[Update January 2018: Read the new LLM GUIDE article on US Student Visas for LL.M. Students.]
Once you get into a US LL.M. program, the next step is getting a student visa. Here is some info youll need to know.
What sort of visa do I need to study in the USA?
The most common type of visa for university students in the USA is the F-1 student visa, a so-called non-immigrant (meaning basically temporary) visa.
What are the requirements for this visa?
In order to obtain the F-1 visa, you need: 1) to be enrolled in a program; 2) the program must be full-time academic education (as opposed to, e.g., vocational training), and 3) it must be an approved educational program. Most LL.M. programs at major US universities likely meet these requirements, but be sure to check with your university.
In addition, you should be prepared to demonstrate that you do not have immigrant intent, meaning that you should be ready to show that you have a foreign residence where you intend to return after you finish your studies, as well as the intent to return when your program is completed. It is very helpful to demonstrate ties to your home country, such as family, job, or even a bank account. If you are found to have immigrant intent, your visa may be denied.
Moreover, you need to demonstrate that you will have sufficient funds to support yourself and not become dependent on public assistance during your time studying in the USA. (More on this below)
Finally, you need to be proficient in English. Your university will have its own English proficiency requirements, and will have determined whether you have met these requirements before you are accepted. All this information will be indicated on Form I-20, which the university will issue you before you apply for the visa.
When should I apply for a US student visa?
You can apply for the F-1 visa as soon as you are accepted to the program, are issued the I-20, and are in possession of the rest of the necessary documentation. Of course, it is better to apply as early as possible to allow for potentially lengthy processing times. Please note, however, that consulates will not issue the visa until 120 days before the start date of your program as indicated on the I-20. They may hold your application until the 120-day mark.
Moreover, under US immigration law you will not be permitted to travel on the student visa until 30 days before the start of your program. If you absolutely must travel before this date, you may apply for a visitors visa, and explain that you want to arrive early in order to take up a course of study. However, you may run into problems subsequently changing your status from visitor into F-1 student in the United States. In addition, citizens of visa-waiver countries (including most European countries) must still apply for a visitors visa in order to change later into a student visa, as the passport stamp given to nationals of visa waiver countries cannot be converted.
How do I apply for an F-1 visa? What documents do I need?
Please see the links to the official US government websites at the end of this article.
Can I work while I am on a student visa?
In principle, you are permitted to work only on the university campus with an F-1 student visa. This means a job that is associated with the university, either directly for the university or an independent contractor providing services directly to students. Off-campus work may be permitted in cases of severe economic hardship that is through no fault of the student, after the student has been enrolled for one year. F-1 students may, depending on their specific situation, also be eligible for part-time employment in the form of Optional Practical Training (OPT) during their studies, after they have been enrolled for one full year. (See below for more information about OPT)
Of course, you should make sure that any work you undertake does not interfere with your status as a full-time student, such as by not allowing you to maintain a full course load. Moreover, you are required to demonstrate at the time of applying for your visa that you have sufficient funds to support yourself. This means that if you do not already have an on-campus job offer from the university or institution where you will be studying, then you will likely be required to demonstrate that your funding will come from sources other than employment.
What happens to my visa after I complete my studies?
F-1 student visas are usually issued on a duration of status basis, meaning that as long as you maintain your status as a full-time student, your visa is valid. However, if at any point you are found to be violating this status (either by working full-time, on an unauthorized basis, by decreasing your course load to below full-time status, or by any other means), then your visa may be revoked and/or deportation proceedings may be initiated against you.
Once you have completed your studies, you have 60 days to arrange for your departure from the United States.
Do I get to stay in the USA for a year after completing my LL.M.?
You do not automatically get one year in the USA after completing a course of study. Depending on your exact situation, you may, however, be able to apply for an employment authorization document for Optional Practical Training (OPT), or temporary employment (paid or unpaid) directly related to your course of study, for up to a year after completion of your requirements for your degree. If you have been authorized for OPT during your studies, however, this will be deducted from the time you are allowed to work after completion of your degree, up to a total of one year.
What if I want to stay and work afterward can I do that?
F-1 students may, in principle, apply either to change their status to non-immigrant worker (visas such as H-1B or O-1), or to adjust their status to lawful permanent resident based on an offer of employment. However, these applications pose complex issues, and may require you to return to your home country. You should consult with an immigration lawyer for information specific to your situation.
What's the deal with the US economic recovery plan restricting employment of foreign workers?
The recently-enacted legislation known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 does provide for certain restrictions on the issuance of H-1B visas to foreign workers. Any company receiving government bailout funds will be subject to stricter controls regarding laying off US workers and ensuring that no qualified US workers are available before being able to hire a foreign worker legally on an H-1B visa.
However, law firms are not likely to receive federal funding under the existing US economic recovery programs. As a result, this may not be relevant for individuals seeking US legal employment (except with financial services firms or as in-house counsel). Moreover, the rule is currently set to expire within two years (it could, however, be extended).
Are there any exceptions to these rules for nationals of certain countries?
Canadians and citizens and residents of some island nations are visa-exempt. This means they do not need to apply in advance for a student visa, but must apply at the US port of entry for student or exchange visitor status.
Please be advised that the above is general information and should not be considered legal advice. Each case is different and the US immigration laws are extremely complex. To receive advice specific to your situation, please consult with a qualified immigration lawyer.
Ilona Stanley is a self-employed lawyer based in Berlin, Germany, and specializing in US immigration law.
Image: "Residency Paperwork for Argentina" by Beatrice Murch / Flickr (cropped and rotated)