A student visa is a small document that you attach to your passport when travelling to study abroad. It is issued by the government of the country where you are going to study. A student visa allows you to enter the country as an international student and stay while attending the nominated course.
Why do I need a student visa?
Almost every student who studies abroad travels on a student visa. It allows you to have an extended stay in the country where the course is being held.
A student visa may not be required if you are attending a short course and travel as a visitor/tourist. A student visa can also be avoided if there is a special travel agreement between the countries, allowing you to enter just using a passport.
How do I apply for a student visa?
The specific procedures for obtaining a student visa are set by the destination country and administered by its immigration officials. However, the basic procedure is similar across countries.
To apply for a student visa, you need a passport plus documentation showing you are enrolled in a course of study in the destination country (or have at least been offered a place). The university or college (or school) that you have applied for provides enrolment documentation.
For many countries, you can start applying for a student visa as soon as you have been offered a place in an approved course. But you may not be issued with a visa until you have accepted the offer and received confirmation of enrolment from the university or college. The course provider may ask you to pay a deposit towards tuition fees before confirming.
To be granted a student visa, you will normally have to produce several or more documents related to the application. These must be in the form required by immigration officials (such as original versions, translated copies and certified copies).
A key requirement is that you have enough funds to cover living costs for a year or, for courses less than a year, the duration of the course. To demonstrate this, you could show bank statements. Other documents that may be required include proof of identity, a medical certificate and evidence of English language skills.
Visa fees vary across countries but are only a small part of the cost of international study. The UK and Australia both aim to recover costs and charge around $500. The USA fee is $200, which is about the same as New Zealand. Canada has the lowest fee of slightly more than $100.
How different countries issue visas
Each country has its own method for issuing student visas. Here is a guide to compare student visa procedures by country.
For many students, New Zealand and Australia have the easiest procedures for getting a visa. Canada and the UK have perhaps the most challenging application requirements.
For all countries, you need to allow time for administration and possible delays. You should really start the application several months before the course is due to start.
The United States requires out-of-country applicants to attend an interview with a visa official. While attending an interview is an extra task, it helps avoid miscommunication problems. Interviews can be as short as a few minutes.
United Kingdom also requires applicants to attend an interview. The UK system is detailed compared to the US, making it generally more confusing. To do your own application, you must work through various levels of the UK Border Agency website.
Canada has a study permit system that is precise and puts the onus on applicants to get things right. Canadian Immigration asks for original documents, takes a long time to process applications, and returns applications that are incomplete in any way. It only issues a letter of introduction and temporary resident visa – so you travel to Canada without a study permit and trust that it will be issued when you arrive.
Australia has a streamlined process. Most student visa applications can be processed quickly if you have received and accepted a letter of offer from a university. Certified copies of documents are mailed or scanned so that originals do not have to be mailed back and forth.
New Zealand has a simple paper-based visa approval system. Almost any type of applicant should be able to apply for a New Zealand student visa without much trouble.
Student visas and working abroad
Student visas allow you to work abroad while studying. The visa conditions for doing paid work vary by country and, in some cases, can be limiting.
Studying abroad can also be a pathway to getting a professional job abroad after graduating and, eventually, becoming a permanent resident.