The purpose of the J-1 visa, also known as an Exchange Visitor visa, is to develop a global understanding through educational and cultural exchanges, especially in the arts, sciences, and education. All J-1 visa holders are expected to return to their home country to share their new experiences and knowledge. This program is not intended as a path for immigration, but it is a great path for foreigners who would like to have a long-term experience in the United States.
What is a J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa?
A J-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa issued by the United States to research scholars, professors and exchange visitors participating in programs that promote cultural exchange, especially to obtain medical or business training within the U.S. All applicants must meet eligibility criteria, English language requirements, and be sponsored either by a university, private sector or government program.
The J-1 classification is assigned to foreigners participating in an approved program for teaching, instructing or lecturing, studying, observing, conducting research, consulting, demonstrating special skills, receiving training, or receiving a graduate medical education or similar training.
Common examples of exchange visitors include, but are not limited to:
- Research assistants
- Government visitor
- Professors or scholars
- Nannies/Au pairs
- Camp counselors
Am I eligible for a J-1 visa?
Before you decide to apply for a J-1 visa, you should make sure that you are eligible. Sponsors will have specific eligibility criteria for their program. In addition to this, all exchange visitors must meet the language and insurance requirements, meaning that participants must be proficient in the English language and that participants and their accompanying family members must have medical insurance with a minimum benefit requirement. Your sponsor will provide you with pre-arrival information and a post-arrival orientation with program-specific information and any contractual obligations, in addition to monitoring your progress and well-being during your stay. You should contact them with questions about the English proficiency and insurance benefit levels required for your program.
How much does it cost to apply for a J-1 visa?
In addition to meeting eligibility criteria, you are required to pay certain fees. You will need to pay the $160 nonimmigrant visa application processing fee, unless you are sponsored by the U.S. government in which case the fee is exempt. This fee needs to be paid before your interview, and you will need to provide a receipt showing the fee has been paid. The program sponsor should also tell you if you must pay a SEVIS I-901 fee to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but often the sponsor will pay the fee for you. If your sponsor pays the SEVIS, they will provide you with a receipt confirming payment. Be aware that there may be other fees for your program, such as an application processing fee.
How do I apply for an exchange visitor program?
Applying for any visa is a complicated task, but the process for a J-1 visa can be broken down into 3 basic steps.
1. Find a Sponsor
You first need to find a program and a sponsor. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) is responsible for the Exchange Visitor Program, and they approve public and private organizations to act as sponsors for exchange visitors. All approved options are on the designated sponsor list. First, decide on a program, and then research the listed sponsoring organization. Each sponsor will have a different application process so call their office or search their website for more information.
Remember that your sponsor is vital to your experience as an exchange visitor. They should provide you with the information necessary to successful complete your program and to smoothly transition to living in the U.S. Additionally, your sponsor also has the ability to terminate your participation with the approval of the DOS. Be smart when selecting a program and a sponsor to ensure your needs and goals align with their services.
2. Receive a DS-2019 Form
Once a sponsoring organization accepts your application, they will send you a Form DS-2019, also known as a Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status. This form permits a prospective exchange visitor to schedule an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate to obtain a J-1 visa to enter the United States. The Form DS-2019 also provides a brief description of the exchange visitor’s program, including the start and end date, category of exchange, and an estimate of the cost of the exchange program.
You should work closely with your sponsoring organization who will help you through the application process. An official who is authorized to issue Form DS-2019 is known as a Responsible Officer (RO) or Alternate Responsible Officer (ARO). The RO or ARO in your sponsoring organization will explain what documents are needed from you in order for them to issue you a Form DS-2019.
3. U.S. Embassy or Consulate Application
After you have obtained a Form DS-2019, you may then apply for a J-1 visa through the U.S. Department of State at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
You will need to do 3 things to apply:
- Complete the online J-1 Visa application (DS-160).
- Print the application form confirmation page to bring to your interview.
- Pay the nonimmigrant visa application processing fee.
- Gather required documents (list below).
- Attend an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate (if you are age 14 through 79, with exceptions).
The waiting time for an interview appointment for applicants can vary, so submit your visa application as early as possible. Remember, though, that you may not enter the United States in J-1 status more than 30 days before your program begins.
