The US Student Visa: It’s Not Rocket Science!

This is a slightly expanded version of a short article I wrote for Capstone Vietnam’s StudyUSA Higher Education and Community College Fair Guides and for publication on a news website.

For those of you whose dream it is to study in the USA but who worry about the visa process, worry no more!  The truth is that US consular officers want to give you a visa if you meet their criteria.  Their job is simple; to enforce 214b, a clause in the US Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that applies to nonimmigrant visa categories. In order to obtain a visa, you must “overcome the presumption of immigrant intent.”

If you are refused a visa under section 214(b), it means that you:

  • Did not sufficiently demonstrate to the consular officer that you qualify for the nonimmigrant visa category you applied for; and/or
  • Did not overcome the presumption of immigrant intent, required by law, by sufficiently demonstrating that you have strong ties to your home country that will compel you to leave the United States at the end of your temporary stay.

Contrary to what many students and parents believe, based on rumors and a sea of misinformation, the student visa process is not rocket science.  You simply need to prove to the consular officer that you meet these three criteria:

  1. You are a bona fide student (i.e., you’re not trying to use a nonimmigrant visa to emigrate)
  2. You have the ability to pay
  3. You plan to return to your home country

All of the questions that the man or woman on the other side of that thick glass window asks revolve around these points.  Consular officers make their decisions – to issue, reconsider pending additional documentation or deny – based on the answers to their questions, their training and their intuition.  This means telling the truth, using authentic documents, and explaining your plans in a logical and coherent manner.

So why is the US student visa rejection high in Vietnam compared to America’s friendly competitors (e.g., Australia and the UK) and other countries? The high incidence of fraud, especially in Ho Chi Minh City, the tendency of many education consultants (agents) to script students, a practice that drives consular officers crazy and, frankly, attempts by many to circumvent the immigration procedure by pretending to be a student when their true intention is to emigrate.  (I remember speaking with a young woman who was anxious to join most of her family who had already emigrated to the US.  Instead of waiting patiently for an immigrant petition to be approved, she saw the F-1 as the path of least resistance.) 

Do consular officers make mistakes?  Sometimes; they are human, after all.  But they generally do their very best to make an important decision – for you and others – in a very short period of time.  It’s the stated goal of the US government to welcome as many international students as possible to the nation’s colleges and universities.

So, as you prepare for that all-important visa interview, a short chat that will determine whether or not you study in the US, focus on the basics and keep it simple.  Review the criteria, think about how to tell your unique story in a way that makes sense and don’t “memorize your lines.”  (Consular officers can’t stand hearing that you want to study in the US “because it has the best higher education system in the world, etc.”)  Tell them why YOU chose to study in the US, what YOUR plans are and how YOU will benefit from this life-changing experience. 

The students I’ve worked with over the years, including during my tenure as country director of IIE-Vietnam (2005-09) and now with Capstone Vietnam, a human resource development company, have a very high success rate.  Why?  Because they focused on the basics, met the criteria, and overcame “the presumption of immigrant intent.”  Eyes on the prize and good luck to you!


Note:  The U.S. Embassy-Hanoi recently produced a useful YouTube video about the student visa process.  Here’s one in English and another for prospective and admitted students in Vietnamese. 

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