The F1 Visa Interview:
The most crucial endeavor before the epilogue of your Grad Journey in your home country.
The F-1 Visa Interview process is among the final steps in the successful transition to a graduate program (or even undergraduate program) in the US that makes most international students anxious and nervous. To be fair and honest😅, it indeed poses a make-or-break situation for international students before they can depart to pursue the program of their dreams. However, the hype😑 created by "always there to help you" telegram groups, visa agents, or even YouTube videos is unnecessary🙅♂️ and often leads to distress😓. In this blog, I would be walking you through my experience🏃♂️ of getting an F1 Visa approved for pursuing my Masters in Data Science at Columbia starting Fall 2021. Additionally, I'll enlist a handful of tips⚡ and Dos/Don'ts😎 that will make your F1 Visa Interview experience much smoother and less intimidating🥺.
🔱So what is the F-1 Interview exactly about?
You might be wondering that if you already have an admission letter📜 from your desired graduate (or undergraduate) school🏫, have the finances💲 to pursue that path, got your passport📇, so what did you just book the appointment for?
Well, the F-1 visa stamp is needed on your passport before you arrive in the US and the interview🛂 is conducted to ensure that you are eligible to visit the US under the student visa category, have the appropriate means💸 to carry out your academic endeavors, and would not potentially violate 😈 the terms under which you are offered entry in the United States.
Now, that we are aware of what the F-1 Visa interview is about, let's dive into further details. The process is divided into two phases:
- Biometrics Appointment📷 ( also known as VAC Appointment): This appointment is quite straightforward. You need to visit the US Visa Application Center where you booked the appointment and provide biometrics(like facial images, fingerprints) for future authentication.
- Consular Appointment 🗣(also known as VI Appointment): This is the D-Day a lot of international students are worried about. You visit the US Visa Consulate where you booked the appointment and interview with a consular officer for a few minutes who decides whether or not you should be given an F1 Visa.
In India, these two appointments are usually on separate calendar days with a minimum of a 1-day gap and a maximum of 15 days. In certain countries, both appointments might be conducted on the same day. Please check the guidelines for your location at US Travel Docs. Additionally, it is fine if your Biometric and Consular Interviews are in different cities. However, I would advise you to attempt to book the appointment slots at VAC and VI centers nearest to your current residence for convenience.
In my case, the interval between the Biometric and Consular appointments was about 12 days. Since at the time of applying I lived in Kolkata I made sure that both of them were in Kolkata🏙 to avoid traveling to a different state during the pandemic. However, if it was a non-pandemic year I might have booked them in Chennai🛕 or Bangalore👩💻 so that I can attend the interviews along with my batchmates🤼♂️ (Our undergrad institution was in Chennai) and visit🥾fantastic places in the process. Perhaps, that would have been our mini pre-departure vacation.
🔱 Okay..Now tell me what should I carry to the appointment centers?
I have seen a lot of students who are confused about the documents that they should be carrying to the Biometric and Consular appointments till the very moment they enter the center. This is something I would like to help you avoid.
First and foremost, you must have a valid Passport. Make sure your details (like name, date of birth, permanent residence address) are accurate. I would advise you to apply for a new Passport beforehand in case you have 2 or 3 years left before expiry.
Next, you need to have a dedicated folder to carry your documents (This is not necessary but is definitely useful since you would be carrying several vital documents and have to maintain them even during your time in the US). I would advise you to buy a decent quality multi-pocket folder from Flipkart or Amazon as shown below.
You might be wondering, "Why not just go to my local stationery store and grab a 20 INR worth file?". Firstly, those ones don't last long. Secondly, the purpose of the pockets is to ensure that you can quickly take out a document during the interview (which is of limited time) without having to bother about the others. Lastly, it is easier for you to keep your documents organized.
Is this compulsory? Not at all. You can very well proceed without it and not have any issues! In case you are getting this, try to grab the one which has 25-30 pockets so that you can put several documents related to your Visa there. You can grab these at local stores as well but I preferred just ordering a set of 2 online for around 320 INR. In my observation, Flipkart provided better deals for similar products. If you click on the image above, you will be redirected to the one I purchased. (Keep in mind, I am not endorsing any product here)
C. Essential Documents:
- DS-160 Form Confirmation Page: This is not the actual DS-160 form that you filled online but the confirmation page that you got after submitting it.
- Appointment Confirmation: Of course, if you have a reservation at a place you definitely need to carry the booking confirmation. In case you have not downloaded that, you can grab it from the US Visa Portal.
- SEVIS Fee Receipt: If you forgot to download it or have not paid it yet, you can do it from US ICE's website.
