on your name. This compares your name to the data in several large databases and may cause delays.
  • Reviewing field of study. The embassy will review your major and academic documents. They may ask you questions about your program of study, research topic, or field. If you are entering graduate study in the fields of physics or radiology at the University of Chicago, it will be helpful to have a letter from a faculty member in your department, indicating what your study will entail. This may help avoid a background check or at least expedite it. You should have this letter with you at the time you apply for the visa. Providing it later will cause additional delays.
  • Possible background check. If you are from one of the 27 countries listed below, your documents will be sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Washington, D.C., for clearance. This usually affects male applicants only, but the visa officer has the discretionary authority to submit a female applicant's documents as well. This may occur regardless of whether you are a citizen of the country in question, a permanent resident, or were born there.
    • The countries are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
  • Additional background check reasons. In addition to the geography-based checks, your application may be subject to a background check ('Administrative Processing') if you apply for a visa in a country where you are not a citizen, if you are studying a sensitive scientific field, or if the embassy has additional questions about your record.  Although rare, background checks can take several weeks to resolve.  You can read more about background checks and preventing them on our website.

While name and background checks are never pleasant and tend to make the visa applicant nervous, please be aware that you are not being singled out. Rather, you belong to a category of applicants for whom particular rules are in place at the visa post and the official is completing the work based on his/her instructions. You should approach the situation calmly and politely. The more pleasant you are, the more pleasant the visa official will probably be. You should also be honest and direct in your interaction.

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Application Status Check

You can check the status of your visa application here: CEAC Status Check

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What's Next? After You Receive Your Visa

Once you receive your visa, the consular officer might seal your documents in a brown envelope and attach it to your passport. Do not open the envelope! It will be opened by the inspector at the port of entry.

Once you have your visa and are ready to travel to the U.S., you should make your travel arrangements as soon as possible and prepare for your departure. Chicago has two major international airports and both have transportation options available to the University of Chicago campus:

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