Here’s some step-by-step for students who are travelling to the US for the first time:
Visa: Part 1 – Booking the visa dates (overview)
I will be starting my PhD this fall, and I thought that it might be useful to jot down all the stuff required, once you have the confirmation from the U.S. university of your choice, regarding your admission. I haven’t found a lot of blogs or forums with a step-by-step approach for international PhD candidates, so I hope this is a welcome step.
The first thing that I had to do was sign on a “letter of intent” mentioning my graduate research assistantship details. It stated my stipend and scholarship for a specific frame of time, the renewal of which, is based on my academic performance. I had to accept the graduate research assistantship, by signing on the document sent by the university, and sending back the scanned version, within the deadline mentioned. This acceptance was essential for the issuance of my I-20 form, because it relates to the funds provided by the institute towards my education. The I-2o was prepared accordingly, and my personal funds, on my I-20, have been indicated as “zero”. I was subsequently emailed the scanned copies of my offer letter and I-20 form, while the hard copies were mailed to me via FedEx. I received the same within a span of 7-10 days of my acceptance of the graduate assistantship.
The I-20 document consists of details of my degree program and has a SEVIS number. This SEVIS number was required for all forms related to the visa application. As soon as you get your I-20, you can book your visa appointments, in three stages:
3.Paying the SEVIS fee (link) before the scheduled visa appointments.
The DS-160 form has to be filled with all relevant details corresponding to your I-20 form, passport and employment/college/high school certificates (step-by-step info ; details specific to my PhD application). After successfully signing and submitting the DS-160 form, you can save the filled-in DS-160 form (1) and corresponding confirmation page (2) for future use. You can use the confirmation number from the DS-160 form to make a payment of $160 towards your visa appointment, on the second link. The preferable mode of payment is “cash over counter” at Citi or Axis bank branches, because the transfer is successful in about 3 hours, which is quicker than NEFT/IMPS (more info). This is handy, specially during peak visa application season (June-July), as the visa appointment slots get filled up very quickly. After making the payment at either Citi/Axis bank, the person authorizing the transaction will provide a receipt as proof of fee payment (3). Keep it securely and take photocopies of the same. Once the payment is approved (you will be notified on the cell phone number and email address provided), you can proceed to fill the OFC appointment date and the Consular appointment. The OFC appointment consists of a bio-metric photo and finger-scanning session. The consular appointment happens at the US embassy, and consists of an interview with a visa officer (VO). The OFC must be scheduled at least one day prior to the consular appointment. Once the dates are booked successfully, you can save the visa appointment confirmation page (4).
The SEVIS fee of $200 can similarly be paid using credit card on the link provided. This needs to be paid before you appear for either visa appointments. The page indicating successful payment should be saved (5).
Once both of these appointments are successfully cleared, you can go get your PhD from your U.S. university. After clearing several other hurdles, that is.
I will elaborate on the DS-160 form filling, visa fee payment form and SEVIS fee payment form, in the next blog post. I will also write individual posts detailing my experience in the OFC appointment and the consular appointment, respectively.
*Documents 2-5 need to be presented at various stages of the visa appointments.
Visa: Part 2 – Filling the application forms
Here’s a somewhat detailed overview of the three forms that need to be filled towards your visa application:
- Visa fee payment/date booking
- SEVIS fee
1. DS-160 (Link: https://ceac.state.gov/GenNIV/)
The first step is to fill out the online non-immigrant visa application, DS-160. You would need to first choose the location of the US embassy where you would like to give your consular interview, following which you can start a new application. An application ID will be created, and you will need to set a security question corresponding to it, along with answer to proceed. Once the security answer is set, you can proceed to filling your form. There are 7 major subsections:
- Personal information: Name, sex, marital status, D.O.B, place of birth, nationality, home address, telephone numbers, email address, current passport details. All of these must be provided as per your passport.
- Travel information:Purpose of trip to U.S.: Academic or language student (F) — Student (F1).Specific travel plans – intended date of arrival: Approximately a week before date of orientation mentioned on offer letter.Intended length of stay: 5 years (for PhD).
Address where you will stay: Since it was unknown to me at the time of filling the form, I wrote the college correspondence address as mentioned on the I-20 form.
Person/entity paying for your trip: University details (as they are providing scholarship and assistantship. Personal funds in my I-20 have been shown as “zero”).
⇒Relationship to you: Graduate school.
- U.S. contact information: Person of contact as mentioned on I-20 form, along with university address and telephone number + email address of that person.
- Family information: Name and D.O.B of father and mother, as per their passports.
- Work/education information:Work information: I did research work as a project assistant at a research institute for a year. I hence stated my primary occupation as research. Other information to be provided: work address and contact, salary, job description.Education information: All educational institutes attended at high school level or higher. In the Indian scenario, this equates to 10th (SSC), 12th (HSC) and college degrees (Bachelors and/or Masters). Due to my own lack of understanding, I only mentioned my college degrees (B.E. + M.Sc.) followed by my 12th certificate, forgetting to mention my 10th standard details. When I inquired about the same on one of the university student groups, I was told that it’s not a big issue. There were a few people who had gotten through without mentioning it. I will still be carrying my original documents, nevertheless, and I hope it does not cause any delay in the approval of my visa. **I will update the status on this after my visa interview is done on the 27th of June.**EDIT: I did not face any issue, as I was not asked for any documents related to my previous education. The most that they do ask is bachelor’s and/or master’s degree related documents.
Information required: degrees obtained, dates of attending school and addresses of schools.
- Security and background information: “NO” to all.
- Student/exchange visa information:Additional point of contact information: Two points of contact from country of residence, with details about address, telephone number and email address.SEVIS ID: of the form ‘N’ followed by 10 digits (eg. N0012345678).Name of school and course details: PhD in Electrical and Electronics Engineering at <University Name>.
Location: where you will be submitting application, which is the US consulate chosen at the beginning (in my case it was Mumbai, India).
Also refer these documents:
Save and print the DS-160 confirmation.
2. Visa fee payment and date booking (Link: https://cgifederal.secure.force.com/)
Information required: DS 160 confirmation number, current passport details, US consulate preference, permanent address, telephone number and email address.
Fee payment: NEFT/IMPS/Cash over counter in Citi/Axis bank (preferred).
In case ‘cash over counter’ option is chosen, you will need to print a CGI reference form that has to printed and taken to the bank along with amount mentioned ($160 in local currency). Once the payment is processed, usually in 3-3.5 hours, you can choose your OFC appointment and consular appointment dates and book them.Save and print the visa appointment confirmation. Save the fee payment receipt given by bank.
3. SEVIS fee payment (Link: https://fmjfee.com/i901fee/index.jsp)
Information required: Passport details, SEVIS ID, school code, permanent address details.
Fee payment: $200 using credit card or money order.
Save and print the SEVIS fee payment confirmation page.
Visa: Part 3 – OFC appointment
I had my visa OFC appointment today, at the Mumbai VAC (Visa Application Center). I reached about an hour early for my slot of 11:15 am. I waited for about 40 minutes, after which I joined the queue at around 10:55 am (you are allowed to ‘report’ only 15 minutes prior to your slot). You are also not allowed to carry anything apart from relevant documents in a translucent folder (I did see some people with purses and wallets being allowed, but they had to deposit those items at some place, before proceeding). The process was quite smooth. I had to keep my DS-160 confirmation page in hand, initially. The person letting us inside the center scanned the bar-code on my DS-160, before letting me in. This was followed by a security check, similar to the one done at airports, with separate lines for men and women, after which we were supposed to stand in line to show our documents to a man (or another woman) who were seated on a desk. We had to hand over the following:
- The DS-160 confirmation
- The visa appointment confirmation
- Current passport (note: I carried my old expired passport as a precaution)
The details in the DS-160 confirmation were tallied with those in my passport, specially the ‘given name’ and ‘surname’. The visa appointment time slot and date were cross checked. After careful inspection, the man signed on my DS-160 page and sent me inside to a big hall, where I had to initially join one of the three lines. Officials were seated behind 3 computers, where they took our DS-160+visa appointment confirmation+passport. They then cross-checked details and stuck a bar-coded sticker on the back of my passport, which will subsequently be scanned at the consulate interview.