- I-20: This is crucial for the Visa officer to look at the details of your program
- MRV Fee Receipt: The receipt of the payment of your Visa Fees
Financial Document(s): Any documents that would support your tuition and living expenses during your time in the US. The most common ones are:
- a letter from the Bank stating your Savings/Fixed Deposits/Provident Funds
Stocks, Bonds, Real Estate or Solvency letters from banks are usually not the ones that are accepted for the purpose.
- Admit Letter: Yes, that document in the email or your college application portal that paved the path ahead for you a few months/weeks back.
-> In case your parent(s) or relative(s) serving as your sponsor, you need to grab the support financial documents for their savings/fixed deposits/provident funds if you don't have a loan.
-> It is perfectly okay to either have personal (or sponsor's) savings or a loan letter or a combination of both for financial support proof. The officers are just interested to know if you have the means at your disposal.
Additional Documents (There are things I would suggest you carry in addition to the above for the purpose of occasional verification purpose if you already have them but do not waste time in grabbing them if you don't):
- TOEFL Score Card
- GRE Score Card (If you have not given the exam, you don't need to worry about carrying it or think about appearing for the GRE just for the purpose of the appointments)
- Final Transcripts from previous University or Educational Institution ( It is alright if you are about to graduate and only have them till the second last semester that you used while applying to grad school)
- Provisional Degree/Migration Certificate/Transfer Certificate/Degree from previous University or Educational Institution ( Again, if you are about to graduate it is alright if you have just one of these or in fact none)
- Salary Slips and/or Income Tax Returns (If you have been working after graduating. Don't worry if you just graduated. They rarely ask for these even for people who are employed full time for the last 4 years)
- Resume: You would anyway need some physical copies of your resume for applying to internships or TA/RA positions in the US after a few months. So why not carry them in case the officer is really impressed with your background and wants to know more about you?
- Certificates of Past Internships: Maybe you are really proud of some internships you did in the past which influenced your decision to pursue a grad program in the US. Perhaps you can carry the certificates/letters from those previous employers to showcase them to the officer.
- Other Admit Letters: Maybe you got some other really cool admits about which you would like to discuss. So why not carry the letters for the same and showcase them to the officer?
I did have immunization documents (MMR/Meningitis/Influenza related documents which are required for registration of courses in a US university) and Covid-19 Vaccine Certificates as well. However, these are never required. The sole purpose of having those was to make sure all the documents I would need during entry in the US and my housing after that were in one place. Additionally, I had my housing booking confirmation too with me for the reason.
I arranged the folder in a fashion such that the essential documents were at the beginning followed by the supporting ones and the miscellaneous ones like housing confirmation and vaccination documents at the end.
I have seen some applicants using small sticky notes for each pocket. Personally speaking, I would not advise doing that because that might make the folder difficult to use later on and spoil the pockets. If you are arranging the documents, you would definitely know which one is where. Just count on that.
I did not carry my internship/freelance certificates since I maintain a different folder for them
Please carry original physical copies of the above documents. There is absolutely no need to have photocopies.
For the purpose of avoiding any last-minute troubles, I created a dedicated folder on my Google Drive and uploaded scanned copies of all the above documents so that if any of them are missing before the appointment, I can quickly print them out from a nearby store for a few bucks. But do keep in mind, that you are not allowed to carry the mobile phone inside the appointment centers.
🔱Okay, that makes sense. So what happens on the appointment dates?
Let's split this into two subsections:
1) Biometric Appointment
- You reach the appointment center
I would strongly suggest reaching either on time or 15 min before. There is absolutely no benefit in reaching earlier than that unless you want to waste time participating in a group of students and their companions discussing all improbable ways of getting rejected and thereby lowering your own confidence and eventually affecting your positive attitude for the day.
- Wait in the queue(s) which are ordered according to your time slots.
For example: If your allocated time slot is 2:15 pm in the afternoon, the current time is 1:50 p.m., the folks having a 2:00 p.m. slot will automatically be allowed to stand in front of you irrespective of your arrival time at the place.
- Keep your passport and DS-160 in your hand and do not take out any other documents from the folder.
- The security personnel will check your passport number and name against the entries in their list and let you in according to your time slot.
You might need to sign in with your details in a physical register at the point of entry.
- Inside the center premises, you would be again requested to stand in a queue.
This time there is no order since all of you are in the time slot. So FCFS is the rule. Please don't fight or struggle to get ahead in a line of 15-20 people as the efforts won't be worth it.
- Do keep in mind as you enter the office in the building, you are not allowed to have anything except your documents. Any kind of consumer electronic products including cell phones are strictly prohibited inside.
