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Every year, the U.S. welcomes thousands of international students to study in colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning. These students hail from virtually every corner of the globe and join a program in nearly every course.

Despite their diverse backgrounds and varying reasons for studying in the U.S., international students have at least one thing in common: they all hold student visas issued by the U.S. government. If you plan on studying in the U.S., obtaining a student visa is among the first steps you’ll need to take.

If you’re wondering how to get a student visa, you’ve come to the right place. This article offers a full breakdown of student visas, from understanding the different kinds of visas available to a handy checklist for working through the application process. 

Understanding the Different Types of Student Visas 

The United States extends three kinds of visas to international students. Each visa carries different stipulations and restrictions with regard to factors like duration of stay, employment authorizations, and other details. Understanding the differences between each type is important for determining which study visa you should apply for.

The F-1 Student Visa

What is an F-1 visa? It’s a visa for academic students enrolled full-time at an accredited college, university, or other academic institution in the United States.1 These visas are generally granted for a length of time that’s equal to the entire duration of the program of study. 

In addition to colleges and universities, an international student may also be eligible for an F-1 visa if they are enrolled at one of the following academic institutions:2

  • A seminary 
  • A conservatory
  • A high school
  • An elementary school
  • A language training program 

That said, the United States government must authorize the institution as part of the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Additionally, the program must award a diploma, degree, or official certificate upon completion. 

The F-1 student visa entails a few restrictions regarding the type of employment students may hold while they study abroad. For example, students during their first year of study are only permitted to work in positions on the campus of their sponsoring institution, and their hours are not to exceed part-time. 

After the first year, students are free to work off campus as long as the position is related to their study subject and falls under one of the following three types of employment:3

  • Curricular Practice Training (CPT)
  • Optional Practice Training (OPT)
  • STEM Optional Practice Training Extension 

An F-1 student visa is valid for up to 60 days after your program of study ends

The M-1 Student Visa

Students who study in vocational programs are issued an M-1 student visa. Vocational programs are considered non-academic and offered by non-academic institutions, such as vocational schools, trade schools, or business schools.4 

For example, you may be eligible for an M-1 visa if you intend to study in preparation for a career in a field like:5

  • Cosmetology
  • Culinary arts
  • Piloting
  • Carpentry
  • Electric 
  • Plumbing

Like students with F-1 visas, those with M-1 visas are allowed to seek part-time employment on the campus of their sponsoring institution. However, students with M-1 visas are restricted from accepting practical training positions until the end of their program. 

The J-1 Visa

The third type of student visa is the J-1 visa or Exchange Visitor Visa. So, what is a J-1 visa? In addition to students at colleges and universities, J-1 visas are issued to international professionals who come to the United States to participate in an approved exchange visitor program, which often includes work.

The U.S. government recognizes several exchange visitor programs for employment, including but not limited to the following job titles:6

  • Au pair
  • Camp counselor
  • Physician
  • Research scholar
  • Professor or teacher

While the J-1 visa expands to more employment opportunities than an F-1 visa, students who hold J-1 visas are also subject to a few work restrictions. Students or individuals with J-1 visas must be employed in places approved by their unique exchange program, which can be worked out with the agency sponsoring your program before arriving in the United States.7

Additionally, the terms of a J-1 visa are unique compared to other student visas concerning the duration of stay. J-1 visas are valid for the entire duration of your study program, but when it ends, you’re expected to return to your home country within 30 days. 

How to Obtain a Student Visa: 3 Steps

Despite their differences, the student visa application process remains largely the same regardless of the specific visa type. The biggest differences involve the forms you’ll need to fill out. 

Otherwise, the following step-by-step guide for how to get a student visa is suitable for obtaining an F-1, M-1, or J-1 student visa.  

Step #1: Make Sure You Meet the Qualifications to Apply

The first step for obtaining a student visa is to make sure that you meet the various requirements and can share the required documentation. With only minor distinctions, those requirements are the same for all types of student visas.

