The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted travel and immigration to the United States. Please refer to this article for the most up-to-date information and links to official sources.

Many founders of billion-dollar startups in the United States have something in common with some of the world’s most famous political leaders:

Their experience as international students in American colleges and universities. According to the Institute for International Education, almost 1.1 million international students from around the world attended American schools in the 2017-2018 school year. New York and Boston were two of the most popular destinations for international students, with New York’s New School and Boston’s Boston University each having more than 20% international students in their ranks.


Applying for college or graduate school can be tough enough already—between the application essays, the different kinds of standardized tests, submission of transcripts, resumes, reference letters, and proof of your awards and achievements. However, planning and preparing early can help reduce the stress of the transition process, so that students can quickly focus on excelling in their courses and research.

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  • 12 months

    A year ahead is a great time to understand what programs are available in a desired area of study, their application requirements, deadlines, and any requirements for test scores like the SAT, the GRE, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). If your application includes documents in non-English languages, these may need to be officially translated and submitted with the originals. You should also contact your references for their letters of recommendation.

    This is also the best time to research scholarships and grants from private, corporate, nonprofit, and government organizations. Institutional aid can be limited, especially for international undergraduate students. It’s important to calculate how much tuition and living expenses will be for the length of your programs, especially in high-cost cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston, as well as determine what savings, loans and other financial resources you will need to draw from.

  • 6 months

    At this point, you should have heard from the program(s) you have applied to, especially if the start date is in August or September. If you have been accepted, this is the time to determine if you will attend, reject, or defer. Some programs will adjust financial aid allocations based on rejections and deferments. While most students come to the US through the F-1 visa, the J-1 might also be an option. Here’s a comparison chart between the two visa types.

    Applications for housing through your institution should also be open at this time. While allotment may be limited and preference given to students traveling the farthest distance to campus, it is always best to apply early.

    If you need to book flights, temporary accommodations, moving services, or car rentals, this is the best time to do so. In dense cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston, these services can become more expensive the closer you get to your move date, so booking early can save you a lot of money and stress. The first week of many undergraduate and graduate programs is a peak travel period.

  • 3 months

    After paying the enrollment fee for your chosen program and gathering the financial information for how you will pay for tuition, fees and living expenses for the first academic year, you will need to apply for a Certificate of Eligibility (COE) through your academic institution. F-1 students will need to request an I-20, while J-1 students will need an DS-2019. You may also need to submit a copy of your admission letter, the identification page of your passport, a copy of your I-94 arrival record, as well as proof of pre-payment of processing and shipping fees.

    Unless you are transferring from another U.S. school with an unexpired entry visa, you will need to apply for your actual student visa with the U.S. State Department. (Citizens of Canada and Bermuda are exempt from this, but still need a COE.)

    First, complete the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (DS-160). Then book the visa appointment at your local embassy or consulate. Make sure to look up any procedures or requirements specific to the location you have chosen.

    Both F-1 and J-1 visa applicants need to have a valid passport, acceptance letter, COE from their educational institution, financial documents, and proof they have paid their I-901 Fee to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the visa appointment. Applicants also need to be prepared to show they do not intend to permanently immigrate to the United States after their academic program is finished.

    This is also the time period to accept or reject any housing assignments given by your educational institution. Acceptance will often require a deposit. If you are waitlisted or have rejected your housing assignment, this is a great time to apply to alternative living arrangements like International House or research other off-campus housing options. Boston, New York, and Chicago have robust International House offerings, as do many other cities with major research universities.

  • 1 MONTH

    This is the earliest you are allowed to enter the United States prior to the beginning of your program. Some students choose to use this extra time to find an apartment, explore their new locations, or settle into their living arrangements. It’s also a great time to double-check the information on your visa and all of your paperwork is correct, confirm travel arrangements, purchase back-to-school supplies, pack, and go over any recommended reading material.

HSBC commissioned this article. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of HSBC.