So, you obtained your visa and have permission to enter the United States to study at a U.S. college. Are you wondering what happens next?
When heading to American universities, first things first
For starters, you can finally start making your travel plans and packing your bags for school. However, don't plan to arrive in the U.S. more than 30 days prior to the start of your program or you may be turned away at the border. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security precludes new students from entering the country and going to American universities more than 30 days prior to the start of school. (Continuing students may enter the U.S. at any time before their classes start.)
Colleges in the U.S. often do not mind if you wish to arrive earlier, but you'll need to obtain a visitor visa in addition to your student visa, and it will need to clearly note your intention to study in the U.S. later on. However, before you start school, you'll also need to change your visa classification by submitting a Form I-539 (Application for Change of Nonimmigrant Status) and a Form I-20 to the Department of Homeland Security. Doing this will cost you an additional fee and you won't be able to begin school until the change of classification is approved.
Assuming you choose to arrive in the United States on your student visa, make sure that you take all of your paperwork with you, including your visa, your copies of the I-20 that the school sent you, and your passport. Make sure before you leave home that your passport is up to date and valid for at least 6 months AFTER you are scheduled to finish your studies.
It's a good idea to keep a photocopy of your passport in case you lose it. The photocopy will make it easier to replace your passport if you need to do so. You should also have your proof of financial support and permanent residence abroad in case you are asked to show them. Keep this paperwork with you at all times while you're traveling—don't stow it away in your checked luggage!
When traveling to a U.S. college, you have to cross the border
Even if you have a visa in hand, you could still be turned away at the border. The Department of Homeland Security has the authority to permit or deny admission into the U.S. If you don't have the proper documentation or don't comply with procedures, you may be refused admission.
American colleges want you to feel "at home" in your new surroundings, but there are some restrictions. You'll need to fill out a standard Customs Declaration form (CF-6059) to disclose any items you're bringing into the country that must be reported (the form will identify the types of things you need to disclose). You'll also need to provide the address where you'll actually be living in the United States (NOT the address of the school), your passport, and your I-20.
You'll then be issued an Arrival-Departure Record (an I-94) that will have your arrival date recorded in it. Your I-94 keeps track of your comings and goings in and out of the United States. It is a very important document that you should keep with your passport, I-20, proof of permanent residence, and proof of financial resources. Each time you leave the country and come back, you'll likely need to show all of these documents.
Smile for the camera, you're enrolled in a U.S. college
Depending on where you enter the country, the customs agents may use a digital scanner to scan your fingerprints. Your digital photograph will also be taken, and both your fingerprints and your photo will be matched with those on your visa to verify your identity.
These procedures, known as biometrics, will eventually be in use at all entry points as part of the Department of Homeland Security's goal of an automated entry/exit procedure under its U.S. Visit program.
While attending American colleges, you can leave the country
With a student visa, you can leave the country for short periods of time to go home, attend conferences, etc., but your absences cannot exceed 5 months. If you leave the country for more than 5 months, your F-1 or M-1 visa becomes invalid, even if it has not expired; you'll need a new visa to re-enter the country. The exception is if you have left the country to pursue studies overseas while still enrolled at a U.S. college. In those cases, you may leave for longer than 5 months and still have a valid visa.
Once you've completed your studies at American universities, you have 60 days to make your preparations and then depart from the U.S. under an F-1 visa. If you have an M-1 visa, you only have 30 days to depart. After that, your visa will no longer be valid. If you haven't yet returned home, you could find yourself in a bit of trouble.
If your visa expires while you are still enrolled in U.S. colleges and you leave the country temporarily, you will need to get a new visa in order to re-enter the U.S. Since you can't renew your visa while you are in the U.S., make sure you've checked its expiration date and plan accordingly. Even though you have permission to stay in the U.S. through the duration of your studies, your visa can still expire before then. If you don't leave the country, it may not present a big problem, but if you do leave and find out at the border that your visa has expired, it could put a big dent in your studies.
Also make sure that your passport is up to date so that everything is in place when it's time to return home. (You may want to renew your passport before you leave the U.S. It will be easier than getting it renewed while abroad.)
You might experience biometric exits during your U.S. college experience
Depending on where you leave, you may experience biometric exit procedures (scanning fingerprints and taking a digital photo) to verify your identity. Your exit from the United States will be confirmed and added to your travel records. Eventually, these procedures will be in place at all U.S. ports of entry.
United States immigration rules and procedures can be pretty complicated. So if you want to attend a U.S.A. university, make sure you check with your local U.S. Consulate for guidance on what you need to do to obtain your student visa.