The process of obtaining a US Student Visa (F-1) is fairly simple, but it can be confusing to some (as it was to me) because the instructions to each individual task is explained on the respective websites and documents, but the overall procedure is nowhere comprehensively described. So I’m writing this post to describe in excruciating detail how the entire procedure takes place from the start to finish after having successfully obtained the same visa. This was what I experienced (appointment at India – Kolkata). The procedure might be slightly different for you, but the basic outline is the same.
The flowchart below describes the steps you can follow right after receiving the I-20 form from your college.
The visa application fee (HDFC one, mentioned in the second level of tasks) can be paid without obtaining the I-20 too (maybe when the I-20 is in transit). Only a photocopy of a valid passport is required. Just waltz into the bank and say “I want to pay for visa application”. The receipt you’ll get is called the MRV receipt. It’ll be 2 flimsy pieces of paper stapled together. One will be blue and the other red (pink, actually). Both of them will have barcode stickers; one of them may have two stickers and the other only one.
You can start filling the DS-160 before the I-20 arrives and go on saving it online or downloading offline (instructions on website) but you’ll eventually need the I-20 to complete some information towards a later section. The DS-160 is a very long form, so start filling that early. https://ceac.state.gov/genniv/
You’ll need a photograph that meets their standards. That can be taken easily at home in good lighting conditions (daylight), predominantly white background and a little Photoshop / GIMP (or even MsPaint) knowledge (only how to use Fuzzy Select Tool and/or meticulously use the eraser). Save as jpeg. Going to professional studios is a waste of money and they won’t do any better job than you can do at home either. Use it to erase any doors, cracks, etc in the background but do not modify your appearance in anyway. Upload the large uncropped photo using their website’s photo-tool and crop it using that. Only go to the shop to print out the pics. Specifically ask those idiots not to edit / crop the picture any further.
The barcode and the alphanumeric code you receive while starting the DS-160 will also be printed on the confirmation page once you finish it. And don’t get confused- it may also be referred to as “CEAC code” or “CEAC barcode” or something like that.
The SEVIS I-901 fee is paid online (through credit card, etc) at http://www.fmjfee.com/. Do not get confused by the terms SEVIS (Student Exchange and Visitor Information System), SEVP (Student Exchange and Visitor Program), DHS (Department of Homeland Security), US Immigrations and Customs, National Security Investigations Division, DoS (Department of State). In this context, all of them are inter-related government agencies and their programs for which you only have to pay one fee only once at the above website. The I-901 form is nothing but the receipt that you print out. There is no such “form to be filled up”. Actually it’ll be called the “I-901 receipt” everywhere. The “form” part is only the few details you fill in just before paying the fee.
Now you can schedule your interview at https://www.vfs-usa.co.in/ApplnForms/SchduleMenu.aspx. This is known as the VFS website (it is important to know because your interview appointment letter that you’ll have to print when you complete this form will also be known as your “VFS letter” or similar name). Pick a convenient date. Print / Save the appointment letter that will come up. You will now print a Guidance Sheet as well.
Now, the interview:
On the day of the interview, you’ll be asked not to arrive more than 15 minutes earlier than the time assigned. Arrive 30 minutes early anyway. Wait outside, if necessary. Below is a crude, general map of what the consulate might look like. The shapes and layout will not be the same, but the procedure approximately should be.
The entrance is shown at the bottom. Before entering that, you’ll undergo a security check and be given a serial number (not same as the number on your appointment letter). Once you enter, you’ll be directed to a waiting area (shown in yellow). In my case, it was outdoors (therefore, not air-conditioned), seated, and had a TV. A person will ask for your documents, maybe re-arrange them, segregate the absolutely ESSENTIAL documents (all passports – current and previous, I-20 form, MRV receipt, SEVIS I-901 receipt), hand them to you in a separate pile and ask you to carry all your other supporting documents- financial, marksheets, etc with you separately. The additional ones may or may not be asked for later (weren’t asked for in my case).
From there, you will be called (in my case it was about 10 applicants at a time) into the main area. It will have separate windows (shown in red and green) with officials at each of them much like a bank. One set of windows should have officials from your country (shown in Green). From the queue, you’ll be ushered into one of these windows first. They’ll do the preliminary verification of the ESSENTIAL documents you just carried in separately inside. They will NOT interview you. Now you will have to wait in a second waiting area, also seated (shown in blue).
After your documents are verified, they’ll be returned to you as you progress along the blue area seated queue. Then, you go to one of the other windows (shown in Red) where an American official will interview you. Your fingerprints maybe taken (digital scanner, no ink involved). Any additional documents if needed, will be asked for now. If asked, convince the interviewer that you plan to return to your country after completion of your course. The more reputed your college is, the fewer questions you’ll be asked.
Then they keep your passport and you exit the building and the consulate. They should give you a paper containing instructions for retrieving your passport thereafter. The next working day, verify if your passport is ready by any one of the methods mentioned (calling the helpline, website, email or SMS). Go and bring the passport with the visa attached! That’s it.