They might allow you in some of the centers to enter with your mobile phone switched off. However, I would suggest against counting on it. Rather while you enter the consulate, try to grab a paid locker (will charge 500INR) nearby to put your belongings or hand them over to a person whom to brought with you to accompany you and wait for you outside. If you are witty enough, carry a small backpack(an anti-theft design would be preferred) and enter the premises. After that on the ground floor or before entering the main building, hide it in a corner that is under CCTV supervision but not openly exposed to everyone. Do keep in mind, this is not for everyone and is risky too.
- Now, once you enter the building/office you would be requested to comply with a basic security scan.
In Kolkata, the personnel at the security checkpoint inside are quite jolly and would greet you with a warm message to boost your confidence.
- After that, you would be asked to submit your Passport and DS-160 to an officer at the kiosk who would verify the correctness of the details you provided and put a stamp on your DS-160
- Following this you would be requested to stand in queues of five-eight people leading to four-eight counters where a visa officer would be present on the other side of a glass separation and interact with you with the help of a microphone/speaker system.
- When you arrive at the counter, greet them with a smile and hand over your passport and DS-160 through the window opening.
- You might be asked to state your full name, date of birth, and permanent address so that they have verbal confirmation from you. Additionally, the officer would request you to read the privacy and other stuff-related agreement printed on the counter. Just glance over it. You don't need to worry much about it.
- Now, you would be requested to lower your mask(if you are in a pandemic year), position your head at a particular angle and height so that they can take a picture for your Visa.
Don't panic if you are asked to repeat this multiple times. At the time of my appointment, I had put on 40 pounds of extra weight due to poor diet over a year at home during the pandemic and had a cute yet bloated smiling face which was not something they had positioned the camera for when they took a snap of the person who appeared before me. It took 4 retakes for getting the desired result.
- After that you would be requested, to place your right hand's four fingers followed by your left hand's four fingers and finally both the thumbs on a fingerprint scanner. This is quite straightforward.
The person on the counter next to the one I was giving my biometrics had a difficulty in giving the imprints of their left hand's fingers. The issue was that the applicant before her had too much sanitizer on her hand which was introduced to the surface of the fingerprint scanner unknowingly. This lady could not figure that out instantly and the officer was constantly telling her that it was due to the sweat in her hands although that was never the case. In such scenarios, do not panic and lose your temper, just request the officer for a tissue. If you see someone in a similar situation, please don't hesitate to help out.
- After this both your DS-160 and passport would be returned and you would follow a randomly ordered queue to the exit
The exit door at the Kolkata center is a bit weird and requires a strong push to open😅
- Don't forget to collect your belongings before heading towards home or some other location.
Woohoo! 🎉🎉You are 50% done with the visa process and it was really smooth. Well, guess what? The next 50% is going to be exactly the same with an added two-six minute conversation. So you just had the perfect trial run🏋️♀️!
I would advise you to visit both the VAC and VI centers a week before if possible so that you are comfortable getting to the location on the date of appointment. I drove to both my appointments so this helped me decide the routes I would take and the at which time I should leave from my house. If you are going to a different city and this is not possible, try to get the information from some acquaintances who already reside there (This should be easy as some friend/relative/colleague for most of us are situated in Kolkata/Delhi/Mumbai/Chennai/Hyderabad). Otherwise, just check out the routes on Google Map and leave 10 min early depending on the traffic scenario in the particular city.
2) Consular Appointment
The first five steps are exactly the same as for the biometric appointment.
- A lot of people seem to have unrealistic notions about this and spread unrequired information about the same.
- I went in a Black Polo-T shirt👕 and Beige-colored Shorts🩳 and got the job done. While there were people who were sweating in the summer heat of Kolkata wearing full-fledged formal suits and could not confidently speak to get approval.
- So should you emulate me or the hundreds of blogs/youtube videos online for this? The answer is none. Let me decode this for you.
- Your sole purpose of the visit is to ensure the Visa Officer has enough confidence in you and your future goals so that he/she/they can approve your visa. You are there for a very short conversation to leave an impression and not making a fashion statement or letting them know how dapper you are in business meetings.
- Wear an outfit🎽 that is really comfortable and makes you feel good about yourself so that every conversation you have is filled with positive vibes. This can be formals for someone, semi-formals for a group of people, and casuals for another group. Only you can decide what works for you.
- However, avoid wearing any outfit in which you would not be answering the door or going out on a date/dinner with your friends.
- Honestly speaking, I wanted to wear my chinos and semi-formal shirt. However, the night before the VI appointment I had an hour-long debate over a product decision with a colleague of mine which was eventually extended till midnight and I did not have the time to iron my clothes.
Last minute fears😫 and tips😉:
- Please do not waste time in getting new tips the day or the morning before your appointment. You are more than prepared for this.
