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

Congratulations on your decision to study in the United States. Nonimmigrant students who come to the United States to study must follow specific rules. However, different rules apply depending on your student type and education level. Learn what student type and education level applies to you below:

Student Type:

  • F-1: Nonimmigrant students enrolling in academic programs at a university, college, high school, private elementary school, seminary, conservatory or another academic institution, including an English language program.
  • M-1: Nonimmigrant students enrolling in a technical program at vocational or other recognized nonacademic institution, other than a language training program.

Education Level:

  • Kindergarten to Grade 12: In the United States, students usually begin a formal educational program around age five or six in kindergarten. Children then complete primary and secondary school which spans from first grade through grade 12.
  • Postsecondary: In the United States, students usually enroll in postsecondary schooling as adults (over the age of 18) and this category includes technical and community colleges, undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs.
  • English language training: In the United States, non-native English speaking students enroll in intensive training programs that have the sole purpose of increasing fluency in the language. Students of all ages can enroll in English language training programs.

Steps 1-3: Pre-Arrival

Steps 1-3: Pre-Arrival

1. How do I start?

Your first step is to apply to a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified school in the United States. Use the School Search tool to find SEVP-certified schools and programs that are eligible to enroll F-1 and M-1 students. For more information about the types of programs that are available to you, please visit EducationUSA.

If you are a student currently enrolled in the equivalent of a kindergarten through grade 12 program, visit the Kindergarten to Grade 12 page on Study in the States.

The Form I-20

Once you are accepted into an SEVP-certified school, your school’s designated school official will send you a document called the Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.” The Form I-20 is a paper record of your information in our Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) database. Each school that accepts you will mail you a Form I-20.

For more information, visit the Students and the Form I-20 page.

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

After receiving your Form I-20, you must pay the I-901 SEVIS Fee.

Federal regulations require all F, M and J students pay the I-901 SEVIS Fee before applying for their U.S. student visa. You can pay your I-901 SEVIS Fee online at or by using Western Union Quick Pay. You must present the receipt as proof of payment when you apply for visa. It’s important that the SEVIS ID number on your I-901 SEVIS Fee receipt matches your SEVIS ID number on your Form I-20. If it does not, or you encounter other issues paying your fee, please contact SEVP.

I-901 SEVIS Fee Assistance:

Learn more about the I-901 SEVIS Fee:

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

After paying the I-901 SEVIS Fee and getting a receipt, you must apply for a visa at any U.S. Embassy or Consulate before you come to the United States.

To receive a visa, you will have to participate in an in-person interview. During your visa interview, you will need to establish that you meet the requirements under U.S. law to receive the category of visa for which you are applying. The consular officer will determine if you qualify to receive a visa and which visa category is appropriate based on your purpose of travel.

A visa does not guarantee entrance to the United States; it only permits you to arrive and seek permission to enter the country. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at the U.S. port of entry has the final authority to admit entry into the country.

The following pages will assist with this process:

Steps 4-6: Arriving

Steps 4-6: Arriving

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

Before you leave for the United States, familiarize yourself with the different documents you will need or could need when you arrive. It is also a good idea to make at least two sets of copies of these documents: one copy to leave with your family before you depart and one copy to give to your school officials. Required documents include your:

It is also smart to have your acceptance letter, proof of financial ability and any other supporting documentation with you, in case the Customs and Border Protection officer asks for them. You should carry your original travel documents on you at all times while traveling. Do not put them in your checked baggage. For more information on traveling to the United States, visit the Getting to the United States page.

5. What should I do when I arrive?

When you arrive to the United States you will meet a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at the port of entry, who will verify your information and determine if you may enter the country.

If the officer 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 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 on hand. If 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 Form I-515A, “Notice to Student or Exchange Visitor,” 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. Failing to comply with a Form I-515A will result in the termination of your status. Read SEVP’s Form I-515A Noncompliance Termination procedure to ensure you understand how to properly respond and maintain your status.

If the CBP officer admits you into the country, you will be given a Form I-94, “Arrival/Departure Record.” This form shows that you have been legally admitted into the United States, the class of admission and your authorized period of stay. It is very important that the information on the record is correct. Inconsistencies between the information on the Form I-94 and SEVIS records can reduce the chances of a successful systems interface and can result in denial of benefits or difficulty re-entering the country.

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

You have 30 days to enter the country before your official program start date, as listed on your Form I-20. If you do not report to your school by your program start date, your DSO may terminate your SEVIS record. 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, contact your school officials as soon as possible so that they can update your record so your plans are accurately reflected in SEVIS.

Steps 7-9: While in the United States

Steps 7-9: While in the United States

7. Maintaining Status

As an F or M student, you will often hear the phrase “maintaining status.” Maintaining your status means that you are fulfilling the purpose for why the U.S. Department of State issued you your visa and following the regulations associated with that purpose. Remember, a student visa is a travel document you receive from a U.S. consulate or embassy before you enter the United States. Your student status is what you must maintain after you are granted entrance into the United States. Learn more about the rules you must follow by talking to your DSO and reviewing the Maintaining Status page on Study in the States.

8. What are student benefits?

While studying in the United States, you may be eligible to apply for certain benefits. These student benefits are not granted by SEVP and require students to apply to other government agencies to receive them. The benefits you are eligible for will depend on your student status. Visit the following pages to learn more about potential student benefits:

As a note, most employment and training opportunities require authorization from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). For more information, visit the Employment page on

9. Problems?

If you are having an immediate problem and need assistance quickly, please speak with your DSO or responsible officer. If that person cannot help you, contact the SEVP Response Center at 1-703-603-3400 or at

Step 10: Departing

Step 10: Departing

10. Departure

Once you have completed your program and fulfilled your purpose for coming to the United States, you may have a number of options. These include changing your status, applying for training, transferring to another SEVP-certified school or leaving the country.

Please note there are restrictions that apply to M-1 students regarding transferring and changing status. Talk to your DSO to understand what your options are.

If after your program is complete you do not qualify to stay in the country, or chose to depart, please be advised:

  • F-1 students and dependents have 60 days after program end date (or training end date) to depart the United States.
  • M-1 students and dependents have 30 days after program end date (or training end date) to depart the United States.

You can also visit USCIS to learn about naturalization and the path to U.S. citizenship.


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