Student visa for the USA: an overview


It’s many people’s dream to study in the US, and with good reason. With so many top-class universities from the East Coast to the West, the US is a phenomenal place to further your education. Plus, you’ll have the chance to explore the rest of the country while you’re there.

You can’t just rock up, though. Like with any country, you need to get permission to study there before your course begins. This article will look at how you can sort out your US student visa, whether you’re coming from Australia or from elsewhere around the world.

Visa types for the USA

As you’d expect, a student visa isn’t the only type of visa on offer from the US. Here’s a quick summary of the different categories of visa available overall.

  • Visitor Visa (categories B-1 and B-2). You may need a Visitor Visa of category B-2 if you’re going to the US on vacation, to visit family or friends, or for medical treatment. Or you need a B-1 visa if you’re going on a business trip. However, with certain exceptions, Australian citizens can travel to the US for these purposes without a visa, under the Visa Waiver Program.¹,²
  • Employment Visa (categories E, H, I, J, L, O, P, Q, TN/TD). For anyone planning to work temporarily in the US, an Employment Visa will give them the right to do so. You need a slightly different type of visa depending on the nature of the work.³
  • Student or Exchange Visitor Visa (categories F, J, M). More info below - this is the sort of visa you need to study in the US.⁴
  • Immigrant Visa. If you plan to settle in the US, you’ll need a different sort of visa, and sponsorship from a US citizen, permanent resident or prospective employer.⁵
  • Other categories. That’s not it. There are numerous other types of visa for categories not covered by the above. For instance, a Transit Visa if you’re travelling through the US on your way elsewhere, or a Crewmember Visa for crew on a ship or plane.⁶

This article, however, is just looking at student visas. So let’s examine that category in more detail.

US student visa types

Here are the different types of student visa available in the US.⁷

  • Visitor Visa (B) or the Visa Waiver Program. As mentioned above, the Visitor Visa is a is for short-term visitors to the country, and Australians generally don’t require one as they can travel to the US with the same rights through the Visa Waiver Program. This doesn’t generally let you study in the US, but if you’re only going to do recreational study, not for course credit, then it might be all you need.
  • Student Visa (F). Most students will need to get this type of visa for study in the US. That includes school and university students.
  • Student Visa (M). For a non-academic course - for example at a vocational institution - you’ll probably need a category M visa. The exception is a language training course, for which it’s category F.
  • Exchange Visitor Visa (J). If you’re on a recognized exchange scheme then you might need an Exchange Visitor Visa instead of a regular Student Visa. There are also exchange programs for teachers, physicians, au pairs, and so on.⁸

Which countries are eligible for a student visa in the USA?

While the application process might vary according to which country you’re from, citizens of most countries should be able to apply for a student visa. Just check very carefully what documentation the authorities need to see.

Student visa requirements

The process of visa application has several stages. First you’ll need to fill out a form, and then you’ll probably need to go for an interview at an embassy or consulate. Before you begin to apply for a visa, you need to have applied for your study course. There’s a full overview of the application process below.

At each stage of the process, you’ll need to show various documents. Here’s a guide to which ones you’ll need.

Requirements for Form DS-160

DS-160 is a form you can fill out online.⁹ It’s for anyone applying for a “non-immigrant visa” - a visa that doesn’t give you the right to stay in the US indefinitely.

To fill out this form, you’ll need the following:¹⁰

DS-160 requirementDescription
IDYour passport - make sure it’s valid.
PhotoYou’ll need to upload a photo of yourself.⁷
Travel itineraryIf you’ve already made travel arrangements, you should be able to prove it.
Dates of your last 5 US visitsIf applicable, have these dates to hand. You might even need information on other travel you’ve made in the last 5 years, to other places.
CVYou might need this too, to show information about your work and education history.
SEVIS ID and information about your schoolBefore applying for a student visa, you’ll need to have been accepted into a school (see below for more details). After acceptance, you’ll be issued a SEVIS ID, which you’ll need to provide as part of this form. You also need to provide the school’s address.
Other informationThat’s not necessarily all. You can fill out a test version of the form first, to make sure you have everything you need.