- Things can go wrong w.r.t timings and other planned stuff so be prepared for it as you handle it on any other day.
- As I mentioned, I was occupied till midnight the day before my interview which was not something I had anticipated. So I decided not to sleep as my interview was in just 6 hours. I watched a short movie, did some Yoga+Workout, took a bath, checked my documents, woke up Dad, and drove to the center.
After the security check, you would be directed to another room where you be requested to sit (during the pandemic you would be requested to stand in spots that are 6 feet away). An officer would check in your details using your DS-160 and Passport while you are waiting there.
You would be requested to proceed to the interview room in certain numbers via an announcement. This room would be similar to that of the Biometric Appointment Counters except that the separation between the counters would be more sophisticated and people would be speaking in a lower tone.
Proceed to the counter which is empty by the time you reach the end of the queue. For some consulates, this is predetermined by the staff there according to your order of arrival in the room. Either way please do not worry about it. Keep your I-20, Passport, DS-160 in your hand. Stop thinking about what others are saying and focus on the cool decoration around you.
Once in front of the counter, greet the VISA officer, hand him/her/them the I-20, DS-160 and Passport and proceed with the flow of conversation. Remember they want to learn about you and not test your skills/patience. So do not treat that as an interview as you do it for jobs.
If the VISA officer is satisfied, within a few minutes, the officer would ask you to place your thumbs for the biometric check, return the I-20 and DS-160 and request to collect the passport after few days. DAMN! you got it. 🎉
In case the VISA officer returns the passport and provides a slip, it indicates that you would either need to produce more documentation or reapply. Please do not break down or lose your temper. This is not something that you can't deal with.
In either of the two situations, thank the officer for his/her/their time and exit as suggested by the staff there.
🔱My VI Appointment experience:
I won't reiterate the details which I already shared above. I'll dive directly into interaction with Visa Officer (at Kolkata Consulate):
The officer greeted me from the distance while standing on the other side of the counter even before I could say a word. He seemed to be bustling with energy and had a warm welcoming attitude
As I approached the counter, he greeted "Hey! Good Morning. How are you doing today?". I replied with a smile and asked about his day.
Passed my Passport, DS-160, and I-20.
He proceeded, "So tell me about your visit?". I nodded and explained my plans of pursuing a Master's program in Data Science at Columbia, the research I wish to perform.
I was about to explain about the courseware when he interrupted and asked me, "Wow that's great. How do you plan to sponsor it?"
I replied with the details of my father being my primary sponsor and along with my own investments/savings related details.
Midway through that conversation, he smiled once again and said, "Safe Journey to NYC. I am approving your Visa. You will get it in a couple of days. Don't forget to try the bagels and pizza there".
He handed back my I-20 and DS-160
I left the premises with the same smile on my face I entered with and proceeded to collect my belongings.
The entire interaction was hardly 30-40s long. However, there were candidates whose interaction lasted for about 3-4 minutes at the adjacent counter. So please do not worry about the time you are being allocated to express your intentions.
- Once the VI appointment is over, you should try to do something that gives you some relief for the rest of the day. If you visited a new different city, proceed to explore different tourist attractions (of course by following Covid-19 protocols) or eat a delicious brunch/dinner at a popular food joint.
If you came to Kolkata for either Biometric or Consular Appointment (the centers for both of which are located in Shakespeare Sarani, I would advise dining at a fancy restaurant at Park Street like Sizzler's + Chelo Platter at Peter Cat). In case you are not in the mood of exploring an exotic dish, you can visit Bachans' Dhaba which is a 10 min drive away, and have a plate of Aloo Paratha + Lassi.
To check the status of your Visa, visit this portal, select Non-Immigrant Visa, your VI Consulate Location and enter your DS-160 number for the Applicant ID.
In case you opted for premium delivery, you can track the progress on CGI Portal.
- Note: Soon I would be adding a section or writing a separate blog on the questions you can expect to encounter during the VI appointment
- PERSONAL ADVICE😉: Avoid wasting money by registering for any Visa Interview Prep Course or Counselling Service. You can easily do this by yourself. If you are not confident about it then request a friend/family member to do a mock interview for you.
If this blog was useful for your grad journey🚵♀️, please do upvote👍 and share your experience on LinkedIn. Feel free to tag me. Do let me know if there is anything I can help out with.
🛑DISCLAIMER🛑: I am associated neither with the US government nor any of its agencies/departments. Also, I am not a part of any commercial/voluntary visa application service and do not endorse any such service directly or indirectly through this blog. In case you need more information or have queries about the process, please reach out to the US Visa Consulate in your nation.
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