Congratulations on your admission to Caltech! At International Student Programs (ISP), we are excited to be a part of your academic journey and to welcome you to Caltech. We will provide you the necessary immigration document (I-20 for F-1 or DS-2019 for J-1) to apply for a student visa and to enter and study in the United States. We will be available to answer your questions prior to your arrival on campus and all the way through your first few years of post-graduation employment in the United States, if that is something you are eligible for and wish to pursue. Let's start at the beginning. To receive your immigration document, review the information below, then complete the ISP Intake Form.
Requesting Immigration Support from ISP
An F-1 student is a nonimmigrant pursuing a course of study to achieve a specific educational objective at an academic institution in the United States. F-1 status is most common for international students in the United States. F-1 students are issued Form I-20 from the U.S. academic institution. The I-20 lists the institution, academic major, program start date and end dates, and other details. The I-20 is used to obtain an F-1 visa from a U.S. Consulate and must be presented upon entry to the United States.*
A J-1 student is considered a nonimmigrant "Exchange Visitor" pursuing a course of study at a U.S. institution, referred to as the "Program Sponsor." J-1 students are issued Form DS-2019 from the U.S. academic institution. The DS-2019 lists the institution, academic major, program start date and end dates, and other details. The DS-2019 is used to obtain a J-1 visa from a U.S. Consulate and must be presented upon entry to the United States.*
SEVIS is the Student & Exchange Visitor Information System and is the U.S. government's web-based system through which international advisors (also known as Designated School Officials), such as ISP, can issue the I-20 or DS-2019. We often refer to the I-20 or DS-2019 simply as the "SEVIS document" or "SEVIS record."
ISP will issue the I-20 for F-1 status as is most common for Caltech international students, for both degree-seeking students and non-degree students. However, in some very limited cases, the DS-2019 for J-1 student status may be preferred or required. Read through some considerations below.
- The majority of a J-1 student's funding must come from any source OTHER THAN personal or family funds. F-1 status does not have this restriction.
- Some U.S. schools will only accept school-to-school SEVIS transfers of non-degree students in J-1 status. If you plan to attend another U.S. institution after your non-degree program at Caltech, notify ISP.
- J-1 visa may carry a longer period of validity than an F-1 visa for some individuals. Visa validity and associated fees are based on U.S. Visa Reciprocity by Country: Select your country of citizenship, then select F-1 or J-1 to compare and contrast.
- J-1 status may be required for students funded by their home country government or funded by a U.S. government source, such as Fulbright.
- Married students often prefer J-1 status, because the J-2 spouse can study full-time and get a job in the United States, whereas the F-2 spouse cannot do either.
- Some J-1 students and their J-2 dependents may become subject to a Two Year Home Residency Requirement, also known by the regulatory code 212(e).
- J-1 students and their J-2 dependents must maintain medical insurance coverage that complies with the U.S. Department of State requirements. The Caltech Student medical insurance (for degree-seeking students only) complies with J-1 regulation, but if a student prefers an alternative medical plan, it must comply with regulation. Read more about J insurance.
- J-1 and F-1 degree-seeking students may be eligible for up to 3 years of post-graduation work authorization in the United States. F-1 students pay significant application fees to USCIS for post-graduation work authorization; whereas, there is no fee for J-1 work authorization. However, F-1 status permits significantly more opportunities for internship employment prior to graduation.
- J-1 status is location-specific.and requires ISP to report all work site locations in SEVIS. J-1s must be onsite and in-person, with no telework/remote work permitted.
The differences between F-1 and J-1 status can be nuanced. ISP is available to discuss these with you. Contact us through our shared ISP office email account.
* Canadian citizens are exempt from the visa but still require the I-20 or DS-2019 and SEVIS I-901 Fee payment.
A SEVIS Transfer refers to the electronic movement of an international student's Active I-20 or Active DS-2019 from one U.S. school to another U.S. school. SEVIS Transfers are only applicable to Active F-1 and Active J-1 students moving from one U.S. school to another U.S. school.
If you do not currently hold an Active SEVIS record (I-20 or DS-2019), you are not eligible for a SEVIS Transfer. Possession of a valid F-1 or J-1 visa is not sufficient; the SEVIS record must also be valid and Active to be eligible for SEVIS Transfer.
Eligible for SEVIS Transfer to Caltech? Read SEVIS Transfer Fact, below.