Requirements for your visa interview

It’s very likely you’ll also need to attend an interview at a US consulate - in Australia, if you’re Australian. There are consulates in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.¹¹,¹²

Once you’ve scheduled your interview at the consulate, you’ll need to go there with the following documents for an F or M category visa:

Visa interview requirementDescription
Your appointment letterPrint out a copy of the letter that proves you have an appointment at the consulate.
Confirmation you’ve filled in the DS-160 formAlso print out the confirmation page from the form.
IDBring your valid passport and old passports as well.
PhotographBring a recent photograph.
ReceiptBring confirmation that you’ve paid the visa processing fee.
SEVIS numberYou should already have this by this time.
Supporting documentsYou also need to bring a range of extra documents so that the consulate can learn more about you personally. These should include:
  • Documents that show your close ties to Australia (or your home country)
  • Documents that show you have enough money to cover your time in the US. Make sure that any bank statements are originals not photocopies
  • Proof of your relationship to your financial sponsor, if you have one, plus the sponsor’s most recent tax forms, bank books and/or deposit certificates
  • Documents that show you’re preparing for your study. These could include school transcripts, test scores, diplomas and so on.

How to apply for a study permit

You should have a decent idea of what the process involves by now, but here’s an overview of the application process to get a US student visa: there are quite a few different stages to remember.¹³

  1. Get accepted onto a course. Before you start thinking about visas, you need to have a place to study somewhere. Apply for a school approved by the US’s SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Program). If you’re accepted, the school will register you in SEVIS, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. You need this registration to get your visa.⁷
  2. Pay the visa application fee. It’s currently USD 160 for Australians and you can do it online.¹⁴
  3. Fill in DS-160. Again, you can do this online. Have all the documents listed above at the ready.
  4. Schedule and attend a consulate appointment. Perhaps the most irritating step if you live far away from Perth, Melbourne or Sydney, but necessary all the same. You can book your appointment online. Don’t forget the documents, including the supporting documents.

Can I work and study at the same time?

There are quite strict rules about what sort of work you can do if you’re in the US on a student visa.

Those on an academic student visa can take certain jobs on campus during their first year, and certain off-campus jobs after that. With a vocational student visa, you can only start doing practical training after your studies are done.

Off-campus employment has to be related to your studies, and you need to get authorization to take it. So it’s best to check very carefully indeed, if you want to work.¹⁵

Student visa fees

How much does a US student visa cost? It depends where you’re coming from, and exactly which visa you’re applying for. Also, there are 2 fees.

Firstly, the application fee for the relevant categories of visa is USD 160.¹⁶ Secondly, there’s a visa issuance fee. Australians applying for a category F, J or M visa will have to pay USD 105 for that.¹⁷

Paying for your studies. The best ways.

Paying those fees is likely just the first of various international bills you’re going to have to deal with. So it’ll pay to figure out how to transfer your money from your home country to the US with ease.

You’ll probably need to open a US bank account when you’re there, but the question remains of how to actually get any money into it. Traditional options include a wire transfer or simply travelling with cash. But Wise can also help: it’s a straightforward way to send money abroad at the real mid-market rate - the same rate you see on Google or XE, with no markup at all. The only fees you face are clearly stated upfront, and you could save a lot, compared to a bank transfer.

A borderless account with Wise is an even more convenient way to bridge the gap between your home country and the US. For no monthly fee, you can hold money in 40+international currencies, and you even get virtual bank details in US and Australian dollars, as well as New Zealand dollars, British pounds and euros. So you can start sending and receiving money like a local, even before your bank account is sorted out.

That’s the key information you need to know if you’re applying to study in the US. The process might sound a little intimidating, but with careful planning and enough time it should be straightforward enough to get sorted. Even if it takes a while, don’t forget to keep your eyes on the prize - a few years studying at your dream US institution.


















All sources correct as of 20 February 2019

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