TSA and US Visa Requirements

This article describes the process, hopefully correct at time of writing, which one has to go through to get flight training in the USA. It is based on a list kindly supplied by a colleague in 2005, updated by myself (I followed the same process) in 2006 and since. It also mentions a few things which may apply to FAA training in the UK.

In 2017, US AOPA published this article local copy which also describes the process. It is worth reading that article together with this one.


To train in the USA you need the following:

1) TSA training permission

2) I-20 form

3) M-1 Visa

The TSA has to give permission to the chosen school to train you. The school also needs to issue the I-20. With the I-20 you can apply for the M-1 Visa.

However, the I-20 is needed only to get the Visa, and the TSA knows nothing about the I-20 or anything else to do with Visas. To save time, the process for the TSA and the Visa can be done concurrently.


Getting the Visa

1 Find a school to do your training with, and check they are able to provide you with an I-20 form. To issue an I-20, the school has to be a member of SEVIS which is a scheme embracing various US educational establishments (not just flight training). The list of SEVIS schools is here. There are many SEVIS schools in Florida, Arizona, California and elsewhere. I believe the school has to be FAA Part 141 (commercial training) approved to be in SEVIS, but I could be wrong. I chose Arizona because of the nearly perfect climate. It's best to avoid a school not used to foreign students, not least because it won't know the I-20 process. What I am not sure about is whether the school needs to receive the TSA training permission in order to issue the I-20; however one does the two things concurrently anyway.

2 Contact the school directly and get them to send you an I-20. Some will charge for this, mine charged US$250. Their process consists of them filling in some online forms and is very fast - reportedly "10 minutes" if they know how. They must send the form by a courier (e.g. Fedex) because if it gets lost they have to go through a bit of a process to ensure the lost one is destroyed before it can be generated again. Obviously, somebody needs to be at the UK address to sign for the package... Ask them to fax you a copy before they send it off, not that a faxed copy will be particularly useful if the original does get lost but at least you can see the form really exists. I had a problem with one school who claimed to have done it but they never faxed it.

3 Pay the US$100 SEVIS fee online here. ($200 reported in 2017). At the end of this process you are presented with a receipt which you must print out and present at the Embassy. Past Embassy letters used to include this URL but mine didn't, and it took some googling to find it.

4 Once you have the real I-20 in your hand look at this US Embassy link with respect to applying for a Visa and click on the link for how to schedule an interview.

5 Call 09055-444546 (this £1.20/minute number has recently changed to 0904-2450100) and schedule an appointment for a Visa (note that it can be a few weeks to get the appointment). Ensure you have no requirements to use your passport in the next 5-10 days after your appointment as you will need to leave it there.

6 A couple of days later you will receive a letter containing all the information you need for the appointment. This will point you to the US Embassy website where is an electronic version of the first form, DS-156. The DS-156 must be filled out online and the website then generates a PDF which you print out; this ensures that the correct bar code is generated within the form. The URL is here and the general URL for other forms is here. M1 visa applicants will also need a form DS-158 (which is downloaded as a PDF and completed conventionally) plus of course the I-20 from the school. Males 16-45 and some others will also need a DS-157; whether this is needed is described in the Embassy letter. Other requirements mentioned are evidence that you will return to the UK; these include bank statements showing sufficient funds for the course of study (plus living expenses) and evidence that you have a place to live in the UK. I phoned them about this and they were keen to see a mortgage statement showing that I was a homeowner; they also asked me about this at the interview and I pointed them to a mortgage statement. So, bring bank/savings statements showing at least a few grand, plus a mortgage/rent statement with your name on it.

7 Complete all of the forms as requested in the letter, pay your £63 visa fee (they send you a preprinted paying-in slip, you have to visit a bank branch for this) and keep the two stamped receipts.

8 Keep a copy of all completed forms and payments / receipts etc... and take the whole lot with you to the Embassy just in case.

