Ask Sophie: Any tips for F-1 student visa approval amid the rising denial rate?

Here’s another edition of “Ask Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

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Dear Sophie,

I was accepted into a prestigious robotics engineering master’s program in the U.S. that begins in the fall! However, I heard the denial rate for F-1 student visas is increasing. Why? 

How can I increase my chances of being approved?

— Soon-to-Be Student

Dear Soon-to-Be,

Thank you for studying in the States! The U.S. needs and appreciates international students like you. This visa adjudication change will cost billions to the U.S. economy, and it’s a step backward with tech job vacancies growing and the swift rise of several emerging technologies. The United States is in critical need of international students like yourself to support our security and economy to remain competitive throughout this century.

I’ve got lots of tips and strategies for you, but before I dive in, some good news: Earlier this week, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) held an additional random selection round — or lottery — among the H-1B registrations that were submitted but not selected in the March lottery to meet the annual cap of 85,000 H-1B visas. The USCIS has notified the additional 77,609 registrations that were selected. (The USCIS selected 110,791 registrations in March.)

The second selection round could indicate that the number of cap-subject H-1B applications that the USCIS expected to receive by the June 30 deadline fell short of estimates, or, probably less likely, that the agency denied H-1B applications at a higher rate than expected. Decreased petitions would have likely stemmed from a combination of some continuing layoffs as well as the same candidates being entered into the lottery multiple times by separate companies, a change that the American Immigration Lawyers Association has proposed to DHS, which recently issued a brief response.

The F-1 is a great way to learn and grow in the United States. Studying in the U.S. and completing your degree also offers the opportunity to work in your field through F-1 OPT (optional practical training) and STEM OPT, the two-year extension of OPT. Last month, robotics engineering and seven other fields of study, including institutional research and composite materials technology, were added to the STEM Designated Degree Program List, now making you eligible for STEM OPT!

Now, about those declining F-1 approval rates — you’re correct: According to the Cato Institute, the denial rate for F-1 student visas jumped to an “unprecedented” 35% in 2022, compared to the 14% denial rate in all other nonimmigrant (temporary) visa categories, which include the H-1B specialty occupation visa and the O-1A extraordinary ability visa. Before 2021, F-1 student applications had a similar denial rate as other nonimmigrant visa applications. However, in 2021 and 2022, F-1 visas were denied at double the rate of all other nonimmigrant visas.

Students can apply for an F-1 visa only after they have been accepted into an approved university program, so “[t]his means that the U.S. Department of State turned down 220,676 students who would have likely paid roughly $30,000 per year or $6.6 billion per year in tuition and living expenses,” writes David Bier, the author of the Cato Institute report. “Over four years, that number rises to $26.4 billion in lost economic benefits to the United States.”

Let me dive into your questions, starting with the why.

Why is the F-1 denial rate increasing?

The State Department doesn’t specify the reasons for denying an F-1 visa. However, most consular officers deny nonimmigrant visas when you fail to prove in your visa interview that you have nonimmigrant intent, which means you only intend to remain in the U.S. temporarily and eventually plan to return to your home country.


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