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Student Process Steps: How to Navigate the U.S. Immigration System

Student Process Steps: How to Navigate the US Immigration System

1. How do I start?

Congratulations on your decision to study in the United States! A very rewarding and life-changing experience awaits you! If you need more information about the types of American education that are available to you, please see EducationUSA.

If you already know what you want to do, the first step is to apply to a school in the United States. The school must be an SEVP-certified school.

Once you are accepted to an SEVP-certified school, your school will give you a document called a Form I-20. The Form I-20 is a paper record of your information in our database called SEVIS. Each school that accepts you will mail you a Form I-20. Before you apply for your visa, you must select one school’s Form I-20.

Check your Form I-20 against your passport information to make sure that your name and date of birth (DOB) are correctly listed and spelled. If it is not correct, contact the school official who sent you the Form 1-20.

Once you have your Form I-20, you are ready for the next step – paying your SEVIS I-901 fee.

2. How do I pay my SEVIS I-901 fee?

The SEVIS I-901 fee is required for all F and M students as well as J exchange visitors. Paying your SEVIS I-901 fee is very important. Without this fee, you will not be eligible to apply for a visa. To learn more about the SEVIS I-901 fee click here.

Make sure your Form I-20 information matches that on your SEVIS I-901 fee form.

  • FMJfee.com – This is the website to pay the SEVIS I-901 fee.

3. How do I get a visa to enter the United States?

After paying the I-901 fee and getting a receipt, you can apply for a visa at any American embassy or consulate before you leave for the United States.The following links will assist with this process:

Check to see that you received the right type of visa. Are you name and date of birth also correct?

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Arriving: Preparing, Inspection, and Reporting to School

4. How should I prepare for my trip to the United States?

Before you leave for the United States, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the different kinds of documents you might need. It is always a good idea to carry your original documents at all times. Do not put them in your checked baggage.

It is also a good idea to make at least two sets of copies of these documents: one copy to leave with your family or friends before you depart and one copy to give to your school officials. Here is a list of the important immigration documents:

5. What should I do when I arrive?

Arriving in the United States is a very important step, which you should to prepare for. If you have everything ready, it should be a very smooth experience. The following documents give a good outline of the arrival processes and exceptions:

If the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at the port of entry cannot initially verify your information, or if you do not have all of the required documentation, you may be directed to an interview area known as “secondary inspection.” Secondary inspection allows inspectors to conduct additional research in order to verify information without causing delays for other arriving passengers.

The inspector will first attempt to verify your status by using the Student and Exchange and Visitor Information System (SEVIS). In the event that the CBP officer needs to verify information with your school or program, we strongly recommend that you have the name and telephone number of the designated school official (DSO) at your school. In the event you arrive during non-business hours (evening, weekends, holidays), you should also have an emergency or non-business hour phone number available for this official.

Failure to comply with U.S. government entry-exit procedures may result in your being denied entry to the United States. Under certain circumstances, the CBP officer may issue a “Notice to Student or Exchange Visitor” Form (I-515A), which authorizes temporary admission into the United States. Work with your school without delay to submit the proper documentation required by the Form I-515A.

6. When do I have to report to my school?

You have 30 days to enter the country before your official program start date, which is registered in SEVIS by an official at your school. You must report to your school by your program start date, or you are not maintaining your status. We suggest that you contact your school immediately once you enter the country so that there is no question of your arrival.

If you cannot enter the United States for the term listed on your Form I-20 or if you will be late by a few days, immediately contact your school officials so that they can accurately reflect this information in your SEVIS record.

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While in the US: Benefits, Status, and Problems

7. What are my benefits? Can I work or drive in the United States?

As an F or M student, you may be eligible for benefits when you are in the United States. Some of these benefits are working, getting a Social Security number, training after your program is completed (OPT – optional practical training), and getting a driver's license.

Social Security Number (SSN)

Driver's License

  • Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) Factsheet (PDF | 99 KB)

Practical Training
If you are an F student, you have the option of working in the United States by doing practical training during your program or after it ends. Click on one of the links below for more information.

Working in the United States

8. Maintaining Status

As an F or M student, you will often hear the phrase “maintaining status” because it is very important! Maintaining status means that you are doing everything you are supposed to do to keep your records up-to-date in our SEVIS database.

For more information, visit Study in the States.

9. Problems? What happens if…

If you are having an immediate problem and need assistance quickly, please speak with your designated school official (DSO) or responsible officer (RO). If that person cannot help you, feel free to contact the SEVP Response Center (SRC) at 1 (703) 603-3400 or at SEVP@dhs.gov. Otherwise, the following documents may be able to assist you:

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10. Departure

If you have completed your program, you have a number of options:

  • Change program levels – For example, you can apply to a graduate program after you finish your bachelor’s.
  • Transfers – You can transfer to a different program at the same school or another school.
  • OPT – You may participate in optional practical training (OPT) which allows you to work in the United States after your program end date.
  • OPT STEM – optional practical training for science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM).
  • Change to a B or other visa classification.
    Please visit U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for more information.
  • Leave the country.

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