SEVIS Transfer Facts:
- SEVIS Transfer must be initiated by your transfer-out school's international advisor within 60 days of your program completion date or OPT end date, whichever is earlier.
- SEVIS Transfer regulations require that you begin the new academic program within 5 months of your previous program's completion date or OPT end date, whichever is earlier.
- SEVIS Transfer students can travel outside of the United States and re-enter on the new school's SEVIS record, but they are not required to travel between school programs.
- The SEVIS Number remains the same, so there is no need to pay the I-901 Fee again.
- The I-20 issued by ISP will indicate the Form Issue Reason as "Transfer Pending." U.S. re-entry on a Transfer-Pending I-20 is not limited to 30 days prior to the new program start date, as it is for students entering on an Initial SEVIS record. After you check in on campus at Caltech, ISP will register your SEVIS record and issue you the updated I-20 showing Form Issue Reason as "Continued Attendance."
Action Steps for SEVIS Transfer-Eligible Students:
- Inform your current school's international advisor that you need your SEVIS record transferred to Caltech. The advisor does NOT need to sign anything for Caltech, but they will need the Caltech School Code which can be found on the ISP SEVIS Transfer Release Form.
- Determine your SEVIS Transfer Release Date - the date on which ISP will have access to create your Caltech I-20 or DS-2019.
- Complete the SEVIS Transfer Release Form to alert ISP of your Release Date.
- Complete the ISP Intake Form (see below)
Immigration requires that schools assess each student's ability to meet estimated academic and living expenses in the United States before issuing an I-20 or DS-2019. You will be asked to upload a copy of your proof of funding in the ISP Intake Form. Financial support documents can be in your name or in the name of a family member or other sponsor. Upload a Caltech Financial Aid Award Letter, if applicable. Exception: Students whose official Caltech admission letter indicates full funding from Caltech are exempt.
Estimated 2023-2024 Cost of Attendance
International students should plan for additional costs that are not factored into the required Proof of Funding above. These may include but are not limited to:
- Visa Processing Fee: Also known as the MRV Fee. Currently $160 but will increase to $185 by May 2023. Payable online to the U.S. Department of State when scheduling your F-1 or J-1 nonimmigrant visa appointment via Form DS-160.
- SEVIS I-901 Fee: Payable online to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after the SEVIS document is issued and before the visa interview. At the time of publication, this fee is $350 for F-1 and $220 for J-1. NOTE: For citizens of some countries, the SEVIS I-901 Fee must be paid by someone within the United States. If this applies to you, contact ISP for assistance.
- Airfare to United States
- Ground transportation from the airport to Caltech campus (approximately $125 for taxi service, perhaps less through rideshare apps)
Click to Complete: ISP Intake Form
Caltech Admission Letter
Proof of Funding
ISP can usually produce a SEVIS document *within one week* of receiving the completed ISP Intake Form or *within one week* of the SEVIS Transfer Release Date, if SEVIS-Transfer eligible.
When the SEVIS document is produced, you will receive an email with an attached, signed PDF with instructions on how to apply for your visa. Electronically transmitted documents, signed by ISP are valid. Paper documents will not be mailed.
Canadian citizens are not required to obtain a visa but must still carry the printed I-20 or DS-2019 and SEVIS I-901 Fee Receipt when entering the United States.
Understanding the Visa Process
Form DS-160: Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application
We cannot provide individualized assistance as the DS-160 is a personal form, but here are some general tips:
- Answer truthfully and to the best of your ability.
- When asked who is paying for your trip, enter the person or entity paying your airfare or other transportation costs.
- If asked to indicate where you will stay upon arrival, you may use Caltech's campus address if you expect to live on campus: 1200 E California Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91125.
- When asked to list two contacts in the United States, you may include:
- ISP staff contact who signed your SEVIS document | Address: 1200 E California Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91125 | Phone: 626-395-6330
- Admissions or Department contact listed on your Caltech admission letter
- Retain a printed copy of your Confirmation Page after successful submission of Form DS-160.
Review Visa Appointment Wait Times by City and Status (F-1 or J-1).
Schedule your appointment through the Department of State Visa Appointment Service. Click on nonimmigrant visa applicant, and then select your country and language. Follow the steps on the website to schedule your appointment.
If the interview date is too far into the future, accept it anyway. You can try again and again to obtain an earlier date, once you have an initial date scheduled.
