The United States boasts some of the world’s best universities and attracts top talent from all over the world. Nowadays, almost one in five graduate students in the US are international. But navigating the moving process as an international student can be challenging. This article is aimed at international PhD students who will be applying for an F-1 visa (the most common student visa). It goes through the pre-departure process, arrival in the US, and setting up life in America.
I-20 and F-1 Visa
There are two documents that students need to be able to enter the United States as a student. The first is an I-20. This official three-page document is issued by your university and endorsed by a school official. It acts as proof of admission from your university and proof of your ability to pay schools fees and living expenses in the US. your I-20 also has your SEVIS identification number on it. It is valid for the length of your admissions offer, usually five years. The institution will mail you your I-20.
Once you receive your I-20, you can apply for your student visa. The first step is to pay the mandatory SEVIS I-901 fee. SEVIS is the student tracking system. The fee is $200. You will not be issued a visa if you do not pay the fee. Print the payment receipt and bring it with you to your visa interview and to the US Port of Entry the first time you enter the country as a student.
The F-1 visa is the most common student visa and is issued to international students admitted to a full-time academic program at a US institution. With the exception of Canadians, all international students need to obtain an F1 visa for full-time PhD studies in the US. To being the application process, you must fill out the DS-160 visa application online. Be as accurate as possible. Print the confirmation page with the barcode at the end of the application. Then you must schedule a visa interview at the US embassy/consulate in your home country. Please check the website of the US embassy/consulate in your home country for the most up to date information about the interview process.
F-1 visa holders may seek on-campus work that does not exceed 20 hours a week. After the first year they may apply for certain types of off-campus work with the authorization of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Bringing Your Family
Students who plan to bring dependants (a spouse and/or children only) with them to the US must include their dependant’s information in the admissions applications. The student will also have to submit additional proof of financial support ($7,200 for a spouse and $3,600 for each child). The university will send their F-2 Dependant I-20s with your I-20. Your dependants should then accompany you to your local US embassy/consulate to apply for their F-2 visas when you apply for your F-1 visa.
It is important to note that spouses and dependents may not work in the US with an F-2 visa and are not eligible for a social security number. They may do volunteer work as long as they are not compensated and are doing a job normally done by volunteers. If they want to seek employment they will need to obtain the appropriate work visa.
Entering the US
Your program start date is printed on your I-20. You may enter the US up to 30 day prior but no later than that program start date. When you arrive at a US airport, you must clear customs at a US Point of Entry. You will have to show the following documents: valid passport with the F-1 stamp, original I-20, SEVIS fee payment receipt, and financial documents consistent with what is stated on your I-20. When you enter the US you will also be assigned a I-94 number. You can obtain a print out of your I-94 number from US Customs and Border Patrol. You will need it this number to apply for a social security number and open a bank account.
Anytime you leave and re-enter the US as a student, you must remember to bring your passport with a valid F-1 stamp and your original I-20 form with you. The signature on page 2 of the I-20 (the “travel signature”) must be less than 12 months old on the date you re-enter the US. If is nearing expiry, you must have it resigned by the appropriate school official before you leave.
Social Security Number (SSN)
The American Social Security Number (SSN) is a nine-digit number used to identify citizens, permanent residents and temporary residents. You must have a SSN to work in the US. Most PhD students will have to apply for a SSN at some point during their degree as many American programs require PhD students to work as teaching assistants.
To apply for a SSN you must go in person to a Social Security Administration office near you. You will have to bring a completed social security card application, your passport with the F-1 stamp, your I-94 number, I-20, and proof of employment. In one to two weeks your social security card (with your social security number on it) will be mailed to you.
A SSN is also necessary for filing a tax return. If you are not eligible for a SSN but have an American source of income (eg. from a fellowship, stipend, or scholarship) you will have to apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). This number is only for tax filing purposes and does not authorize you to work. Your university payroll services or international student office can help you apply for an ITIN and will usually expedite the application process. It takes seven weeks to receive an ITIN.
Landlords, cable companies, and cell phone providers will ask for a SSN to run a credit check to determine how large of deposit you must pay for housing and their services. International students without a SSN will still be able to secure housing and access these services but they will have to pay a higher deposit first.
Health care in the US is very expensive and the US government does not provide health insurance. It is crucial that international students obtain health insurance. Most universities require all of their students to have health insurance coverage. Most universities offer health insurance plans for their students at a lower cost that other private insurance providers. Depending on the level of funding you are offered from the university, they might pay the cost of your health insurance. Make sure you read your policy very carefully to understand exactly what is and isn’t covered. Note that student health insurance does not normally include eye care or dental coverage.
As you are going to be living in the US for several years you should open an American bank account. This will make it easier for you to do things like pay rent and for your university to pay you. This big four American banks are Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup. To open a bank account, you should bring your passport with the F-1 stamp, I-20, and I-94 number to the nearest branch of your chosen bank. It is not necessary to have a social security number to open an American bank account.
It is a good idea to have a few weeks worth of living expenses available in your home bank account as it may take some time to get your American bank account and salary deposit set up. Check with your home bank before you travel to make sure you will be able to use your bank card abroad.