Applying for a Visa & Traveling to the US

Applying for a Visa

If you are currently outside of the US, you must apply for an F-1 visa at a US embassy or consulate. You cannot apply for a visa until you have received the initial Form I-20 from MUSC. You will receive a packet of information with your initial Form I-20 that provides more detailed information on the visa application process.

It is recommended that you apply for a visa in your country of citizenship. Applying for a visa at a consulate in another country is somewhat riskier and can take a bit longer. Visa refusal is more likely when applying for a visa in a country which is not your home country (called a “third” country). This is because the consular officer must take extra measures to verify your relationship to your home country. If you do choose to apply for a visa in a country other than your country of residence, you should contact the consulate where you plan to apply and ask if they will accept an application from a “third country national.” Some consulates may put limits on the number of third country national visa applications that they will process.

You must apply for a visa as early as possible, well in advance of your anticipated travel date. Specific visa processing time varies depending on the applicant, consulate, location and time of year. The process can take anywhere from a few weeks to a several months. F-1 student visas can be issued up to 120 days in advance of your course of study start date. However, you will not be allowed to enter the US in F-1 status earlier than 30 days before your start date.

There are several steps to apply for a visa. The order of these steps and how you complete them may vary at the US embassy or consulate where you apply. Please consult the instructions available on the embassy or consulate website where you intend to apply.

  • Complete Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (DS-160). You can access this form by going to Once you have completed the DS-160, print the application form confirmation page to bring to your interview.

  • Pay visa application fee. This is in addition to the SEVIS fee that you are required to pay. Visit the website of the consulate where you intend to apply for your visa for more information on how to pay the visa application fee.

  • Schedule a visa interview. After completing the DS-160, you must schedule an appointment for your visa interview, generally, at the US embassy or consulate in the country where you live. Refer to the website of the consulate where you will be applying for specific instructions on how to schedule a visa interview. You may schedule your interview at any US embassy or consulate, but be aware that it may be difficult to qualify for a visa outside of your place of permanent residence.

  • Prepare for the visa interview. Refer to the website of the consulate where you will apply for your visa for specific information on what you need to bring to your visa interview. In general, you will need to gather and prepare the following required documents before your visa interview:
    • Valid passport – Your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond your period of stay in the US.

    • Valid form I-20 – You must sign the I-20.

    • DS-160 nonimmigrant visa application confirmation page

    • Visa application fee payment receipt

    • SEVIS I-901 fee payment receipt

    • Photo

    Additional documentation may be required. Because each prospective student’s personal and academic situation differs, consular officers may ask applicants applying for the same type of visa for different documents.
  • Attend your visa interview. During your visa interview, a consular officer will determine whether you are qualified to receive a visa, and if so, which visa category is appropriate based on your purpose of travel. You are responsible for establishing that you meet the requirements under US law to receive the category of visa for which you are applying. If you are applying for an F-1 visa, you must demonstrate that your primary purpose of coming to the US is to engage in an academic program of study. You may also be required to explain how this program of study fits into your career plans when you return to your home country. You must also demonstrate strong ties to your home country and that your intent is not to immigrate to the US.

You should not make final travel plans or purchase airline tickets until you have received your F-1 visa. Also, MUSC cannot guarantee that you will be issued a visa. Issuance of visas is as the sole discretion of the US Department of State.


Canadian Citizens

Citizens of Canada do not need a visa to enter the United States. If you are a Canadian citizen, you can apply for entry to the US in F-1 status directly at the port-of-entry. However, you are still required to pay the SEVIS I-901 fee prior to traveling to the US.

Canadian students must have the following documents when traveling to the US:

  • Valid passport
  • Valid Form I-20
  • SEVIS I-901 fee payment receipt
  • Financial documents (showing how you will pay all education, living and travel costs) 


Traveling to the US

A visa allows a foreign citizen coming from abroad to travel to a United States port-of entry and request permission to enter the US. You must be aware that a visa does not guarantee entry into the US. The Department of Homeland Security, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have authority to permit or deny admission to the United States.

When you arrive at the port-of-entry, you will be asked to state the reason you wish to enter the United States. Also, you should carry some specific documents with you—do not check them in your baggage. If your baggage is lost or delayed, you will not be able to show the documents to the CBP officer and, as a result, you may not be able to enter the United States.

Documents to carry on you:

  • Passport with valid F-1 visa
  • Form I-20
  • Financial documents (showing how you will pay all education, living and travel costs) 

Once your inspection is complete, the CBP officer will stamp your passport and return your Form I-20 to you.

If you arrive at a US port of entry and do not have all your signed required documents or have a SEVIS status issue, the CBP officer may deny your entry into the United States. As an alternative, the officer has discretion to issue you a Form I-515A. This document allows you to have temporary admission into the US for 30 days. To maintain your nonimmigrant student status, you must address your Form I-515A within the time provided to you. If you receive a Form I-515A upon entry into the US, you must notify the Center for Global Health immediately.


I-94 Arrival Record

Each time that you enter the US, you will be issued an I-94 arrival record. The I-94 record is important because it serves as evidence of the nonimmigrant status you were granted when you last entered the US, and how long you may legally remain in the US. 

Unless you are arriving at a land port-of-entry, you will not receive a paper I-94 record due to the automation of I-94 records. You can access your I-94 arrival record online at the I-94 website. Each time that you enter the US, you must go to the I-94 website and retrieve your I-94 record. You must save a copy of the I-94 record for your records. We recommend that you print the I-94 record and save an electronic copy.

Your I-94 record should list F-1 as your class of admission. Your I-94 record should list D/S for your Admit Until Date, which means “duration of status.” It is extremely important that the information in your I-94 record is correct. If you find an error in your I-94 record, contact the Center for Global Health