Obtaining Your Initial Non-immigrant Visa
Your F-1 (student) or J-1 (exchange visitor) visa will be issued by the U. S. embassy or consulate in your country. The embassy or consulate represents the U. S. Department of State (Bureau of Consular Affairs and Visa Services.) The visa grants you the privilege of entering the United States through a Port of Entry. The visa (a stamp or printed form with a photograph of the recipient on it) is added to your passport. The visa is one of several documents that you must obtain and keep valid in order to maintain your status.
The visa will indicate the consular post where it was issued, date that it was issued, the date that it expires, the visa class (or type), a visa number, and the number of entries permitted. You should check to be sure that all information on the visa is accurate and matches the information on your other documents.
Before you can apply for your visa, you must be fully accepted for admission into the program for which you have applied. Once you are accepted for admission, have confirmed your commitment to enroll in the program of your choice, and have provided evidence of financial support, you will be sent either a Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status – For Academic and Language Students (Form I-20), or a Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status (Form DS-2019). This will be sent to the mailing address provided on your application for admission unless you indicate that you wish them sent to an alternative address. Be sure to allow sufficient time for your documents to arrive.
After receiving your Form I-20 or Form DS-2019, you should review it to be sure that all information is correct before making an appointment at the embassy or consulate for your interview. You should then pay the required SEVIS fee, obtain your receipt, and make your interview appointment. When you contact consular services to make your appointment, you should also ask the consular official to provide a list of all other items needed (see also: http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/types/types_1268.html). These vary somewhat from country to country and may include any and all of the following:
- Properly completed I-20 / DS-2019
- Proof of having paid the SEVIS fee (form I-901)
- Evidence of financial ability to meet expenses (a second copy of the same documents sent to UIS)
- Evidence of English ability sufficient for the course of study (unless coming for the English Language Program)
- Evidence of residence abroad and intent to depart the U. S. after completion of the program of studies. Here are a few examples – a family business to which you may return, a job offer available upon your return, a description of how your education and experience in the U.S. will make you marketable for jobs in your home country, etc.
- Passport valid for at least six months (make sure that the name on your form I-20 exactly matches the name on your passport)
- Form DS-160, Nonimmigrant Visa Electronic Application (see Frequently Asked Questions for the Online DS-160 Nonimmigrant Visa Electronic Application).
- Machine Readable Visa (MRV) surcharge fee
- Visa Reciprocity fee (if applicable)
Apply for your visa as early as possible. In some countries there is a lengthy wait time. When your visa is issued, checked to make sure that all the information is correct – your name (just as it is on your passport and on the form I-20), your birthdate, the visa class, our school name, etc. If there are any errors, ask the consular official to correct them before your leave the consulate.
Once you have obtained your visa you should arrange your travel in order to arrive on campus on the date indicated in your acceptance letter. Then, you should notify the Office of International Student Services of your travel plans so that we can arrange for someone to meet you at the airport and transport you to our campus. Even if you have friends or relatives who plan to meet you and bring you to our campus, please make us aware of your plans.
Keep in mind that it will take approximately three weeks from the time that your documents are sent for them to arrive. Then, depending upon your country of residence and the work-load of the consular officials, it may take several additional weeks for you to get your interview. You should usually plan to have the admissions/enrollment confirmation process complete at least three months before classes are scheduled to begin.
If your visa is denied, do not panic. You may be able to re-apply. Be sure to get a copy in writing of your denial notice. Send a photocopy to us. We may be able to help. The most likely reason is that you failed to convince the consular official that you knew why you were coming to the U.S. to study, were planning to return to your home country upon completion of your studies, had adequate financial resources to cover the costs of your study and your stay in the U.S., or had sufficient English skills to complete the course of study to which you were admitted. Re-applying will involve overcoming these doubts by providing additional evidence to the consular official. There may still be enough time to do this prior to the beginning of the semester for which you were accepted for admission. If not, we can defer your enrollment and assist you in working toward obtaining your visa for a future term.
As you prepare for travel, check again to be sure that all your travel documents – your passport, your visa, your form I-20, etc. – are correct. Keep all your documents together and on your person (not in your luggage.) You will be asked to present them all again at the Port of Entry. Do not make your travel arrangements until you actually obtain your visa. Plan to enter the U. S. no more than 30 days prior to the start date indicated on your I-20 or DS-2019. If you attempt to enter prior to that date you will be sent back home. Be sure to allow several hours between your initial arrival in the U. S. and your connecting flights. You may be delayed at the Port of Entry even if all your documents are in order.
As you plan your travel to the U.S., keep in mind that some offices affecting your housing arrangements are only open Monday-Friday, 8:30-5:00. For example, all residence hall rooms require the use of your university ID card in order to gain access to both the building and your room. The ID card office will close at 5:00 on Friday and will not open again until 8:30 on Monday. You will not be able to move into your room in the residence hall, or leave and return without your card. The Housing Office also needs to make sure that they have staff available to assist you with your check-in. Therefore, they require that you make an appointment with them at least 24 hours prior to the time that you would like to move into your on-campus housing. You will want to contact them to make that appointment before you leave your country.
On the flight to the U.S.the airline will give you a Form I-94 “Arrival/Departure Record” to fill out for each member of the family. Print out this sample (pdf) ahead of time, use it to prepare a model to follow. After you have filled out the I-94, be sure that each person’s I-94 is with that person’s passport and visa documents.
At the Port of Entry (POE)you will stand in a line for persons who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents. You will need to present all of your visa documents and the Form I-94 that you filled out on the plane. The officer will review your documents and may ask you a few questions. You may be requested to give your finger prints or other biometric information (See US-VISIT). The officer may ask you to step out of the line and go into the office for additional review of your documents. Don’t panic! This is standard procedure.The officer must either scan the bar code on your I-20 or DS-2019 or manually enter your file number to update your SEVIS record. It may take some time to do this, and you will be glad that you planned extra time between the arrival and connecting flights. If everything is in order, the officer will stamp your I-94 with your date of entry, will write in your visa classification (e.g. F-1, F-2, J-1, J-2), and will indicate the date by which you must leave the U.S. as “D/S,” which stands for “Duration of Status.” You are permitted to remain in the U.S. for the duration of your educational or scholarly program as long as you maintain your lawful F or J status. Your specific departure date is determined by the end date on your Form I-20 or Form DS-2019, and by the date that you end your study or scholarly activity. We will give you more information about this when you arrive and register.
Make sure that the visa class on your I-94 is the same as that on your visa stamp and visa document. Sometimes in the rush and confusion of a port, documents can get switched. Look carefully at the documents for you and your family and call any error to the attention of the officer. You will also go through Customs at the POE to be sure that you are not bringing in forbidden items such as food, plants, animals, firearms, or drugs.
When you arrive at the Abraham Lincoln Capital airport in Springfield, look for the representative from UIS who is looking for you. This person will be carrying a sign identifying himself or herself. You will be provided transportation to our campus, assistance in checking into your campus housing, and information about the international student orientation. Get your rest. The next few days will be busy ones.