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Step by step: How to get into a US university as an international student

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Applying is the tedious but necessary part to starting your university adventure in the US. Source: EQRoy/Shutterstock..

Thousands of would-be students dream of studying in the United States, home to some of the world’s best higher education institutes and exciting cities full of promise.

Put your mind to it and you should get there but, right now, it probably feels a million years away.

So just how do you apply when you know nothing about university admissions in your own country let alone in the US? We have the answers…

You can access our printable PDF step-by-step guide here

1. Ensure you meet all requirements

Give yourself a lot of time to get organized because the process from preparation to application is a lengthy one, and you cannot expect overnight success.

If possible, start preparing at least a year – if not more – in advance. This will ensure you have the entire process down pat and have everything you need to help your application along.

Leave yourself lots of time or you might find yourself having to wait another year. Source: GIPHY.

You need to make sure you have:

  • An up-to-date passport
  • Checked the entry requirements for the institutions you wish to apply to
  • Passed an English language proficiency exam, like the TOEFL or IELTS, if necessary
  • Passed the SAT exam
  • Completed any other exam or qualification you need for your universities
  • Proof of how you will be funding your studies

This is by no means an exhaustive list as all institutions will have slightly different requirements so be sure to check with the universities you are looking at applying to.

2. Send off an application to a SEVP-approved institution

As an international student, it is important to pick an institution and program accredited by the US government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). This information should be easily available online via the university website or SEVP itself.

Each university will have different requirements but typically you should contact each university you are interested in applying to and ask for an application form.

Typically fees are between US$35 and US$100 per application but this can vary.

If you are accepted onto the course, and you decide to accept the offer, the university (or a designated school officer aka the “DSO”) will send you what is known as the Form 1-20, which is a certificate of eligibility for those applying for the F or M student visas. This is very important so hang onto it and keep it safe.

When you accept your offer, you will likely have to pay a deposit to secure your place. This can be anything from a semester’s tuition to a full year’s fees.

3. Pay the I-901 SEVIS fee

The Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is the immigration database used to process documents for foreigners entering the US. All international students and exchange visitors are legally required to pay the I-901 SEVIS fee, which funds the SEVP and SEVIS.

Now that you have your Form 1-20, you can proceed with making the payment online – and make sure that you do because it is a pre-requisite to getting your student status.

The fee currently stands at US$200 and is a separate cost from your visa fee.

4. Apply for an F-1 or M-1 student visa

It currently costs US$160 to apply for an F-1 or M-1 visa. If you are going to be enrolled full-time in a vocational or non-academic education program, you will need an M-1 visa.

For applicants to full-time degree or other academic programs, will need an F-1. You are likely to be applying for an F-1 visa but check before you apply that your institution and course qualify.

After you have applied, you will receive a payment receipt and Form DS-160. You will need this at your interview so keep it with your other important documents.

5. Make appointment for visa interview

Following the payment of your visa, get in touch with the US embassy in your country to arrange an interview. You will need to make sure you have all your documents gathered and ready.

Complete and print your Form DS-160, have your Form 1-20 on hand, go out and get proper passport photos taken, print your payment receipt for your visa, and gather all your qualification certificates and university admissions information.

6. Visa interview

Bring all documents with you – if in doubt, bring it along. Remember that you will need to provide evidence of your:

  • Financial situation
  • Qualifications
  • University offer
  • Plan for after graduation

Stay calm and be friendly. Here’s what to do if your visa is rejected at interview and a list of common reasons you might have been declined, just in case.

7. If all goes well, start planning your journey

You can arrive up to 30 days before the start date on your Form I-20 – usually 30 days before the beginning of your course.

Get excited. A new chapter of your life is just beginning… Source: GIPHY

Now is the time to start booking your taxis, boats, trains, and planes to get you safely to your new home in the US. Liaise with the university about accommodation when you arrive, research campus life (if you haven’t already) and allow yourself to get excited. The hard part is over and done with!

If you are planning on arriving in the US via airplane or boat you will need to fill out a Customs Declaration form (CF-6059) on the ship or plane, which you will be provided with. If the form is confusing, just ask a member of staff to help you out.

8. Arrive in the US to begin your studies

You did it – phew! Finally, after what is likely to have been a lengthy (but undoubtedly worthwhile) process, you have landed on US soil.

Remember to keep all your forms and documents on hand as you will still have to go through immigration where they will check and confirm your eligibility to enter and remain in the country.

And there you have it – the complicated process broken down into manageable steps. Don’t forget you can view it in an even simpler format here with our handy print-out.

All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change so always ensure you check with your university and the US embassy if in doubt.

Good luck!

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