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A Guide to Student Visas: F and M Visas

F-1 visas allow international students to study full-time and live in the United States.  A full-time course of study is 12 credit hours or more of coursework per semester in an undergraduate program, but the definition of “full-time” for graduate programs is a combination of credit hours with research time and will vary. F-1 visas are specifically for traditional academic institutions, such as:

  • Colleges or universities
  • High schools
  • Private elementary schools
  • Seminaries
  • Language training programs

The length of time the F-1 visa allows you to stay in the U.S. may vary greatly, and depends on the length of the academic program.   It can last four years or more. It also allows you to transfer between schools if necessary and enroll in a higher educational level.   While on your F-1 visa, you are not allowed to work off-campus for a year. After your first academic year, you have three options for off-campus employment:

  • Curricular Practical Training – this training is considered to be an integral part of earning your degree. Work is part- or full-time.
  • Optional Practice Training (OPT) – this option is available after completion of your degree program.  It is for 12 months and can be obtained after completion of each educational level – i.e. after Associates, Bachelor’s and Master’s.  Employment must be connected to the area of study.
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) OPT – if you are studying in one of these fields, you may qualify for an additional 24 months of OPT.

F-1 visas allow you to bring your dependents, who need to apply for F-2 visas. F-2 visas are for spouses and children of F-1 visa holders. F-3 visas are for academic students who commute from Canada or Mexico.

What Are M Visas?

M-1 visas are for vocational students. M-1 visas are used for vocational and other non-academic programs, such as culinary schools, flight schools, religious schools, etc. M-1 visas are shorter than F-1 visas, and you can only transfer between institutions within the first six months of your visa; also, they cannot be used to transfer to an academic institution.  To switch from an M-1 vocational visa to F-1 academic program, you must obtain an F-1 student visa from a consulate abroad.  Changing status from M-1 to F-1 is not possible while in the US. M-1 visas are typically only granted one year at a time, but you may apply for extensions.

Like the F-1 visa, an M-1 visa requires you to study full-time, and any off-campus employment must be related to your area of study. Unlike F-1 visa holders, M-1 visa holders may only receive hands-on training after finishing their studies.

M-2 visas are for spouses and children of M-1 visa holders. M-3 visas are for vocational students who commute from Canada or Mexico.

Am I Eligible for an F or M visa?

First, you must apply to an SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Program)-approved school in the United States. If the school accepts your enrollment, you will be registered for the Student and Exchange Information System (SEVIS) and must pay the SEVIS I-901 fee. You will be issued a Form I-20 from the SEVP school you enrolled at. Once you have received the form and paid the SEVIS fee, you may apply at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate for either an F or M visa. Bring the form I-20 to your interview.

F-2 and M-2 visas for spouses and non-married children under 21 also require enrollment in SEVIS and individual I-20 forms, but do not pay the SEVIS fee. While you are studying, your children are allowed to attend school as well.

How Are F and M Visas Processed?

Once you have received your Form I-20, it’s time to apply for your visa. F and M visas require application through the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your country. Each country may have different instructions, so check your specific embassy’s website for complete instructions.

  1. Fill out the online application for a nonimmigrant visa through the U.S. Department of State’s website. Form DS-160 will require you to upload a photograph of yourself. Once completed, print out your application form confirmation page.
  2. Schedule your interview. Bring your application confirmation page to your interview. Applicants who are 13 and younger usually do not require an interview. Schedule your interview at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your country. Apply early, because appointment times and dates vary by location, season, and visa category.
  3. Pay the visa issuance fee, if applicable.
  4. Prepare the required documents.  Check he consulate’s web site for a list of required documents for the visa.
  5. When applying for F-2 or M-2 visas, bring a copy of your F-1 or M-1 visa, I-20 and provide proof of your relationship.

When you arrive at the United States, show your passport, visa, and Form I-20 at the port-of-entry. If you are admitted, a CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) official will provide you with an admission stamp.  Upon entry, you should print your electronic I-94 Arrival/Departure Record from CBP’s web site.

You will not be allowed to enter any earlier than 30 days before the beginning of your program. If you must arrive in the United States earlier, you must separately apply and qualify for visitor (B) visa status. After being admitted, you must apply for a change of status from B to F or M prior to the beginning of your program, and may not begin your course of study until the status change has been approved. Another option is to depart the United States and applying for a student visa at the consulate.  As processing times and requirements often change it is a good idea to consult an attorney when evaluating your options.

We understand that applying for the correct visa can be a daunting task, and a changing political climate can make the process confusing or worrisome. Let us help you through the process. Contact our New York immigration law attorneys at Pollack, Pollack, Isaac & DeCicco, LLP, over the phone at 212-203-4795 or by contacting us online.


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