What Is a Visa?
The F-1 or J-1 visa stamp in your passport is permission to apply to enter the United States in that visa category. Although your passport and I-20 or DS-2019 must remain valid while you are in the U.S., it is okay to remain in the U.S. with an expired student visa. The visa expiration date is separate from your length of authorized stay in the U.S. If your visa expires while you are in the U.S. and/or its number of entries has been used, or if you have changed your nonimmigrant status while in the U.S., the next time you travel abroad you must apply for a new F-1 or J-1 visa in order to return to the U.S. Visas can only be obtained outside of the U.S. at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. (Canadian citizens are not required to have a visa stamp to enter the U.S.)
Automatic Visa Revalidation
An exception to the rule requiring a valid, unexpired visa exists for students in F-1 and J-1 status who travel for fewer than 30 days solely to Canada or Mexico or islands in the Caribbean except Cuba. Your visa will be considered to be "extended" to the date of reentry, eliminating the need to obtain a new visa at a U.S. consulate before that particular re-entry. This procedure is known as "automatic visa revalidation." Note that if you apply for a new visa while in Canada, Mexico, or islands in the Caribbean, you will not be able to return to the U.S. if the visa application is denied. Also, citizens of Iran, Sudan, and Syria are not eligible for automatic visa revalidation.
The same benefit applies to students who changed status within the U.S. and have an F-1 or J-1 approval notice from USCIS. The previous visa type is considered to be "converted" to the F-1 or J-1 for that entry only.
How, Where and When to Apply for a Visa
Apply for the visa at a U.S. consulate in your home country, unless circumstances or travel plans make this impossible. It may be possible to apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate in a country other than your home country. This is called a "third country national (TCN)" application. Not all U.S. consulates accept TCN applications, and some allow TCN applications for limited situations; check with individual consulates, including those in Canada and Mexico, for TCN application policies. It can be risky to apply in a country other than your home country. For instance, if you apply for a new visa in Canada and encounter delays, you must remain in Canada for the length of the processing. You will not be able to reenter the U.S. until the new visa is approved.
Allow ample time for the visa application process. U.S. consulates require in-person interviews for most visa applicants. You are encouraged to schedule the visa interview appointment as early as possible. The U.S. Department of State maintains an excellent website on the visa application process, and you should study it carefully. You can also find information about how long it will take to get your visa. Students applying for initial-entry F-1 and F-2 visas may be issued the visas up to 120 days before the academic program start date as noted on the I-20. J-1 and J-2 exchange visitors may be issued visas at any time before the beginning of their programs.
Visa processing delays may occur due to enhanced security reviews that take into account your field of study, country of origin, and likelihood of returning home after completion of studies. Certain disciplines are considered "sensitive" by the State Department and are put on the Technology Alert List (TAL). The current TAL is not public information. Consult an ISS adviser for more information about potential visa delays.
At the consulate, include the following items:
Visa application. Complete the form provided by the U.S. consulate in the country where the application will be submitted. You will be charged a fee for the visa application.
Receipt confirming payment of the SEVIS fee, if applicable.
Valid passport. Your passport must be valid for at least six months when seeking admission or readmission to the United States, unless your country has an agreement with the United States. For a list of countries under this agreement, see the list on the Immigration Customs Enforcement website. Your passport should remain valid throughout your stay in the U.S.
I-20 or DS-2019 form. If you are applying for a visa to continue studies at the University of Washington, be sure that your ISS adviser has signed the travel validation section of the form within the past year. (Newly admitted students do not need a travel signature for the intial visa interview.)
Financial evidence detailing source and amount of funding. Consular and immigration officers exercise considerable discretion in determining whether financial support exists and is sufficient to cover your entire period of stay. Prepare documentation that is thorough, consistent, credible and varied.
Official academic transcript and confirmation of enrollment. You can request these documents from the Registrar's Office. (If you are a newly admitted student, you should provide proof of admission to the UW.)
Proof of English language proficiency may also be requested.
Evidence of continuing ties (such as family, career, or property) to your home country. Visa applicants are presumed to be "intending immigrants." Your visa will be denied unless you satisfy the consular officer that you will return home. Unfortunately, there is no single explanation, document, or letter than can guarantee visa issuance.
Consular officers conduct quick interviews! Their initial impression of you is critical to your success. Keep your answers concise. Be honest in everything you write on your visa application and say during the interview. Anticipate that the interview will be conducted in English. Don't bring other people to speak on your behalf.
Be able to explain the reasons you want to study in the U.S. and remember that your main reason for coming to the United States is to study, not to work!
If your spouse and children are remaining behind in your home country, be prepared to explain how they will support themselves in your absence. If they are accompanying you to the U.S., be prepared to show proof of adequate funding.
If you are denied the visa, ask the officer for a list of documents he or she would suggest you bring the next time you apply, and try to get the reason you were denied in writing. Maintain a positive attitude! Do not engage the consular officer in an argument.
Visa Validity After a Break In Studies
If you have been outside of the U.S. for more than five months and were not registered full time while abroad, your F-1 visa will be considered invalid, even if it has not yet expired. If you are returning to resume study, you must obtain a visa and pay the SEVIS fee ($200 for F-1 students, $180 for J-1 students).
Study Abroad Students
If you plan to study abroad during your UW degree program, carefully review the entry visa requirements for the country where you will study. You might need a valid F-1 or J-1 U.S. visa to apply for an entry visa to another country while you are a UW student. It is not possible to apply for a new F-1/J-1 visa inside the U.S. If your current U.S. student visa is expired, you might need to travel outside of the U.S. to obtain a new F-1 or J-1 visa before you can apply for a visa to another country. Allow enough time for the required visa applications when planning to study abroad. You should also consult ISS regarding study abroad plans to see if and how they will affect your F-1 or J-1 status.