Deciding to study abroad is the easy part (I think everyone should!). Checking off everything you need to do in order to actually study abroad is the hard part! Prior to departure you will have tons of paperwork to fill out and lots of things to think about, like insurance, medical requirements, and packing (oh the packing). You will also need to secure a study visa.
Americans are pretty lucky when it comes to visas and travel. Very few countries most Americans travel to for vacation require a visa for entry. So we simply aren't used to having to get one. For as much as I have travelled and studied abroad, I never needed a visa until now (well I needed one for Turkey, but you purchased it for $20 when you got off the plane, so it felt more like an entrance fee than a visa). For example, Americans get 90 days in any Schengen country in the EU without a visa, but if you are from Ecuador (like the very nice lady I met at the consulate) you'll need a visa just to visit Italy for a two-week vacation.
Applying for a study visa can be a confusing and overwhelming process, and the worst part is that it is different for every. single. country. Fortunately, the template of what you'll need and the basic process are the same for most countries. I thought I would share what I learned through the process.
Last week I traveled to Miami to secure my study visa for Italy and thanks to a lot of research and planning it was a seamless process (my visa was in hand five days later!). This is the first thing you should note, unless you live in New York, Chicago, Miami, or L.A. you might have to travel to get your visa since many countries require you to appear in person. Italy is one of those countries. I was lucky that Miami was nearby, but it was still 4.5 hours away and I wanted to make sure I was prepared so I didn't have to make the trip more than once.
So here we go...
(Make sure you start the process at least two months prior to your departure date! Some countries, however, will only allow you to apply within a 90 day window prior to departure.)
Step 1 - Search online for the border agency website for your host country. This is where you will find entry requirements and the application. You can find Italy's here.
Step 2 - Gather the specific materials your host country asks for. These should be listed on their website and will generally (remember it is different for every country) consist of the following:
- A completed application.
- A letter from your university or institution in the host country confirming that you are studying abroad with an accredited institution (in many cases this can be a language school) or have been awarded a research grant. This will need to be printed on official letterhead and signed. If the document needs to be mailed from the host country, make sure you budget enough time.
- Proof of financial means or assistance. Countries want to make sure you can afford to not only study abroad, but also afford to return home. Sometimes these amounts are crazy and a bit arbitrary, for example Italy would like to see 2,000 euros for every month you will be living in country. Most of us don't have this kind of cash sitting in our bank account. There are a couple of ways around this. You can show proof of financial aid (contact your financial aid office) or you can ask a family member to transfer the funds until your official bank statement arrives and then you can transfer the money back. If you will be receiving a stipend from a grant, you will need an official letter confirming how much you will be receiving each month/week/etc.
- Proof of medical insurance while abroad. I also highly recommend purchasing some sort of travel insurance to cover non-medical emergencies or travel hiccups.
- Your passport. If you don't have a passport, you need to get it before you apply for your visa. So make sure you give yourself enough time to apply for your passport and visa if necessary (that means at least three months!). Also make sure you won't need your passport in the next couple weeks, since you will leave it with the consulate/embassy.
- Additional passport photos. You will need to bring (or send) extra photos for the visa.
- An acceptable form of payment. Yes you have to pay for your travel visa (prices depend on the host country). Make sure you check how you need to pay. Italy only accepted cashier checks. If you show up with the wrong form of payment, they will send you away!
Step 3 - Send in your materials or travel to your host country's consulate or embassy. Whether mailing in your application or appearing in person, odds are they will send your visa (already placed inside your passport,) in the mail. It helps to bring a self-addressed envelope or money to pay for shipping.
If you want to learn more about the visa process, this is a great site. And this is a great post about getting a study visa for the U.K. Finally, don't forget that your study abroad coordinator at your university is your best friend as you prepare to study abroad!
I have heard lots of visa horror stories over the years, but being prepared and doing your homework makes it a pretty seamless process.
Does anyone else have tips for applying for a student visa, or studying abroad in general?