Some students may not require an in-person visa interview, at the discretion and policy of the U.S. consulate or embassy.
Follow any additional instructions available online for the U.S. embassy or U.S. consulate where you intend to apply.
After receiving your SEVIS document and after scheduling your visa interview, you can pay your SEVIS I-901 Fee online at fmjfee.com no less than 3 business days before your visa interview.
- Use the information on your I-20 to fill out the required information.
- Do not pay additional fees to expedite processing.
- Print out your receipt, available as PDF immediately after payment.
For more information and guidance on paying the SEVIS I-901 Fee, visit the Study in the States.
Important: For citizens of some countries, the SEVIS I-901 Fee must be paid by someone within the United States. If this applies to you, contact ISP for assistance.
Canadian citizens are not required to obtain a visa but must still pay the SEVIS I-901 Fee at least 3 days prior to entering the United States.
Documents to bring:
- Confirmation Page from the completed Form DS-160
- SEVIS I-901 Fee Receipt
- One 2" x 2" color photograph of yourself, taken within the last 6 months
- Proof of funding (this can include letters of financial aid or bank statements for yourself or your family).
- I-20 or DS-2019 SEVIS document, printed and signed on Page 1
- Admission Letter
At the interview:
- Arrive early to give yourself time to get through security procedures.
- The exact structure of the visa interview may differ per individual officer, country, or consulate.
- Typically, fingerprints are taken before you meet with a consular officer for the interview and document review.
- The officer may ask questions, such as why you are coming to the United States, and what you plan to study.
A more comprehensive guide can be found on the travel.state.gov website, particularly regarding:
- Gather Required Documentation
- Additional Documentation May be Required
- Attend Your Visa Interview
Visa processing times may differ per individual applicant, citizenship, field of study, or consulate.
It is common for incoming Caltech students to experience some visa issuance delay. If you complete the visa interview and are notified by the U.S. consulate that your visa must undergo "administrative processing," notify ISP.
While there is nothing that Caltech can do to directly to expedite the issuance of a visa, we can request that our district's congressional representative (U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu) make an inquiry through the congressional liaison to the U.S. Department of State. This inquiry will confirm that your application is in process and it will alert our Congresswoman to the ongoing problem of visa delays.
Visa validity and associated fees are based on the U.S. reciprocity table. Visit U.S. Visa Reciprocity by Country. Select your country of citizenship, then select F-1 orJ-1 to find the expected visa issuance fee and validity period for that visa type.
The F-1 or J-1 visa needs to be valid on the date that you enter the United States. Once inside the United States, the F-1 or J-1 visa is allowed to expire. You can remain inside the United States on an expired F-1 or J-1 visa as long as you are otherwise maintaining your status and hold a valid I-20 (F-1) or DS-2019 (J-1). You would only need to apply for a new visa if you have departed the United States and will need to present a new, valid visa for your U.S. re-entry.
On an Initial I-20 or DS-2019, you may enter the United States up to 30 days prior to the Program Start Date as printed on the SEVIS document (SEVIS Transfer students exempt). The earliest entry date is automatically determined by SEVIS as 30 days prior to the program start date and will appear on an I-20. Failure to enter on or before the Program Start Date may result in delay or denial of U.S. entry. Contact ISP if your arrival will be delayed, as we may need to update your I-20 or DS-2019 Program Start Date.
Important: Although you may be admitted to the United States within 30 days of your program start date, carefully review your Caltech Housing Agreement to know when you will be permitted to enter Caltech housing, if eligible.
Recommended: We recommend that you know when Caltech Dining Services (campus cafeterias and cafes) will be available to you. Undergraduate students should note when your on-campus Board Program begins.
Note: ISP is not involved with Housing or Dining Services.
Students have successfully used any valid F-1 visa to enter the United States. Schools across the United States continue to advise F-1 students that "a valid visa is a valid visa." The decision to apply for a new F-1 visa is yours to make, but we do understand the difficulties related to visa interview wait times and delays in visa issuance.
If your valid visa is in an expired passport, you can carry two passports - both the valid passport and the expired passport with the valid visa.
J-1 students should consult ISP directly to learn if a previously-issued J-1 visa can be used for re-entry on a Caltech DS-2019.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
The passport should be valid for at least six months beyond the U.S. entry date. It is not expected to be valid for the entire degree program or length of stay in the United States. You must monitor your passport expiration date and apply for a passport renewal when needed.
