Becoming an international student in the United States can be a bit overwhelming, to say the least. With deadlines to meet, housing arrangements to make, and so much packing to do, it’s easy to feel lost! The good news is that you can simplify the experience by learning more about the terms and procedures you’ll encounter as you prepare for your life in the United States. 

Visa Application Documents (I-20 and DS-2019)

You might hear about specific documents required for international students in the United States, such as Form I-20 (F-1 students) or Form DS-2019 (J-1 students). These two documents are also known as “certificates of eligibility”—they’re required for your visa application to prove that you’ve been admitted to a degree program in the United States and that you’re eligible to apply for an F-1 or J-1 student visa. Most international students will apply for an F-1 visa, but if you’re not sure which category you fall into, your university can help you decide which is right for you. 

In order to receive your I-20/DS-2019 and apply for your student visa, you must first receive an admissions acceptance letter from your chosen school. You will then need to formally accept the admission offer and pay your tuition deposit, if applicable. Afterward, you’ll be given access to complete the I-20 information form on your graduate admissions portal, where you will also upload your passport and proof of funding.

After you’ve completed the I-20 information form and uploaded your passport and funding information into the graduate admissions portal, you’ll receive your I-20/DS-2019 within 2-5 business days. Then it’s time to apply for your visa at your nearest US embassy or US consulate!

F-1 and J-1 Student Visas

Group of University students standing on the street and discussing about class

A US visa is a stamp in your passport from a United States embassy or consulate that serves as your “permission slip” to enter the US. As an international student, having an F-1 or J-1 visa means the US embassy in your country has deemed you eligible to enter the United States to study at a US college or university. Your visa stamp will include information such as the visa number, where it was issued, which visa category it is (F-1 or J-1), when it was issued, when it expires, and how many times you can enter the US.

Having a visa does not automatically guarantee that you will be allowed to enter the US—the final determination is up to the US immigration officer when you present your documents at the US border or port of entry.

F-1 Status

The majority of international students in the US will have “F-1 student status.” Once you enter the US using your F-1 student visa, you are officially on “F-1 status.” While in the US on F-1 status, there are certain rules you must follow in order to legally maintain that status, such as enrolling for a full-time course load or obtaining the necessary employment authorizations to work at a job.

J-1 Status

J-1 status refers to students in a specific educational or sponsored program. There are strict rules about who qualifies for this status, such as exchange visitors, recipients of US or home country scholarships requiring J-1 status, and students who are receiving most of their funding from a government, university, or other non-personal source. There are also strict rules about maintaining your legal J-1 status while studying in the US, but your chosen university will help you ensure you are doing everything correctly.

DHS & Corresponding Agencies

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is a vital US government organization overseeing security matters and immigration in the United States. As an international student, you’ll often interact with DHS when dealing with visa applications and other essential documents for your stay. This department plays a crucial role in ensuring the safety and security of the country by managing tasks such as customs, border control, and immigration enforcement. DHS is comprised of numerous operational agencies, but the ones you’ll interact with most as an international student are USCIS and CBP

  • US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) processes immigration status and green card applications and determines immigration benefits. Almost all applications and petitions requesting immigration benefits while physically present in the US are submitted through USCIS.
  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilitates international travel and trade while enforcing US immigration laws. CBP officers are stationed at US borders/ports of entry to determine if travelers should be permitted or denied entry into the US. When you first arrive at a US border or port of entry (often at the airport), you will meet one of these CBP officers, who will determine if you can enter the country on F-1 or J-1 status.

Form I-94

Form I-94 is an electronic document that records your legal entry and immigration status in the United States upon arrival. This document was previously issued as a physical card, but now travelers to the US are issued electronic I-94s, which can be obtained online after arrival. Once you’ve arrived at the US border/port of entry, and a CBP officer has granted you admission to the US, your electronic I-94 will be issued. Your electronic I-94 can be accessed online through the CBP’s website using your personal passport information, and it will show the following information:

  • Date of entry to the US 
  • Class of admission (F-1 or J-1) 
  • Date you are admitted until (how long you can remain in the US) 

Social Security Number (SSN)

A social security number (SSN) is a US tax identification number, which uniquely identifies you as a taxpayer in the United States. You are only eligible for an SSN if you are born in the US or if you have a job in the US, and international students will need to find employment in the US to apply for an SSN. Once you receive an official job offer letter and are authorized to work, your university can help you apply for your SSN.

US Immigration Application And Consular Visa Interview

No one wants to encounter roadblocks in the immigration process. After all, it’s exciting to decide on the school and program that are best for you, and you likely want to start school as soon as possible! With careful planning and an understanding of these terms, you have the best chance of avoiding delays in starting your new life as a student in the United States.

At WPI, we understand that the process of studying in the United States can feel complicated and confusing. We’re committed to assisting and educating our international students and scholars in their transition to US society and academic culture. To learn more about our international office and student life, visit the WPI International House page.

Interested in studying for a graduate degree abroad? Check out WPI’s full list of over 50 master’s and doctorate programs!

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