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Ask Sophie: Any tips for F-1 student visa approval amid the rising denial rate?

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Sophie Alcorn

Contributor

Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

More posts from Sophie Alcorn

Here’s another edition of “Ask Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

TechCrunch+ members receive access to weekly “Ask Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie,

I was accepted into a prestigious robotics engineering master’s program in the U.S. that begins in the fall! However, I heard the denial rate for F-1 student visas is increasing. Why? 

How can I increase my chances of being approved?

— Soon-to-Be Student

Dear Soon-to-Be,

Thank you for studying in the States! The U.S. needs and appreciates international students like you. This visa adjudication change will cost billions to the U.S. economy, and it’s a step backward with tech job vacancies growing and the swift rise of several emerging technologies. The United States is in critical need of international students like yourself to support our security and economy to remain competitive throughout this century.

I’ve got lots of tips and strategies for you, but before I dive in, some good news: Earlier this week, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) held an additional random selection round — or lottery — among the H-1B registrations that were submitted but not selected in the March lottery to meet the annual cap of 85,000 H-1B visas. The USCIS has notified the additional 77,609 registrations that were selected. (The USCIS selected 110,791 registrations in March.)

The second selection round could indicate that the number of cap-subject H-1B applications that the USCIS expected to receive by the June 30 deadline fell short of estimates, or, probably less likely, that the agency denied H-1B applications at a higher rate than expected. Decreased petitions would have likely stemmed from a combination of some continuing layoffs as well as the same candidates being entered into the lottery multiple times by separate companies, a change that the American Immigration Lawyers Association has proposed to DHS, which recently issued a brief response.

The F-1 is a great way to learn and grow in the United States. Studying in the U.S. and completing your degree also offers the opportunity to work in your field through F-1 OPT (optional practical training) and STEM OPT, the two-year extension of OPT. Last month, robotics engineering and seven other fields of study, including institutional research and composite materials technology, were added to the STEM Designated Degree Program List, now making you eligible for STEM OPT!

Now, about those declining F-1 approval rates — you’re correct: According to the Cato Institute, the denial rate for F-1 student visas jumped to an “unprecedented” 35% in 2022, compared to the 14% denial rate in all other nonimmigrant (temporary) visa categories, which include the H-1B specialty occupation visa and the O-1A extraordinary ability visa. Before 2021, F-1 student applications had a similar denial rate as other nonimmigrant visa applications. However, in 2021 and 2022, F-1 visas were denied at double the rate of all other nonimmigrant visas.

Students can apply for an F-1 visa only after they have been accepted into an approved university program, so “[t]his means that the U.S. Department of State turned down 220,676 students who would have likely paid roughly $30,000 per year or $6.6 billion per year in tuition and living expenses,” writes David Bier, the author of the Cato Institute report. “Over four years, that number rises to $26.4 billion in lost economic benefits to the United States.”

Let me dive into your questions, starting with the why.

Why is the F-1 denial rate increasing?

The State Department doesn’t specify the reasons for denying an F-1 visa. However, most consular officers deny nonimmigrant visas when you fail to prove in your visa interview that you have nonimmigrant intent, which means you only intend to remain in the U.S. temporarily and eventually plan to return to your home country.

Consular officers need to feel confident that you do not intend to remain permanently in the U.S. in order to grant you an F-1 visa. Listen to my chat with Mandy Feuerbacher, a former State Department consular officer, who discussed how to navigate visa interviews. Determining nonimmigrant intent is subjective. “Consular officers are supposed to only consider someone’s ‘present intent’ not considering how their intention might change if opportunities arise in the United States to stay legally,” writes Bier.

The Dignity Act, a comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform proposal recently introduced by Rep. Maria Salazar (R-FL) actually proposes to make the F-1 a dual-intent visa, which would be a wonderful solution for international students not only everywhere, but also in the United States.

Another reason for the higher denial rate is that the Biden administration retained a Trump-issued proclamation that prevents people who studied at any university that works with the Chinese military from getting a U.S. visa. This was the reason for about 2,000 visa denials in 2021, according to Cato, and likely explains about 1% of the F-1 visa denials in 2022.

In addition, the U.S. embassy and consulates in India are “far more likely to deny students than U.S. consulates in China,” says Bier. He points to a 2022 interview given by the head of the consular affairs division in India, who said an F-1 candidate must be prepared to provide an “elevator pitch” on why the school and the curriculum make sense to you.

“None of this information has anything to do with the legal requirements for a student visa,” writes Bier. But it “explains why India has a much higher than average student visa refusal rate even though Indian students are extremely successful in the United States.”

Now, let’s move on to my tips to improve your chances of success.

Tip #1: Apply for your F-1 ASAP

If you haven’t already, apply for your F-1 visa ASAP! I recommend that you work with an immigration attorney to assist you in filing your application. An attorney can also offer guidance through the interview process if you will be applying at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

Your institution’s designated school official (DSO) will provide you with Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status), which lists your program start date. An F-1 visa can be issued up to 120 days in advance of your start date, and you can enter the U.S. up to 30 days before your start date.

Before you apply for the F-1, you will need to pay the I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee. Some schools pay this fee for prospective students. To find out if this is the case, ask the DSO at your school. If your school paid the fee, you will need a copy of the payment confirmation, which can be printed from www.fmjfee.com.

Keep in mind that you will need to provide evidence, whether you apply from outside or inside the United States, showing that you can pay tuition and living expenses, have health insurance and are proficient in English.

If you are currently outside of the U.S., you will need to bring the I-20 signed by you and your DSO to your visa interview at the U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country and keep it with you during your time on an F-1. For the F-1 visa, you will need to:

  • Fill out Form DS-160 and pay the filing fee.
  • Pay the F-1 visa fee.
  • Schedule an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate.

It can take you anywhere from a few days to nearly two months to schedule a visa interview, depending on where. Use the State Department’s Visa Appointment Wait Times page to find out approximately how long until your interview.

If you are currently in the U.S. on another status, you can remain in the U.S. and apply for a change of status to an F-1 with premium processing. For an additional fee, the USCIS guarantees to make a decision on your case or issue a request for evidence within 30 days. Remember, you cannot begin attending classes until your F-1 status has been approved.

Tip #2: Show nonimmigrant intent

Although you may want to live and work permanently in the U.S. after graduation, individuals with the intent to immigrate to the U.S. are not eligible for F-1 visas. This is super important! F-1s are available only to those who demonstrate they intend to only stay temporarily in the U.S. — long enough to get a degree and receive training. Be proactive about discussing your family ties and connections to your home country, any property or business you have in your home country, and potential work opportunities at home after you graduate.

Tip #3: Ask if you qualify for an interview waiver

Consular officers have the ability — at least through the end of the year — to waive the visa interview for certain nonimmigrant visas, including the F-1. See if you qualify for a waiver, which is done on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the consular officer. It will save you a lot of time and energy if you can bypass the interview!

Tip #4: Make a good impression

If you are going through consular processing, arrive early to go through security and be on time for your interview. Practice making eye contact and answering questions that may be posed. Be honest, direct, confident and proactive. Be prepared to explain your academic plans and goals and why the academic program you’ve selected provides the education you need to meet your career goals.

You’ve got this!

Sophie


Have a question for Sophie? Ask it here. We reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and/or space.

Sophie Alcorn, founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley, California, is an award-winning Certified Specialist Attorney in Immigration and Nationality Law by the State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Sophie is passionate about transcending borders, expanding opportunity, and connecting the world by practicing compassionate, visionary, and expert immigration law. Connect with Sophie on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major platforms. If you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!

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