9 Get a photo done, to the requirements given in the Embassy letter. These requirements are not the same as those for a UK passport! The Embassy letter gives details of various passport photographers familiar with the requirements. However it is OK to do the photo yourself with a digital camera and print it out with a good inkjet printer. It just has to be of good quality. I took mine with a 5 megapixel camera, then cropped it in Photoshop to meet the proportion etc requirements, and printed it out at 300dpi onto glossy paper.

10 On the day of the interview ensure you have cash with you to pay the courier for delivering your passport (and the I-20) back. The embassy letter I got mentions £9.50 but in fact the "in house" firm they use, called "SMS", offers various extra cost options such as before-10am and these cost up to about £30 extra. They give you a form where you fill in the desired delivery address, and they check right there that this name/company+address exists (so if it is a business you've just started up, problems....) and the package needs to be signed for (so perhaps no good giving your home address). You can nominate "anyone" to sign for the package but the person needs to provide your proof of identity which can be a utility bill, credit card, or a few other things. The interview is in two parts; a quick one (1-2 mins) and a later one (a few more mins), with anything up to 3 hours' waiting in between the two. The whole process is very smooth; they process about 500 people in one day with a system of about 20 interview kiosks. Lots of security, with fingerprints scanned at each kiosk.

11 The passport and the I-20 should be returned within a week or so. Mine came back after just 2 days. It was valid just one week past the end of the planned training; ending on the same date as the estimated training period given on the I-20 (1 month). One needs to watch this! The Visa also gives the name of the flying school, so at this point you may be well and truly stuffed if there is a problem with the school!


Getting the TSA Permission

1 Register with the TSA. This will consist of creating a new account, logging in, uploading scanned copies of your passport and providing them a bunch of information. Make sure the school is listed as SEVIS approved - see URL higher up. The TSA website contains a much bigger list of schools in its pulldown menu options but many of these cannot supply the I-20 form - without necessarily telling you or even being aware of it. No SEVIS means no M-1 Visa! The TSA is well organised and very helpful on their assistance email; I had to email them many times for various reasons and they nearly always responded within a day and sometimes within an hour.

2 The TSA will check with the school you identified in your application that you are booked in for doing the training there.

3 You'll receive an email in a couple of days saying that the training provider has acknowledged you as a potential student and tells you how to pay your fee online. Pay it with a credit card, $130. If you later change the school, you will lose this $130! I lost the $130 twice, once because the school (Scottsdale Flight Training, Arizona) was not in SEVIS (although they were listed as an approved school with the TSA; I suppose students who don't need a Visa can use them) and once because another school (CRM, Arizona) sent their I-20 by Fedex to a UK instructor (who they were using as their UK agent and they weren't communicating with me directly) who was not at home to sign for the package. Also, if one changes the school one needs to cancel the old training request and start a new one, and re-upload the passport photos, and one gets a new request to do the fingerprints (see below) so one has to email the TSA and ask them to transfer the fingerprints to the new request.

4 You'll then receive an email confirming payment receipt and an email with fingerprint instructions. You then need to here to find a fingerprint office. There are locations in Farnborough and Le Bourget and they're both by appointment only. You need to pre-enroll on this website for the specific collector and pay another fee then make an appointment. I did mine at Flight Safety in Farnborough (01252-554500) who didn't make any charge; apparently they get paid by TSA. They also faxed me the pre-enroll form because I didn't use the TSA URL above. However, I discovered later that the school I enrolled with, Chandler Air Service, Arizona, can do fingerprinting in-house so I could have saved myself the trouble; however this could delay training because the authorisation to commence training won't be given until the TSA has seen the fingerprints.

5 Once you've had your fingerprints taken they get sent off to the TSA and about a week or so later you'll get an email saying the application is in process with preliminary approval and then about another week later you'll get an email with "Permission to Initiate Training/Fingerprint receipt". This email should also go to your training provider, but ensure you take a copy with you to the USA as this is the email the school needs before they'll do any training.


Visa/TSA Exemptions

Training without an M-1 Visa

There are cases where there should be no Visa requirement. Unfortunately, they are difficult to establish categorically, for a number of reasons

a) "Flight training" is a highly emotive subject which always causes officials to err on the side of maximum caution (run for cover). Even the sight of an old long-expired flight training Visa in your passport draws time-consuming attention from U.S. Immigration when you re-visit the USA years later.

b) There is a complicated picture comprising of U.S. law, TSA counsel opinions, and other miscellaneous stuff which few people have even began to unravel. TSA permissions and Visas have been linked together in unclear ways.

c) Writing to 10 different US Embassy employees yields 10 different answers because they don't understand the rules either. An example of this is an email from the US Embassy (reference) which states "It may be possible for you to undertake the activities described without a student (F-1 or M-1) visa, if your period of study is less than 18 hours per week. However, flight training does have greater restrictions than regular courses of study. If you are to receive any form of certification or award as a result of your instruction, then you will require a visa."

d) No matter how right you may be under U.S. law, explaining this to the typical armed, aggressive and not particularly educated U.S. Immigration officer is completely pointless and will at best lead you into a lengthy interrogation session, so the only way to exercise any legal option is to not advertise to Immigration that you are going to do flight training.

e) The flying school needs to be receptive to your explanation of why a Visa is not required. Most will not be, due to a lack of interest or understanding. And if they decide to not play ball once you are out there, you have wasted your airline tickets and a lot of time.

The following are some random notes on the legality of training in the USA without a Visa. These are provided for readers who want to do additional research. Personally, I think pursuing this subject is largely pointless.

The relevant law on the M-1 Visa requirement versus how much study you are doing is 8 CFR 214.2(m)(9)(iii) which is here.

(9) Full course of study. Successful completion of the course of study must lead to the attainment of a specific educational or vocational objective. A full course of study as required by section 101(a)(15)(M)(i) of the Act means

(iii) Study in a vocational or other nonacademic curriculum, other than in a language training program except as provided in Sec. 214.3(a)(2)(iv), certified by a designated school official to consist of at least eighteen clock hours of attendance a week if the dominant part of the course of study consists of classroom instruction, or at least twenty-two clock hours a week if the dominant part of the course of study consists of shop or laboratory work; or.... [my bold]

Notwithstanding the core definition of the M visa (located at Sec. 101(15)(M) of INA) requiring a 'full time course of study,' there is no regulation requiring a flight school candidate who wishes to undertake a part-time course of study (viz, fewer than the hours required above) to obtain a vocational student visa (M-1). There is also no certification regulation requiring schools to offer a full-time course.

Aliens wanting to attend school on a part-time basis can enter the US with a B-1/B-2 visa if their school attendance is 'incidental' to a primary pleasure purpose. See Special Report from OIG, May 2002.

A visitor-only Visa is sufficient for a "short course of study of less than 18 hours per week" according to this reference. The primary reference is here local copy.

This March 28, 2005 opinion on the TSA website carries a strict interpretation of the Visa rules is here, however this is a proposal and it is not known whether this became law.

So, it appears that a course which falls under 18 hours per week (which will obviously be true for most flight training) should be Visa exempt.

Finally, if the candidate meets all the FAA logbook requirements and practical test standards, and has been signed off by a CFI/CFII as ready for the checkride, and all this has been done outside the USA, then additional flying in the USA (up to 10 hours maximum) does not need a Visa. I have a copy of an email from the TSA (14/9/2007) which confirms this is OK: you do not need approval to do your flight review before taking your checkride. As long as those 10 hours do not count toward your rating, you do not need AFSP approval. I had come across this in 2005 so it has been around for a long time, but it was only in 2007 that I have seen any written evidence of it. This "AFSP" concession appears to deal with TSA approval rather than Visas but since the two got coupled together a few years ago, it should be applicable to both.

An obvious case of no Visa requirement is if training outside the USA. FAA training in the UK however remains subject to the TSA requirements below.

Training without TSA permission

There are some clear TSA exemptions.

This AOPA link shows that below 12500lb these requirements apply only to flight training for a recreational pilot (applicable to US only), sport pilot (applicable to US only), private pilot (FAA PPL), instrument rating (FAA IR), or multiengine rating. A BFR, for example, is exempt. Training towards the FAA CPL is also exempt. To paraphrase the foregoing, only "Category 3" requires TSA (reference local copy) and this makes it clear that the Category 3 rule only applies to the initial Pilot Certificate (recreational, sport or private) the Multi-Engine rating and the IFR rating.

Another exemption is that if one's training commenced prior to 20 October 2004, reference local copy. Sufficient evidence for this should be an appropriate entry in the logbook (after all, what other evidence of training is there?) but it's obvious this could be debatable (both ways) because a particular logged flight could count towards any one or more of several FAA license/rating requirements and some of those may be TSA exempt as described above.

However, as with the Visa exemptions above, I would not like to have to explain these exemptions to the common type of US Immigration official...

See also UK Based FAA Training below.

US AOPA has published this summary (local PDF copy with hyperlinks not working) of the regulations.

There is a subtle catch if you are doing the FAA CPL but never had the FAA standalone PPL (had the piggyback PPL). Then you do need TSA, Visa - the lot. This is fairly obvious.


UK based FAA training

This is subject to TSA (fingerprinting, etc) but the situation is less clear and in any event it becomes partly moot if you are going to the USA eventually, at least for the checkride, in which case you need TSA approval anyway (to train at the place in the USA).

The above mentioned concessions from TSA still apply, e.g. the October 2004 one, and the specified categories of training.

The first complication is how to register with the TSA website; their pulldown menu of TSA approved schools appears unlikely to list a UK based training organisation or an individual instructor. However, it is possible for anybody, anywhere, including individual instructors (including those living outside the USA) to register with TSA.

A lot of flights made towards some FAA qualification are clearly multi-purpose and a particular flight could be claimed to be towards several qualifications, some of which are TSA exempt, e.g. the FAA CPL. This could cover a fair chunk of the FAA PPL or IR training, but not the 250nm IFR cross country flight which is required for the IR but is not required for the CPL. However, I am sure one could put together a flight (anywhere in Europe) which meets this 250nm IFR requirement.

A flight done in a G-reg with a EASA instructor, whose distance, subject matter and operating rules just happen to meet a particular FAA requirement, is obviously not subject to TSA. This is an obvious solution to the above 250nm IFR flight requirement, and plenty of others!! America is indeed amazingly generous in accepting foreign training.

The final practical point is whether somebody is ever going to be in a position to question whether some entry in your logbook, made perhaps years previously, was done in accordance with TSA requirements. The universal experience of myself and others appears to be that this doesn't get checked.

It's probably not possible to legally do an ab initio FAA PPL (where the pilot does not already hold another PPL entitling him to be PIC) in the UK. This is because the solo portion of an FAA PPL is done on a US Student Pilot License which is not valid outside the USA.

Update Feb 2008: Very important: When you have finished the U.S. training/checkride, make sure you get the school to advise Immigration and the TSA that you finished the course of study. Two years after I trained in the USA and got the IR, I went back for a brief business trip and was detained by U.S. Immigration who saw the long-expired flight training Visa in my passport, checked and somehow "found" that I did not complete the course and, presumably thinking I was another 9/11 terrorist, took me to a separate room and subjected me to treatment which was disgraceful even by their normal dubious standards. Sunsequently it turned out that the school who did not deliver the I-20 form (CRM in Arizona) had left a "training incomplete" statement on the TSA database. The TSA cannot do anything about this and if the school is unable to sort it out, there will be apparently permanent difficulties on future visits to the USA.

Update Feb 2013: This clarification is interesting.



It's a bit of a paperwork trail, but provided you initiate it a couple of months before going to the USA you should be fine.

Make absolutely sure you have a copy of the I-20 and the TSA training permission email with your passport (the passport containing the Visa, obviously) when you go to the USA.

It's advisable to not book the airliner flights to the USA until one has the I-20 in one's hands.


US Immigration Laws


Last edited 18th March 2017

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