F-1 is the visa category designated for international students in the U.S. seeking language training or a degree. In order to be eligible for F-1 status, interested students must first apply to an institution that is certified to enroll F-1 students.
Once admitted, students must provide certain financial documentation proving they will have financial support for tuition, living expenses, books, and other needs while in the U.S. for one academic year. The financial requirements will differ for each institution. This will allow the student to receive a form I-20.
The form I-20 is a "Certificate of Eligibility" for the student to study a particular degree at the institution issuing the I-20. There will be a specified period of time, level of education, major, biographic information, and the financial breakdown for one academic year. Students may apply to several institutions and receive an I-20 from more than one institution; however, they may only choose one school to attend.
After the student has chosen which school to attend, they will pay the SEVIS fee of $200 using the school code on the I-20 they received from the institution. They will then be able to make their appointment at the U.S. Embassy to apply for their F-1 visa. The SEVIS fee payment will be needed to make the appointment with the Embassy, and the receipt will be needed for the Embassy interview.
If the student is approved for their F-1 visa, the Consular will provide the student with a sealed envelope to give to the U.S. Customs & Border Protection officer when the student arrives in the U.S. Students must check in with their International Student Advisor within the first 15 days of arrival.
It is important to know the difference between an F-1 visa and F-1 status. F-1 status refers to the time inside the U.S. (provided the student entered with a valid I-20, valid passport, and valid F-1 visa); F-1 visa refers to the stamp in the passport.
Being an F-1 student requires full-time enrollment each term (12 credits for undergraduates, see your institution's catalog for graduate students) of the academic calendar. Employment may only be performed when authorized either by the DSO (Designated School Official - typically your International Student Advisor) or by USCIS.