As I sifted through all the potential directions my life could take when I graduated collage, no other idea had as much gravitational pull as the idea of moving to New York. As an Australian, there were a few paths that had already been inscribed for me by unspoken tradition. The most popular 3 were, move to Melbourne, move to Sydney, or go to England with a 1-year work visa then come back and carry on. One of the reasons for this was, at the time, there were only 2 professional Theatre companies in Adelaide that had already picked the cream of the crop at the end of year showcases and I was left with few prospects and job opportunities if I really wanted to be a fulltime actor. To me, New York made sense. There would never be a shortage of work and I was sure someone would hire me if I went. Now, I am well aware, especially now, the difference between a romantic idea of what a young artist envisions his life will be versus the reality of making it actually come to fruition. The first crack that let the light of reality through the fragile plan of my romantic artistic voyage was the dreaded visa application process.
I say dreaded because applying for a visa, although implies the start of a new adventure, is a long, expensive, at times invasive and at times belittling procedure. Imagine a weekend stay at the DMV, it’s about as appealing as that. :/
Therefore, I am writing this to help demystify the process a little by laying it out in stark terms so you have a more information to help you make the right decision for which visa you will need and whether or not applying for a visa is the right thing for you to do.
The first step is figuring out which visa best suits your needs. There are several visas available to Aussies and not all of them have the same parameters so you need to study each one to make sure it will be the right fit for you. There are approximately 40 different non-immigrant visas available and most do not apply to artists. About 6 out of those 40 could be possibilities, but for this I’m going to focus primarily on the F-1 student visa.
First off, if you want to come over and take a workshop, let’s say you want to come and study with Larry Moss for a 4-day workshop (which you bloody well should if you can swing it!). You would need a Visa Waiver (VWP) which is a travel visa that is good for 90 days. In this case you would not need to go through the whole visa application process.
However, if you want to study for a semester (more than 90 days) or if you get accepted into NYU or Julliard let’s say, then yes, you need to compile a bunch of information and fill out many a form.
Let’s start with the first little inconvenience for those that live outside of Melbourne. The American consulate is in Melbourne. You will ultimately need to go there in person to get your passport stamped. But that part comes later. Check bus and plane timetables now so you have a plan to get there #roadtrip. Being from Adelaide I had to go to Melbourne then back to Adelaide then back to Melbourne when I was leaving to come to NYC. That is an epic tale for another time though. 😊
The first part of the process is applying for an SEVP-approved (student and exchange visitor program) school in the United States. After the school you apply for accepts you, you will be registered for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System or SEVIS and must pay the SEVIS I-901 fee. The school will then issue you form I-20.
After you’re registered with a SEVIS approved school and have paid the fee and have been issued the I-20 form, then you can apply for either the F or M visa. Let’s just focus on the F Visa for now.
Following are the first steps to apply. Keep in mind that this part comes after you have picked the school you wish to study at.
1. Apply for the Student Exchange Visitor Program approved school.
The best way to begin would be to reach out to the school first and make sure they are SEVP approved and that they are in fact the place you want to study at while you’re here.
2. Pay the SEVP I-901 form fee.
After the school you apply to accepts you, you will be registered for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (also known as SEVIS). You will have to pay the SEVP I-901 form fee.
3. Collect the I-20 form.
Once you have been accepted into the school and have registered with SEVIS, the school will issue you the I-20 form. (Note; if you want any relatives to travel with you, they must also have a I-20 form. They will also need to register with SEVIS but they do not have to pay an additional fee.)
4. Fill out the Online Visa Application form DS-160.
Once you have registered with SEVIS, filled out and paid the I-901 form fee and have been issued the I-20 form, you can now apply for the F-1 Visa. To do this you must go and fill out the Online Visa Application form DS-160. During this part you will need to upload a photo. Their requirements are very specific, and they will reject the application if they are not met and the fees are not refundable, so please take note of the requirements. Also, print out the confirmation page of the DS-160, you’ll need that for the interview.
5. Schedule your interview.
Once all the above steps have been completed you can go ahead and schedule your interview. The wait times as of writing this are about 2 days. Which in governments terms is pretty damn impressive.
6. Prepare for the interview by gathering the required documents.
Of course, there is a non-refundable application fee of approximately $305. You must also bring with you the following:
- A valid passport
- Non-immigrant Visa Application form DS-160 confirmation page
- Application Fee Receipt
- Photo (the incredibly specific photo)
- Certificate of eligibility for non-immigrant (F1) student (your school will issue you this when you register for SEVIS)
Possible additional requirements
There are 2 things that they will most likely ask, and you should be ready with a very well informed and honest answer. Best to avoid lying to the government…
- How are you going to pay for living expenses while you’re studying? They ask this because you are not permitted to work on the F-1 Visa. Therefore, you may be asked to either provide proof that you can afford to support yourself without working or have someone sign an affidavit saying that they agree to be your source of income while you are in the F-1 status.
- Proof of intent to leave the US after you study is complete. This is a little bit of a strange request as there are obviously, potential scenarios that could arise that extend your stay indefinitely. But at this stage, they are basically asking you if the visa application is just a guise to get into the United States and never leave. They will ask about your life at home and what ties you have that will bring you back. Things like family, work, etc.
7. Attend the interview!
Jump into your car, bus, plane and go to the consulate with all the above things in order. If all goes well, which it totally should because you’re super prepared now, you will have digital fingerprints and eye scans made. You pay the fee and talk the talk and hand over your passport. Your passport will be sent to you with your F-1 Visa stamped into it. Now go book your flight!
*Photo requirements: They are pretty intense, so in order to not paraphrase the requirements I have copied and pasted them from the government website.
Sized such that the head is between1 inch and 1 3/8 inches (22 mm and 35 mm) or 50% and 69% of the image's total height from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head. View the Photo Composition Template for more size requirement details.
Taken within the last 6 months to reflect your current appearance
Taken in front of a plain white or off-white background
Taken in full-face view directly facing the camera
With a neutral facial expression and both eyes open
Taken in clothing that you normally wear on a daily basis
Uniforms should not be worn in your photo, except religious clothing that is worn daily.
Do not wear a hat or head covering that obscures the hair or hairline, unless worn daily for a religious purpose. Your full face must be visible, and the head covering must not cast any shadows on your face.
Headphones, wireless hands-free devices, or similar items are not acceptable in your photo.
Eyeglasses are no longer allowed in new visa photos, except in rare circumstances when eyeglasses cannot be removed for medical reasons; e.g., the applicant has recently had ocular surgery and the eyeglasses are necessary to protect the applicant's eyes. A medical statement signed by a medical professional/health practitioner must be provided in these cases. If the eyeglasses are accepted for medical reasons:
The frames of the eyeglasses must not cover the eye(s).
There must not be glare on eyeglasses that obscures the eye(s).
There must not be shadows or refraction from the eyeglasses that obscures the eye(s).
If you normally wear a hearing device or similar articles, they may be worn in your photo.
Apply through this website: