As Iranian student Azadeh tells me about the rumors that circulated among her friends about how to get a student visa to the U.S., she sounds like the foreign students I’ve encountered on so many internet forums.
“People say that if she takes the, for example, the yellow page it means she’s going to issue the visa for you, if she takes the blue one it means she’s gonna reject you.”
But there’s one rumor Azadeh tells me that’s unlikely to go around in other countries:
“Everybody says, ‘Oh don’t go to Dubai,'” Azadeh says of her friends back in Iran. “‘They don’t give you a visa. Everybody that went to Cyprus they got it, but in Dubai it’s so much harder.'”
Where to go to get a visa is just one hurdle students applying to the U.S. from Iran encounter that most other international students never have to consider. There’s no U.S. embassy or consulate in Iran, so students have to travel to one of a select number of neighboring countries where the embassy will accept Iranian applicants.
Azadeh is a 3rd year PhD student in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland. We meet to talk about what it’s like to apply from Iran to study in the U.S., and are joined by the EducationUSA Iran advisor (who asked to remain anonymous).
A common ambition
Azadeh and the EducationUSA advisor agree that studying abroad is as highly valued among Iranian students as among students anywhere. It’s particularly common among high-achieving Iranian students, says Azadeh:
I can say that almost 90% of my friends are now overseas – the friends from my undergrad school. There’s a very big motivation in people in good universities in Iran to apply for their graduate school in different countries.
Azadeh laughs as she says the only reason she didn’t come to America sooner is that she was “lazier” than her friends. I find that hard to believe as she tells me she researched American universities by putting together an Excel spreadsheet with information about every school she was interested in.
Ultimately, though, she says:
When I made my mind about to apply there, I just thought of some universities that are located in some specific areas that I had some friends or family or someone close by. It’s not a good criteria actually, but for me it worked very well.”
“I was so lucky because I just applied one, and I got it.
However, the politics between America and Iran can complicate matters. When I ask Azadeh whether studying in the U.S. is viewed negatively by any in Iran because of the political relationship between the countries, she says no, but adds, “There are few people that are very…what should I say? Politics people?”
She looks for guidance to the advisor, who fills in the rest:
The relationship because of the politics, you’re right that they may not see it as a good thing. And that is a problem because those people are usually the people that students go to to get their transcripts translated, to get their transcripts stamped and certified. And those are the people who create obstacles as soon as they find out the student is trying to plan to come to the US for the study.
Contacting the United States, paying admission fees online, because of the politics … there are always problems you can feel in every step of the way.
Azadeh and the advisor tell me the mail between Iran and the U.S. is unreliable, which can make something as simple as sending money between the two countries prohibitively difficult.
“I had this problem, and everybody has it, since they have to pay the application fee somehow, they have to send their documentations,” Azadeh says, and proceeds to tell her story of applying for her F-1 visa:
On going to the embassy: There is no American embassy in my country. So we have to go to other countries to apply. For some reason that I don’t know, the number of countries that we can apply for getting visa is very limited.
If I wanted to go to Cyprus, I needed a visa for Cyprus as well. And if I want to get the visa they ask me for financial support. There are some other issues for a single lady traveling abroad for some countries. They ask you to have one of your parents with you.
And then I just quit and go, ‘Ok I’m going to go to Dubai.’ It’s easier for me. And everybody says, ‘Oh don’t go to Dubai. It’s much more harder to get a visa.’ … And I didn’t care. I said, Ok, I don’t have time, I have to go to Dubai, so bye.
On her visa interview: Less than 5 minutes. She just asked me, what is your plan after graduation? And I was talking about my plan after my graduation, and that’s it.
On getting her visa cleared: My visa took like 3 months to be cleared and I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that happened to me. I had no idea it was going to be more than 2 weeks or so. Actually, I quit my job, I moved out my apartment, and I sold my car, everything was ready to fly to U.S. and it was not cleared.
So I missed the semester for that and I had to defer it. And it was my second time to defer a semester because first time I didn’t get the funding in the first admission and I asked for the funding and had to wait a semester to get the funding.
On getting her I-20: I got my I-20 twice, because the first time I missed it because of the visa problem, and then when my visa was cleared I had to get another I-20. And both two times was a headache.
The first time I asked my friend, she used to live here, to grab it for me and post it to Dubai – the place that I was supposed to go for interview at U.S. embassy. She posted it there and I was lucky because I had some other friends there and I used their address and got it easily. But it was my luck. If you don’t have them, you have to just wait to see if you can get it at home or not.
The second time that I asked for the new I-20, I asked someone who was traveling from here to Iran to bring it for me and I went there and got it.
A full year after she was supposed to start at the University of Maryland, Azadeh finally began her PhD studies. Even then, her visa problems were not over. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this story, in which Azadeh talks about the struggle of having a single-entry visa, and what the recent decision to allow Iranian students to receive multiple-entry visas will mean for her.
Azadeh says thinking about the visa process still stresses her out. “When I came here, even after 2 years, I was having bad dreams that I was stuck without a visa in my country and I cannot come back,” she says.
“It’s a very bad feeling that I still have.”
Submit your own stories about education or studying in the US in the comments or using the form below.