If your valid visa is in an expired passport, you can carry two passports - both the valid passport and the expired passport with the valid visa.
Carry the following documents so that they are accessible upon arrival for U.S. immigration review at your port of entry:
- Passport with valid Visa
- Printed SEVIS document (I-20 or DS-2019)
- Printed SEVIS I-901 Fee Receipt (downloadable from fmjfee.com)
- Printed Caltech Admission/Decision Letter
On-campus housing is available for first-year degree-seeking students through Caltech Housing.
On-campus housing is available for SURF participants, managed through Student-Faculty Programs (SFP).
Visiting Student Researchers (VSR) and Special Students should seek housing in the local community.
ISP is not able to assist with on-campus or off-campus housing inquiries.
Bedding/Linens: "When you first arrive at Caltech, you will be given a bed with just a mattress. You can buy new bedding from nearby stores, such as TJ Maxx, Ross, or Target. If you prefer to bring your own bedding from home, you will need to know that the beds here are Twin XL size (38" x 80"), which is not standard sizing for many countries outside of the United States."
Clothes for Varying Temperatures: "Although Southern California has a reputation for having sunny weather year round, it's actually not true. Yes, it gets very hot during the day, but Pasadena can also get quite cold at night and even the days can be cold (and even rainy) during the winter months."
U.S. Currency: "When you first arrive in the U.S., you won't have access to an American credit card or a U.S. bank account immediately. To avoid any expensive foreign currency conversion fees, be sure to bring some spending money in U.S. currency for your initial expenses for food and setting up your room or apartment."
Tips provided by Orientation Leader, Luna Brooker (United Kingdom), Class of 2025
Be sure to check out our Relocation page for banking, places to eat, and stores near campus!
The Office of Graduate Studies (Grad Office) manages and approves graduate students' academic program start dates. ISP cannot change the official admission issued by the Grad Office. In very rare cases, the Grad Office may grant a new PhD student an academic program start date prior to the Fall term start date.
If you wish to change your academic program start date, you must confirm this directly with your Caltech academic department - who must make the official request to the Grad Office.
- ISP is not involved in the admissions process. ISP is not notified when an early-admission is granted; therefore, you must submit to ISP your revised academic admission letter. ISP cannot issue immigration support documents (or edit an already-issued I-20 or DS-2019) before receiving a copy of your updated admission letter.
- If a summer admission date is granted by the Grad Office, they will admit you initially as a "Special Student NonDegree" for the summer months.
- The initial SEVIS document must reflect the true academic program start date according to your official admission letter issued by the Grad Office. This means that, if your admission letter admits you for a NonDegree program, ISP must create the I-20 or DS-2019 for the NonDegree program. The program end date listed on the I-20 or DS-2019 will be approximately September 1, 2023.
- You will present the NonDegree SEVIS document for your visa application.
- You will present the NonDegree SEVIS document for your U.S. entry.
- Once you are on campus, and after you completed the NonDegree program, ISP will update that SAME SEVIS record and reissue it to you so that it properly reflects your change from NonDegree to PHD. It will be the SAME record – SAME SEVIS number. No additional SEVIS I-901 Fee; No additional visa needed.
Visa validity and associated fees are based on the U.S. reciprocity table, not on the length of the I-20. Visit U.S. Visa Reciprocity by Country. Select your country of citizenship, then select F-1 orJ-1 to find the expected visa issuance fee and validity period for that visa type.
Still interested in coming early? Consult your academic department, as they must make the official request to the Grad Office on your behalf.
Note: There is no early start for MS or BS degree students.
For Degree-Seeking Students
iBegin@Caltech is Caltech's mandatory orientation for international degree-seeking students, taking place September 14 - 16, 2023. All new international students must attend iBegin@Caltech as well as the Undergraduate or Graduate Orientation immediately following.
ISP will host Question & Answer (Q&A) sessions to assist degree-seeking students with immigration-related matters. These are optional, open-ended, informal sessions so that you can hopefully meet each other and learn from each other's questions. The sessions will be conducted on Zoom, and we hope that to see your faces! Dates and times to be posted below. We plan the sessions in two main groups – one for SEVIS Transfer students who currently hold an Active SEVIS record and two sessions for all new students who will receive an Initial SEVIS record from ISP. Zoom links will be sent from ISP to all via email.