Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, 20, was arrested on Wednesday and is charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.
His list of targets allegedly included the house of former President George W Bush in Texas.
Judge Nancy Koenig said if convicted, he faces life in prison.
The judge asked Mr Aldawsari if he understood the charges against him and ordered him to remain in custody until an 11 March hearing.
The charge against Mr Aldawsari is based on the alleged purchase of chemicals and explosive-making equipment, and his research of potential US targets, prosecutors said.
The Texas home of former US President George W Bush was allegedly among targets eyed
Investigators said he ordered the toxic chemical phenol, which can be used to make explosives, telling the supplier he wanted it for “off-campus, personal research”.
The supplier became suspicious and reported the contact to the FBI; Mr Aldawsari later cancelled the order, the justice department said.
Mr Aldawsari planned to use a mobile telephone as a remote detonator and purchased other items to assist with bomb-making – a gas mask, hazardous materials suit, soldering iron, glass beakers and a stun gun, the justice department said.
In what investigators described as his diary, Mr Aldawsari wrote: “And now, after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.”
Mr Aldawsari drew up a list of US targets to attack, including Mr Bush’s Dallas residence and 12 reservoir dams in Colorado and California, investigators allege.