The struggle of acquiring a student visa

Acquiring a student visa to study in the United States can be a daunting process for international students.  Alejandra Flores, a junior in political science and president of the International Student Council at Iowa State, said the process of obtaining a student visa can be long, complicated and expensive.

The process begins when the prospective student applies to a university, said Katherine Worley, senior international adviser for the International Students and Scholars Office at Iowa State.  Upon admission, the student is issued an I-20 immigration form. “Using this I-20, they can apply for an F-1 visa through the U.S. Consulate or Embassy in their home country,” Worley said.

There are several types of immigration statuses granted to students to allow them to study in the U.S., Worley said.  “However, most international students come to the U.S. as F-1 students,” Worley said.   Flores explained that F-1 visas are granted to immigrants who enter the United States to study at a university or other academic institution.

The visa application process involves a $160 application fee, an issuance fee once the visa is accepted (this varies depending on the nationality of the applicant) and an interview with a consular officer.   Students must also have a valid passport before they can begin applying for the visa.

It can take 120 days or more to complete the process; however, this timeline has been delayed even further since the pandemic began.  “Especially with COVID, it’s been a lot longer than that,” Flores said. “That’s why we had so many students who were not able to make it in the fall; their visa status was delayed.”

Worley said these delays resulted from “the backlog in visa applications after so many consulates and embassies were closed due to COVID-19.”

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After completing the required steps, an F-1 visa student is still not officially cleared to enter the country.

“A visa does not guarantee entry into the United States,” according to the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs. “A visa only allows a foreign citizen to travel to a U.S. port-of-entry (generally an airport) and request permission to enter the United States.”

Once they are permitted into the country, international students still must meet certain requirements to maintain their immigration status.

“To maintain student status, students have to have valid immigration documents and maintain course enrollment requirements every semester,” said Elaine Tan, international student adviser for the International Students and Scholars Office.

The myriad of requirements and regulations can significantly impact international students’ ability to study in the United States, particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Restrictive policies and regulations can dissuade prospective students from studying in the U.S.,” Worley said. “This is seen in the significant drop in international student enrollment in the U.S.”

“It all started with the Trump administration wanting to ban F-1 visa status, which is the people who are coming here for an education,” Flores said.

According to Higher Education Today, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced July 6 that F-1 visa holders “taking only online classes in the fall semester must leave the country or transfer to an institution that offers in-person courses.”

On July 14, the administration finally withdrew this directive. The new directive protected current international students from losing their immigration status, but new students were still not allowed to enter the country and take classes online.

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Flores said some new students were able to take their online classes from their home country; however, this option came with its own set of issues.

Flores shared a story about an Iowa State student who was not able to come to campus in the fall due to the new policy. The student had to remain in India, but she was allowed to take her Iowa State classes online.

“She was lucky enough to do that because international students are not typically allowed to take online classes,” Flores said.

The difference in time zones was so extreme, however, that she was forced to take her classes in the middle of the night.

“She was taking online exams at 4 a.m. or 2 a.m. and having to take her virtual classes and lectures super late because the time difference is 10 hours,” Flores said.

Another downside to the online option is that students still have to pay the same fees as if they were in person, even though they are not getting the international student experience they expected.

Flores said another issue current students often face is needing to reissue their visas if their expected graduation date changes.

She said the student visa is meant to be temporary, so it typically expires as soon as the individual is scheduled to graduate. If they do not graduate within the expected time frame and have to stay in the country longer, they must reissue their visa.

“If you need to delay your graduation date, that is a hassle to go through for visa status,” Flores said.

She explained that visa issues typically “pile up” near graduation for many international students. This creates added pressure for students who are nearing graduation and considering career options.

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According to the U.S. Department of State, students on an F-1 visa have only 60 days to leave the country or change their immigration status after their academic program ends. Students may need to change their immigration status if they accept employment in the United States and need to stay in the country past the 60-day time limit.

Flores said one of her friends experienced problems with his immigration status following graduation.

Her friend was not able to secure employment in the United States within the time limit allotted by his visa. No longer allowed in the country under his student visa, he was forced to return to his home country, despite living in the U.S. since he was in middle school.

Tan said international students frequently face immigration issues related to personal problems like these.

“Oftentimes, immigration problems are rooted in what might be seen as normal personal struggles, such as financial or personal concerns that will affect student immigration status,” Tan said.

The International Students and Scholars Office provides many avenues of support for international students facing issues with immigration status.

“So much of the work that [the International Students and Scholars Office] does is supporting international students and helping them navigate the complex rules of their immigration status,” Worley said.

Updates to immigration policy impacting Iowa State can be found on the International Students and Scholars Office website.

Students can also reach out to the department with immigration questions via email at isso@iastate.edu or by phone at 515-294-1120.

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