Inform yourself of the business process in place at the U.S. consulate or embassy where you plan to apply for your visa. You will find this information via http://usembassy.state.gov and http://www.educationusa.info/pages/students/visa.php. Every visa post sets its own hours, has its own way to schedule visa application appointments, and has its own lead-time for visa applications (typically weeks rather than days).
With a friend or by yourself, practice your visa interview. You will only have 2 or 3 minutes to make your case for the visa, and you should have thought about certain issues in depth. For example, you should be prepared to explain what you will study, what you plan to do after your studies are completed, why you want to study in the U.S. rather than your home country, why the visa officer should believe that you will return to your home country after completion of your studies, and more. The links above will help you in this preparation.
Doing all of the above will mean that you are ready for your visa application when your Form I-20 arrives.
What to bring to your visa interview
Once you have contacted the appropriate U.S. embassy or consulate and have scheduled your visa interview, make sure that you have all appropriate documents with you at the time of your appointment:
Your acceptance letter to Columbia College Chicago
You will have to complete a form, possibly more than one, depending on your situation. Check the websites listed above for details on your specific situation.
What happens at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate?
Once you are at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate, several things will happen:
The official will perform a “name check” on your name. This compares your name to the data in several large databases and is done for reasons of national security. If you happen to have the same name as a known criminal or terrorist, this may cause delays, as the official will have to ascertain (by a more extensive comparison of that person’s and your data) that you are not that person.
If you are from one of the 27 countries listed below, your documents will be sent to the FBI in Washington, D.C., for clearance. (This usually affects male applicants only, but the visa officer has the discretionary authority to submit a female applicant’s documents for a background check as well.) This may occur regardless of whether you are a citizen of the country in question, a permanent resident, or were born there. The countries are Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, and Yemen.
What does this mean for you? While background checks are never pleasant and tend to make the visa applicant nervous, please be aware that you are not being singled out. Rather, you belong to a category of applicants for whom particular rules are in place at the visa post and the official is completing the work based on his/her instructions. You should approach the situation calmly and politely. The more pleasant you are, the more pleasant the visa official will probably be. You should also be honest and direct in your interaction. Seeming to give vague answers or behaving in what may appear to be an elusive manner will only cause closer scrutiny and runs the risk of a visa refusal.
Once you receive your visa, the consular officer will seal your documents in a brown envelope and attach it to your passport. Do NOT open the envelope! It will be opened by the inspector at the port of entry.
Once you have your visa and are ready to travel to the U.S., you should make your travel arrangements as soon as possible.
How soon can I enter the U.S. once my visa is issued?
You may enter the U.S. in initial F-1 status (meaning that you are a new international student, not a transfer student) up to 30 days before the program start date on your Form I-20. For example, if that date is 09-20-2004, you may enter the U.S. on 08-21-2004 or later. While you may be aware of students who have succeeded to enter the U.S. sooner than within that 30-day time frame., we urge you NOT to attempt this. The inspectors at U.S. ports of entry have the authority to refuse you entry in the U.S., which means that you would not be able to leave the airport. Rather, you would have to return to your country at your own expense. If you find it necessary to visit the U.S. between now and your earliest possible F-1 entry date, you may do so with a tourist visa. This allows you to visit, then return home, and come to the U.S. in F-1 status with the proper time frame.
What happens at the Port of Entry?
The last step in the visa-related process will be to actually enter the U.S. It involves the inspection at the port of entry, i.e. the point where you arrive in the U.S. (Most often, this is the airport where you first land in the U.S., but it could also be a sea port or land port of entry, depending on your mode of travel.) In a number of countries, pre-checks are conducted at the airport where you begin rather than where you complete you journey, for example, your documents may be checked by personnel of the airline you have chosen for you flight. However, for most new students the final inspection will occur at a U.S. airport. Many airports are now equipped for the US-VISIT program, under which all foreigners entereing the country with a visa will be photographed and finger printed. Both are done electronically and even though the process itself is not very time consuming, the fact that every arriving foreigner must undergo this procedure will most likely cause delays in your travel schedule.
You must carry your documents on your person, not in your luggage. If you are flying from a foreign airport directly to Chicago, you may encounter delays at the airport there, which will mean that you may arrive late at your final destination here. However, if you are initially landing somewhere else in the U.S. and will then connect to Chicago form there, you should allow plenty of time between your arrival and connecting flight. Last summer, students have reported that delays of 2 hours of inspection where not uncommon, and some missed their connecting flights.
Regardless of where you arrive in the U.S., upon inspection of your documents, you may be sent to “secondary” which is an additional inspection of your documents. This is often done on a random basis and may have nothing to do with your specific circumstances. If there is a question regarding your documents, inspectors at the port of entry will attempt to contact us to verify that you should be admitted. It may be helpful if you have the telephone number of the office with you. It is (312) 369-7458. Generally speaking, it is important that you remain calm during the process. Even if there are delays and your patience is tested, it will ease the process to be cooperative.
If at any time during this process you encounter difficulties, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-369-7458. It is easier to reach us by email, and you should always use this general email address, as it allows our staff to redirect your message to the appropriate person in the office (and avoid delays if someone is away).
A word of caution: If, in your interaction with your U.S. consulate or embassy, you receive information that significantly differs from the information we are providing you, please check back before taking any action. On occasion, students have been given incorrect information at a visa post and encountered difficulties as a result of following that information. If needed, we will attempt to intervene on your behalf with a specific visa post that has provided incorrect information. However, please be aware that the visa post has final authority and our intervention may not solve the problem.
Finally, while this process is complex and will undoubtedly at times be frustrating for you, please remember that hundreds of new international students come to the United States every year. Much of the process works as it is supposed to, and it is very much worth the effort, given the many excellent people, places and experiences that await you at Columbia College Chicago.