Before you apply, be sure that you are:8

  • Accepted and enrolled at a qualifying institution – Before applying for a student visa, you must be enrolled as a student at a qualifying college or university full-time. Qualifying institutions are those that are accredited and authorized as SEVP schools.
  • Able to demonstrate “strong ties” to your home country – To be eligible for a student visa, you must prove that you hold “strong ties” to the country where you hold legal residence. Connections to family, a bank account, or owning property may be considered “strong ties.” 
  • Able to prove financial sufficiency – Financial restrictions vary depending on visa type. For example, to get a J-1 visa, you must prove that at least 50% of your funding comes from a qualifying sponsor who is not a family member or a friend. For F-1 and M-1 visas, you must prove that you can support yourself throughout your study. 
  • Able to prove English proficiency – Visa issuance is contingent upon your ability to prove that you are proficient in English. In most cases, you can prove this by including satisfactory scores on an English proficiency exam. 

Step #2: Gather the Required Documents

Applying for a student visa requires completing several official forms, which vary slightly depending on the type of visa you’re seeking. You’ll also need to provide a few additional documents proving your identity and your ability to travel. 

For that reason, the second step of applying for a visa is to gather those additional documents and forms:9,10 

  • A valid passport
  • Educational transcripts 
  • Proof of health insurance 
  • Two photographs 
  • An I-20 form (for F-1 and M-1 only) 
  • A DS-160 form (the online student visa application)
  • Proof of payment of associated fees

Step #3: Schedule and Prepare for Your Interview 

Once you’ve ensured that you meet the visa application criteria and gathered all the forms and documents you’ll need to apply, it’s time to schedule your visa appointment. You’ll do this with your home country’s U.S. embassy or consulate.

It’s important to note that depending on the embassy you schedule with, you may have to join a waitlist for an interview.11 Therefore, it’s essential to plan ahead as you must have your visa before you can travel to the U.S. to begin your studies. The website for the embassy in your home country should provide information about the current wait times. 

The interview is a key part of the application process. In short, it’s your opportunity to make your case in person for why the embassy should issue a visa to you. You’ll be expected to answer several questions related to your goals for studying in the United States, so take time prior to your appointment to think about how you’ll answer.

The question you’ll be asked will vary depending on the embassy and the interviewer. In general, however, be prepared to answer questions regarding the following: 

  • Your reasons for relocating to the United States
  • Your reasons for continuing your education
  • Your ability to perform well as a student
  • Your financial status and potential means for employment
  • Your life plans beyond schooling 

Remember that you’ll need to provide all of the required documents at your interview as well, so be sure to bring them with you on the day of your interview.

Start Your Journey at Alliant International University

One of the most important decisions you’ll make as an international student is where to study. Although there are hundreds of colleges and universities across the U.S. that are SEVP-authorized, not all of them go the extra mile we do to make international students feel at home.

Alliant International University offers an exciting array of programs in fields from education and psychology to business, forensic science, and more. At Alliant, you’ll get the chance to master your chosen field on a diverse campus featuring the brightest students from all over the world.

Interested in learning about continuing your education at Alliant International University? Explore our MBA programs today.


  1. “Students and Employment.” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.…. Accessed May 17, 2023.
  2. “Students and Employment.” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.…. Accessed May 17, 2023.
  3. “Students and Employment.” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.…. Accessed May 17, 2023.
  4. “Students and Employment.” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.…. Accessed May 17, 2023.
  5. “M1 Visa—Vocational Student Visa Information.” VisaHelp. Accessed May 17, 2023.
  6. “Exchange Visitor Visa.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed May 17, 2023.
  7. "Exchange Visitors.” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.…. Accessed May 18, 2023. 
  8. “Do I Qualify For an F-1 Visa?” Visa Guide. Accessed May 17, 2023.
  9. “Exchange Visitor Visa.” U.S. Department of State. Accessed May 17, 2023.
  10. “Student Visa.” U.S. Department of State.…. Accessed May 17, 2023.
  11. “Student Visa.” U.S. Department of State.…. Accessed May 17, 2023.

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