NOTE: This is not a legal resource and nothing in this article should be considered legal advice. Regulations and interpretations of law are constantly in flux. Seek appropriate legal support if you have questions regarding your visa application.
There are several types of non-U.S. resident visas that students should be aware of. International students interested in studying in American can apply for an F-1 (non-immigrant, “student”) visa, B1/B2 (non-immigrant, “tourism”) visa, J1 (non-immigrant, Exchange visitor) visa, and H1B (professional worker) visa. Each has specific documents, laws, and deadlines to follow. The amount of time before returning to one’s home country, types of work or activities that may be participated in, and regulations for spouses and loved ones differ per visa type.
Foreign applicants apply for admissions to U.S. medical schools from various foreign institutions across the world. The prospective applicant must be aware of the school’s application process as well as federal legal requirements and limits.
Depending upon the country of citizenship, the student may have to present immigration documents along with their respective foreign transcripts. It’s important to be aware of all application deadlines and complete Form I-20 well in advance as the application process may be delayed for numerous reasons.
All relevant documents need to be presented at the U.S Embassy with the learner’s official transcripts to receive F1 student status. Most American universities offer financial aid and visa application assistance for international students.
Contact the school’s financial aid department early on in the process to see what options may be provided. The United States Citizen and Immigration Services website had specific details for application processing and forms to fill out.
Why Don't Most Medical Schools Accept International Students?
International applicants from various countries apply to medical schools each year. The requirement for applicants can vary per university and institution. Only about 1/3 of US medical schools will accept foreign students so do your research well in advance if considering studying in the U.S. It requires much more paperwork and guidance on the part of the school as documentation requirements can vary by country of origin. This, plus constantly changing travel restrictions and political policies, makes international students a difficult task for school administrators.
Medical school admissions will require an active visa status for admissions. However, it’s an uphill battle as domestic students are often preferred over non-citizens. American schools can also be very expensive for foreign citizens as the financial aid policies vary. The institution and country of origin may influence the decision for institutional or private loans. Unfortunately, federal student aid is not provided to individuals on an immigrant visa. Non-US citizens are unable to receive need-based financial assistance for their courses within the U.S.
Pre-medical students often begin with the F-1 visa to apply to medical school. However, they may change to different types of visas during their medical education. Different visas may allow more work opportunities, different durations of stay, or decrease restrictions for spouses and family members.
Types of Visas for International Medical Students and Graduates
International medical students and graduates can generally apply to a U.S medical school after successful completion of their MBBS or bachelor of science equivalent plus one year of study at an American institution. Canadian applicants can apply after the completion of their studies at a Canadian post-secondary institution. Make sure to verify any school requirements depending on your country of origin ahead of time and begin gathering documentation early.
Foreign medical students who graduate from international universities should consider their J-1 or H1B visa needs well in advance to prevent delays in their education. H1B and J1 visa requirements for a medical degree can be complex, leading to many gaps in one’s education. Many IMGs transfer to several countries for undergraduate work, medical school, and then finally practice in America after completion of their USMLE Step exams. The documentation, potential delays, and travel between each stage can be difficult to navigate and expensive.
Plan ahead for medical residency applications as well. An Education Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) certification along with an offer letter from a U.S residency program will be required to maintain your visa status. Depending upon their country of origin, there is an annual cap for H-1B applicants, which can lead to a green card. If you plan on becoming a permanent resident, this is the visa type you will want to attain. Seek counseling and support to limit application errors and delays.
The duration of an H-1b visa is 3 years which can be extended for another 3 years depending upon their medical residency evaluation reports, income documentation, and training individuals requirement. This is a common route for trainees to gain permanent residence and continue on to graduate medical education (GME).
While those on J-1 visas have a mandatory two-year home-country physical presence requirements after completion of their program requirements. The J-1 visa can be extended for an additional 3 years if the applicant applies for a fellowship program. But, the applicant still has to go back to their country of origin after completion of their program requirements. However, they may apply for the J-1 visa waiver, which waives the requirement for the two-year home-country physical presence requirement.
A B1 visa is sometimes an option for medical learners in certain circumstances. This type of visa can also lead to a green card which provides long-term benefit to applicants. With this form of visa, family members are able to attain a B2 and join the medical trainee while they visit on a temporary basis.
Those who are undocumented individuals and do not possess a valid passport can continue their education and apply for citizen via the DREAM Act legislation introduced in 2001, officially known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Institutions like the Stanford School of Medicine accept undocumented individuals who meet all the program requirements. The DACA program allows qualified applicants to matriculate into accepting universities.
Services for Medical School Application for IMGs
A wide range of services are provided to international medical school applicants. It involves a secondary application for scholarships and financial aid provided by their respective schools. The services vary depending upon medical school location as some U.S-curriculum-based schools are located in the Caribbean. Students who graduated out of an international institution with the appropriate science coursework and baccalaureate studies are given preference for admission.
International students receive assistance from various support groups at their respective universities who guide them towards recommended courses and start with their medical studies. Prospective students need to present documents such as a copy of their original passport, proof of funds to costs of education, etc. during the common application process. Official documentation needs to be evaluated by professional assessing agencies as recommended by their respective university. Applicants from Canada can send their Canadian post-secondary institution’s official transcript as well to be considered for admissions.
Married students may receive special considerations from the Office for International Students and Services (OISS) at their respective universities. They can apply for visas for their spouse and children under a J-2 dependent visa which allows them to enter the U.S legally with their partner. Under the J-2 visa consideration, children must be younger than 21 years old.
Applicants under J-1 visa are termed “exchange visitors” and their spouses are eligible to apply for employment. While spouses of students under F1 visa cannot gain employment in the U.S. Dependents should refrain from illegal employment as it can lead to legal complications or deportation.
Depending on the financial aid policy of the respective institution, international students may be eligible to apply for loans, scholarships, and assistance from various organizations. To be eligible for additional scholarships and funding, international students may write entrance medical examinations like MCAT and secure high scores. Foreign students can also seek the assistance of OISS to overcome language barriers as they undergo strenuous training with hours of coursework during their medical training.
The visa process for temporary or permanent residency in America is a complicated and constantly changing course to navigate. Like most things in medicine (and life) proper advanced planning is one of the best tools in your toolbox. Gathering documentation, taking examinations, and the application process itself can be very time-consuming and fraught with delays. This summary may give some guidance to the basic differences for each visa type. However, we do recommend seeking professional or legal services for specific questions. Best wishes on your path to becoming an international physician!