After crossing this, a woman gave me a token and directed me towards a seating area. There were around 15 counters for biometric scan and photo. There was a screen flashing token numbers against counter numbers. I had to wait for less than a minute for my turn to come.
After I went to the counter, I was asked to hand over those 3 documents. I was then asked my name, date of birth and date of visa interview, by the lady on the other side of the counter, to validate authenticity. After this I was asked to remove my spectacles and lean against the white backdrop, so that a photo could be taken. She instructed me to have no expressions on my face. After this, I was instructed to place my 4 left hand fingers on the scanner, followed by 4 right hand fingers and finally my 2 thumbs placed adjacent to each other.
She then instructed that the procedure for the OFC appointment was done, and that I could go and read a notice on passport collection from the VAC after my visa is stamped.
The whole process took less than 15 mins after I went inside the VAC. As long as the details on the forms matched those on the passport, people did not face any issue.
I will write another post on my visa consulate interview, scheduled on the 27th of June. Here’s hoping it goes well.
Visa: Part 4 – Consulate interview
I had my visa interview a week back. I had booked the appointment at the Mumbai consulate, for a 10 am slot. I reached the location at 8:35 am and joined the ever growing line at 8:50 am, being one of the first from the 10 am batch to join the line. I carried the following documents with me in a harmonium folder (and additionally carried an umbrella, because it rains heavily in Mumbai around this time):
- Passport — old/expired and new.
- Visa appointment confirmation + visa fee ($160) payment receipt (issued by Axis bank).
- SEVIS fee ($200) payment confirmation.
- Form I-20 issued by university.
- DS-160 confirmation.
University related documents:
- University issued PhD offer letter.
- Graduate research assistantship offer letter.
- Copy of signed ‘Letter of Intent’, accepting graduate research assistantship.
Education and work experience related documents:
- College degree certificates.
- College transcripts.
- Employment certificate for my one-year project assistantship.
High school certifications:
- 12th standard (HSC) marksheet + passing certificate.
- 10th standard (SSC) marksheet + passing certificate.
- Bank issued certificates declaring parents’ savings account balance and fixed deposit amounts.
- Declaration of amount in father’s provident fund account.
- Notarized affidavits of support, signed by both parents, stating that they would provide additional funds for my education, apart from my scholarship and research assistantship.
- Self attested declaration of property valuation by father.
- Transaction summary of my bank account, receiving salary associated with my current job*.
*Recommend carrying pay slips instead, didn’t have the time to get them.
Personal identity related documents:
- Birth certificate.
- Visa photos** as per specification.
**I received an email from the consulate stating that I would be required to carry a photograph, due to some technically issue on their end. However they did not ask for it when I went for the interview.
- Job ID card.
- PAN card.
- DS-160 filled form.
- Photocopies of all of the above documents.
- Photocopies of my father’s IT returns of the last 3 years.
What I actually needed to produce in front of the visa officer:
- Form I-20.
- SEVIS fee payment confirmation.
We were allowed to enter at 9:45 am for the 10 am slot. We had to clear a security check and then were directed to a waiting area in the garden, consisting of 4 seating rows, around 50 people in a row. People sitting in a single row were called at a time to enter into the main building. The main building consisted of two sections; counters 24-37, where the actual visa interviews were being conducted, and counters 38-40, where we had to hand over our passports to be scanned and give our right hand finger impressions. We initially proceeded to one of the three lines in front of counters 38-40, following which we were directed towards a longer queue for the visa interviews. We were directed towards our respective counters by the assistants, depending on vacancies.
I was directed towards counter 36. I wished the visa officer a good morning, and was asked for my passport and I-20. He then proceeded to ask me two questions; one on the degree program that I will be pursuing and one on the number of universities that I had applied to. After I answered these questions, I was told that my visa has been approved. He handed back my I-20 and kept the passport with him. I thanked the visa officer and wished him a good day, before leaving the consulate by around 10:35 am.
I received an email and an SMS confirmation from the US embassy, about collecting my stamped passport at around 3 pm the same day. I had to take the following documents to collect my passport from the visa application center (VAC):
- Photocopy of passport, self attested.
- Government issued photo ID – PAN card.
- Photocopy of government issued photo ID.
- Visa appointment confirmation.