Succeeding as an International Student

in the United States and Canada

by charles lipson

An excerpt from the book

Chapter 2: Passports and Visas: A Quick Overview

Each year, more than half a million international students come to the United States. Well over 100,000 come to Canada. The quality of university education in North America is as fine as any in the world, and it attracts wonderful students. They, in turn, enrich the education of their classmates and often contribute to new knowledge.

International students, like all visitors, must comply with U.S. and Canadian immigration laws. Those laws were tightened significantly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when it was discovered that border security was dangerously lax and that some terrorists had entered North America legally, a few with student visas.

Since then, political authorities have tried to balance two goals: securing their national borders against genuine threats while still allowing legitimate students to come and go freely. Balancing these goals is a difficult task, one that has stimulated serious debate, some changes in law, and considerable inconvenience to international students.

Immigration policy continues to change. Today’s laws could be transformed tomorrow by new legislation, court rulings, or administrative procedures. Heightened security threats or, worse yet, terrorist attacks, could lead to large-scale alterations. Since these laws and procedures are a moving target, I will not offer detailed advice. Instead, I will explain where you can get up-to-the-minute rules and regulations. Then, I will offer a few comments on the more enduring features of immigration law.

Visa Web Sites

Fortunately, both U.S. and Canadian immigration authorities maintain comprehensive Web sites and update them continually. It is wise to read this information carefully several months before you travel, if possible. The main sites are

On these sites, you can find current rules and regulations, plus many of the visa forms you need to complete.

If you are coming to the United States, it’s also a good idea to check for travel information at the Department of Homeland Security (

Naturally, you need a valid passport and appropriate student visas. Make sure your passport does not expire in the near future, since that can prevent you from getting a visa. Even better, have a passport that does not expire for several years and has an up-to-date photo. It’s also important to check the medical requirements for visas. Inoculation against major diseases is a common requirement.

You will need to determine which visa is required for your studies and what restrictions are attached to it. A common restriction is that you cannot take paid jobs off campus while you are in North America on a student visa. That restriction may also extend to family members who come with you. Other common restrictions require you to be a full-time student and to perform well academically. In the United States, you must stay at the same university or inform immigration authorities if you wish to change. Sometimes, the requirements are even more specific, such as remaining in the same degree program listed on your visa application.

These are precisely the kinds of rules that vary between the United States and Canada and that can change whenever legislatures reconsider the issues or bureaucrats implement the policies. In any case, you must learn the current rules and regulations that apply to you. The place to begin is at the official immigration Web sites.

The earlier you review these online sites, the earlier you will find out what information you need to collect your student visa. You may need to state (or even prove) where you have lived, what degrees you hold, where you have traveled, or what jobs you have held. The United States and Canada require different information, and, as I noted, their requirements can change. You need to stay abreast of the most recent official information.

If you plan to come with family members, find out what visas they require and what restrictions are placed on them. One, as I mentioned, is that your spouse might not be allowed to work off campus. There are some exceptions, though, so you’ll want to check the current regulations.

On the positive side, your children are eligible for free schooling, the same as local kids. In North America, public schooling begins at about age five. For younger children, preschooling and day care are available, but you will have to pay for them. Some universities have subsidized arrangements.

The school year usually begins between mid-August and early September and ends in May. Schedules vary because they are set by the local school districts. If you have school-age children, you should check these schedules long before you travel, because they could affect your plans.

Visa rules can also affect your travel. A typical rule is that you can arrive up to one month before classes begin. Coming early gives you extra time to settle into your new surroundings and explore your new city. That’s a wonderful opportunity, if you have time. By now, you know my advice: check the official U.S. and Canadian sites for current rules about early arrival.

Visa Information at the International Student Adviser’s office

Besides these government Web sites, where else can you find answers about visas, children’s schooling, and adapting to a new country? The international student adviser’s office at your new university. Every university has one, and it’s usually the first place to turn for nonacademic advice. (If you need academic advice, such as which courses to take, you should talk with professors and other advisers in your department.)

The international student adviser’s office undoubtedly has a Web page for students, answering questions that are frequently asked, including those about visas. The site will also include contact information for university staff members who specialize in visas and immigration. You should let them know when you are arriving and get in touch with them immediately if there are any delays or other visa problems.

The staff at the international student adviser’s office deals with issues like this every day, so they know the process well. They understand many other issues that affect international students, too. If they don’t deal with a particular issue themselves—housing or medical care, for instance—they can certainly direct you to experts who do.

One thing international student advisers do not do is provide legal advice. If you need a lawyer to deal with immigration or visa problems, you’ll need to hire one yourself. It is important to hire a specialist, someone who handles these issues every day and has earned a good reputation. According to an adviser who knows student travel and visa issues well, “the immigrant attorney bar is notoriously variable in its quality. Get a reference from your school or from the ABA [American Bar Association]. Check their credentials carefully.” That’s good advice.

Visa Interviews

Before you receive a student visa, you will probably be asked to meet with U.S. consular officials in your home country. Canadian officials have similar policies. What should you expect at this personal interview?

First, it will be brief—a few minutes at most.

Second, it is intended for you alone, not for your entire family. You are expected to answer the questions yourself. The interview will probably be conducted in English.

Third, you will be asked a series of questions designed to find out whether you are a legitimate student who does not pose a security risk and who plans to return home after your studies are complete.

To determine that, you may be asked

Each interview is different, and these questions are only a general guide.

The best evidence that you are a legitimate student is that you have a coherent program of study that fits into your career plans. The best evidence that you are traveling to the United States to study, not to immigrate there permanently, is that you have deep, ongoing ties to your home country.

To make your case, give answers that are brief, candid, and to the point. You can supplement them with a few documents that show you are a legitimate student with a strong commitment to return home.

Expect the scrutiny to be more intense if you plan to specialize in a sensitive scientific field, if your country presents security risks, or if citizens from your country have earned a reputation for violating visa laws.

You must answer all questions fully and truthfully, of course, and provide whatever information and documents the immigration officials request.

If your visa is denied, you can reapply. You will need to check the rules for how soon you can do that.

Although Canadian immigration procedures are different, their basic goals in assessing applications for study permits are the same as those in the United States. They want to make sure you are a genuine student who poses no security risks and intends to return home after completing studies. Canada’s visa office will review your written application and then decide whether to conduct a personal interview.

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