The F1 Visa explained

Gabriela Peratello

Studying in the US is a dream for many. Not only will you be able to learn at a range of world class institutions, living abroad means a wealth of opportunities to experience a different culture, travel and make new friends from around the world.

Most students arriving in the US from abroad have either an F1 or M1 visa class. This guide runs through your F1 student visa options, including F1 visa rules, eligibility, application process and costs.

And to help you manage your money while overseas, we’ll also touch on Wise. Open a Wise multi-currency Account before you head to the US, to receive payments like a local and cut the costs of currency exchange.

📑 Table of Contents

What is the F1 Visa?

The F1 visa is a non-immigrant visa type for students who are undertaking academic studies or language courses at eligible institutions¹. The types of institutions which may be accepted as part of an application for an F1 visa include:

  • Colleges and universities
  • Seminaries
  • Conservatories
  • Academic high schools or elementary schools
  • Language schools

The institution must be offering some form of qualification at the end of your course — a diploma or certificate for example — and will need to be authorized by the US government to take in international students.

If you’re successful in applying for your F1 visa you’ll be able to live and study in the US at your preferred institution — but it’s important to note your options for working are somewhat limited. That means you’ll need to be able to demonstrate that you have the funds to pay for your stay in the US prior to arriving. We’ll cover this in more detail later.

Who’s eligible for the F1 Visa?

To apply for the F1 visa type you’ll need to fulfil the following eligibility requirements:

  • You must be a full time student on an academic course (as opposed to vocational) or language course, at an accredited institution
  • Your program must issue a degree, diploma, or certificate upon graduation — and the school must be authorized to accept international students.
  • You must be proficient in English — or else on a language course to learn English
  • You must be able to financially support yourself
  • You must intend to return to your home country after completing your studies

The M1 visa has slightly different eligibility requirements — notably that it is issued to students on vocational courses. If you’re not eligible to apply for an F1 visa class, the M1 may better suit your needs.

Can you work with a F1 Visa?

If you hold a student visa F1 type, you can not work off campus during your first academic year. It may, however, be possible to work in certain on campus roles.

From the end of your first academic year, you’re allowed to work in the following types of role²:

  • Curricular practical training
  • Optional practical training (OPT)
  • STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) optional practical training (OPT) extension

If you’re interested in working for an employer under the OPT programs you’ll need to have your school recommend a placement, and apply for employment authorization on your behalf. The STEM employment option is available only to students taking degrees in STEM subjects.

It’s worth noting that students holding an F1 visa may be permitted to work under special circumstances on a case by case basis. This may apply if the student is in severe economic hardship for example. These cases would be looked at on individual merit via the academic institution.

How long can you stay in the US with the F1 Visa?

The length of your F1 visa will depend on the length of your study course. You’re expected to leave the US within 60 days of your course ending.

Can you extend your F1 Visa?

You may be able to extend your F1 visa from within the US³, or else renew your visa if you have left the country and are processing your application via your local embassy.

If you’re in the US and want to extend your stay you must do so 45 days before your existing visa expires. Otherwise you risk overstaying which can mean you’re fined or even deported. To extend your visa without leaving the country you need to file Form I-539⁴, which can be done online. Visit the USCIS website to find the paperwork and learn more about the process of extending your non immigrant status.

If you are not in the US, you can apply to renew your visa using the DS-160 form and the same process as we have laid out below for initial applications.


Applying for the F1 Visa

Here are the primary steps you’ll need to take to apply for your F1 visa, assuming you’re not yet in the US⁵:

  • Apply to an approved school or institution in the US, and receive your acceptance documents
  • Register on SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System), and pay the registration fee. Your school will issue you a Form I-20 to show you are registered
  • Apply for a nonimmigrant visa using form DS-160 — this can be completed online⁶ — and pay the registration fee. You’ll also need to upload a photo
  • Attend an interview at your local US Embassy or Consulate, taking your supporting documents with you
  • If your visa is approved you will be able to travel to the US where the border control officers will make the final decision to admit you to the country

Documents and requirements

The standard documents you’ll need to take along to your visa interview include:

  • Your passport — which must be valid for 6 months after the end of your intended stay in the US
  • Confirmation that you have applied using the DS-160 form
  • Receipt showing you have paid all due fees
  • Passport photo
  • Form I-20 which will have been issued to you by your school when you paid the SEVIS fee

In addition to this you may need other paperwork based on your nationality, specific application or the course you’re attending. This may include:

  • Proof of your academic qualifications
  • Evidence you intend to leave the US at the end of your course
  • Documents showing how you’ll pay for daily life in the US

The F1 Visa interview

You’ll be able to see the expected wait time before your interview on the Department of State website. There you can search by Embassy location to see when your interview will likely be scheduled. Once you have your interview date you’ll meet with a consular officer to establish whether or not you’re eligible for the F1 visa. The consular officer may request further information or evidence in addition to the documents outlined above.

You’ll need to give fingerprints during the interview, and will be informed of the decision afterwards. The exact process may vary depending on the location of the Embassy you visit — check out the details for your country online.

When should you apply for the F1 Visa?

If you’re applying for a new F1 visa, you should submit your application up to 120 days prior to the start date of the course you want to attend. If you’re applying for an extension and are already studying at an approved school, you can do so at any time.

Processing times for the F1 Visa

If you’re applying for your F1 visa from outside of the US, the wait time will depend on the embassy in which you file your application. In some cases, you’ll hear very quickly - within a few days. But depending on the circumstances it may take longer. Your embassy will be able to advise you on the likely wait times - it’s best not to book travel until you know your visa has been approved.

For F1 visa extensions from within the US, you’re advised to get your application in at least 45 days before your existing visa expires to avoid an overstay.

F1 Visa costs

If you’re applying for your F1 visa from outside of the US using Form DS-160, the fee is 160 USD⁷. There are also additional costs for registering with SEVIS of 350 USD⁸ — and you may need to pay to have your visa and passport returned to you once it is approved. This cost can vary depending on where you have applied for your F1 visa.

From within the US, using the I-539 form you’ll need to pay a fee of 370 USD, plus 85 USD for biometrics.

💡 If you’re paying for your F1 visa from an account outside of the US, you can save money with Wise. International payments with Wise are arranged online and use the real mid-market exchange rate with no markups and no hidden fees. That can be much cheaper than sending a wire using your regular bank.

Learn more

The Wise multi-currency Account is also a smart way to cut costs, and hit the ground running once you arrive stateside. More on that later.

Can you take your spouse and children to the US if you have a F1 Visa?

You can apply for your spouse and unmarried minor children to come to the US with you on F2 visas. You’ll need to complete an application process for each family member you want to bring with you, and your school will need to issue you with additional I-120 forms for family members. There is not an additional fee for the I-120 in this case.

Children coming with you are allowed to attend school in the US during your period of study. Applications from same sex and opposite gender couples are treated equally.

Checking the status of your application

Once your visa application has been submitted you can check the case status using the handy tool on the USCIS website. Just enter your case number to get a live update.

What’s the path for becoming a permanent US resident?

The F1 visa is conditional on you being enrolled in an eligible study course. So what happens if you want to stay in the US once you’ve graduated?

One option is to look to move from a temporary visa to a permanent resident status by applying for a Green Card.

Becoming a permanent resident means you don’t need to renew or extend your visa, or apply for different permissions if your job changes. You’d be free to stay in the US indefinitely — and although it’s not the same as being a US citizen, it is a step on the road if you’re interested in naturalizing as a US citizen in future.

There are a number of different eligibility categories under which you may apply for a Green Card, which mainly require you to have a sponsor who is already a US citizen. This may be a family member or spouse for example.

If you’re eligible to apply for permanent resident status, you’ll need to take the following basic steps:

  • Have your sponsor enter an immigrant petition on your behalf
  • Once approved, you can submit your application for a Green Card either at USCIS within the US, or at your local embassy if you’re elsewhere
  • Attend a biometrics appointment and interview
  • Await a decision

It’s important to know that annual caps on the numbers of Green Cards issued across most categories mean you may be in for a lengthy wait before your application is processed.

The exception here is if you’re applying as an immediate family member of a US citizen. This category does not have annual caps and therefore tends to move more quickly than other routes.

💡 Want to know more? Check out these handy articles on the topic:

Studying in the US? Save on international transfers with Wise

Being able to study in the US is a fantastic opportunity. But it’s not cheap.

Send money online with Wise when you need to send international payments, to access currency conversion which uses the real exchange rate with no sneaky hidden fees.

Once you arrive in the US, you’ll need a USD bank account to be able to set up essential services like internet and a cell phone, as well as for paying for day to day life.

Open a Wise multi-currency Account before you travel, to get your own USD bank account details and a linked debit card for simple spending. Just top up your account, switch to USD using the mid-market exchange rate, and you can spend your dollars with no extra fees using your card. It’s simple — and it saves you money.

🚀 Start saving on your payments

Studying abroad is a great adventure — and an investment in your future. Getting the visa paperwork sorted can be a headache but the experience you have will make it all worthwhile. Good luck preparing your F1 visa application — and don’t forget to check out the Wise multi-currency Account as a smart way to manage your money once you’re overseas.


  1. USCIS - Students and employment
  2. USCIS - Optional practical training
  3. USCIS - Extend my nonimmigrant stay
  4. USCIS - I-539
  5. Travel.State - Student visa
  6. Ceac.State - Nonimmigrant visa instructions
  7. Travel.State - Fees visa services
  8. ICE - I-901

Sources checked on 06.17.2021

This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from Wise Payments Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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