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On the day the acceptance letter drops into your letterbox you might well be deceived into thinking that all the hard work, struggle and frustration is finally over. Think again.

The toughest application deadline, the most difficult personal essay, the trickiest SAT paper pales into insignificance beside the hardest and most mind-numbingly boring part of admission to the American college experience. The joys of US bureaucracy and the caring immigration system await you.

If you are one of those fortunate people blessed with an American parent, passport or green card, stop reading now and count your lucky stars. The rest of you must read on and learn how to deal with the constantly changing visa system, the interminable waits at airports, and the work restrictions that will dog your next four years.

Note: At time of writing, the situation for international students is in flux due to newly-elected President Trump's unclear policy on immigration. Keep an eye on this website and that of the US State Department (and, of course, the news).

International student status

Things became much more difficult for international students after 9/11. Because some of the terrorists involved entered the United States on student visas, there has since been a clampdown on everyone traveling on one. 

While Brits have traditionally been, for the most part, immune from the hostility of immigration officials, the word among international offices is that recent developments have had a dampening effect on the number of international applicants from areas such as the Middle and Far East. Which means fingerprinting and mug shots have become regulation for anyone travelling into the States on a student visa. 

As background, the clampdown on student visas coincided with the arrival of the SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information Service) tracking system, which is intended to ensure people enrolled in a university are actually attending that university. In order for the university to issue you the I–20, they will have to enter you in SEVIS so the authorities can monitor you and ensure you are adhering to the conditions of your student visa. Big surprise: SEVIS (at the very least) allows the American government to have access to personal information about you at all times. 

Also no surprise: there is a charge for this. (For up–to–date cost, check the US Embassy website.) However, some universities have offered to refund this charge to encourage international students, so check and see if your prospective college is one of them. 

Help is at hand

Of course, things are not as bad as they seem. Almost all the big American universities have an International Student Office set up specifically to help you with these problems. These offices have people on call 24 hours a day and are used to crises of all kinds.

When you are accepted to the college, they will send you the paperwork (called Form I-20) necessary to apply for a student visa. The visa must then be obtained from the American Embassy in London. Nowadays, there is a compulsory interview for all applicants for student visas. 

Start to fill out the visa application as soon as your university issues the Form I-20 – and then schedule the embassy interview. The average visa processing time following a successful interview is 5 days, but the wait for the interview can be long, so long that the State Department has helpfully added a constantly updating page giving current wait times. Get used to waiting – this glacial movement by the US bureaucracy is an experience that will change little over your next four years. 

The visa you finally receive will consist of a page in your passport but must be accompanied by the I-20 form. Your name and the most updated version of this form will be registered on all immigration computers.

Remember: when you head off to uni, you must NOT leave your I-20 behind – it is vital for gaining admittance to the country. It is also important you get it authorized at the beginning of your university career by the International Office at your uni and then signed each year thereafter.

Above all, you should know that these rules continue to change, so for up-to-date information, we repeat: check the US embassy (https://uk.usembassy.gov/visas/study-exchange/student/) and/or the US State Department (http://travel.state.gov).

In summary…

Although it may not be much more prohibitive than in the past for UK students to obtain a student visa, the process is more intricate and more expensive. However, if you are a genuine student and can provide the information requested, you should not experience too much difficulty.

Any student wishing to pursue academic studies in the USA will require a student (F-1) visa in their passport, accompanied by a Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Non–immigrant Student Status for Academic and Language Students). 

The university that has accepted you will issue a Form I–20 to you; the student visa application form is available from the US embassy website.  Once you have the I–20 from the university and have completed the application, you should contact the US embassy or consulate and book an interview (you can theoretically do this on line, but you already know what we think of their site).

Take the I-20 form and the visa application materials with you to the interview.

(See next section for details on the visa interview.)

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