During your visa interview, the officer will determine whether you qualify for the visa. You should also expect your fingerprints to be taken (ink-free). You will need to establish that you meet the requirements under U.S. law to receive the category of visa for which you are applying by showing the required documentation. After your interview, your application may need further processing, and you will be informed by the officer if this is the case. When the visa is eventually approved, you will be informed how your passport with your visa will be returned to you. Be sure to plan ahead because you may not receive your visa right away.
Here is a list of required documents you need to bring to the interview:
- Your Form DS-2019 (Certificate of Eligibility) issued by your program sponsor.
- A valid passport (note: must be valid for at least six months beyond your program end date).
- A printed out Form DS-160 confirmation page.
- A receipt showing payment of the visa application fee (note: this fee in non-refundable)
- A 2×2 photograph that meets format requirements.
- Other supporting documents – check the specific embassy or consulate website
Note that all trainee or intern applicants also submit a Training/Internship Placement Plan, Form DS-7002.
For most detailed information on the application process, visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ exchange visitor visa website or the Department of State’s exchange visitor program website. For information on making a visa interview appointment, paying the application processing fee, and more, visit the U.S. embassy or consulate website where you will apply for your visa.
How long can I stay in the United States with a J-1 visa?
You are allowed to stay in the United States up to 30 days after your program end date. If you do not leave on time, you may be ineligible for visas in the future. Additionally, if your sponsor terminates your participation for just cause, you will be expected to depart the United States immediately. You will not be entitled to the post-completion 30-day period because you did not successfully complete your program.
If your visa expires during your program period and you do not plan to travel outside of the U.S., you do not need to renew the visa. If you travel outside of the United States when your visa is expired, you will have to apply for a new J-1 visa in your home country. Note that your sponsor is responsible for helping you with everything related to your J-1 program, including authorizing travel outside of the U.S. and ensuring that your J-1 non-immigrant documents are valid. Contact your sponsor if you are concerned about your visa.
Remember, your current J-1 visa is only applicable for your current program and sponsor. When you complete your program, you are expected to leave the United States. If you intend to pursue a 2nd J-1 exchange program (in a different category and with a different J-1 sponsor), you will need to apply for a new J-1 visa for the new program to re-enter the U.S. for the 2nd program.
Additionally, if any of the following describe your program, you are subject to a two-year home-country physical presence requirement, meaning you will be required to return to your home country for two years at the end of your exchange visitor program.
Two-year Home-country Physical Presence Requirement Conditions:
- Government-Funded Exchange Program.
- Graduate Medical Education or Training.
- Another Program of Specialized Knowledge or Skill
Note: There is a possibility of waiving this last requirement.
How do I extend or adjust my exchange visa program?
To extend your program, you must discuss it with your sponsoring organization. If your sponsor agrees to extend your program, they will send a new Form DS-2019 with the new end date and any other necessary information. The sponsoring organization will apply for your extension through the Department of State. Note that there is a nonrefundable fee of $367 which your sponsor may have you pay. Contact your sponsor if you would like to extend your program.
Can I change my status while on a J-1 visa?
While in the United States, you may decide that you would like to switch to a different visa status, such as a change from a J-1 visa to an F-1 visa. If you would like to change your J-1 nonimmigrant status to a different one, you will first need to work with your sponsoring organization and receive a new Form DS-2019 and submit that form with your Form I-539, Application To Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status to the USCIS. There is a $370 filing fee with this application.
Can I work on a J-1 Visa?
Follow the guidelines in your program description. If your exchange visitor program is a work-program (research, teaching, etc.), work only under the terms of the specific program. In some situations, J-1 holders may work for non-sponsor employers if they meet eligibility requirements. Contact your sponsor with any work-related questions.
Can my family come with me?
Your spouse and any unmarried children under 21 years of age, regardless of nationality, are entitled to J-2 classification. Your family will apply for their J-2 visas while you are applying for your J-1 visa, and the process is very similar. Contact your sponsoring organization or the U.S. embassy or consulate at which you will apply for more information.
Sometimes, exchange programs will not allow family to accompany J-1 participants. If this is a concern for you, ask potential sponsors about this before you apply.
With regards to work, your spouse and children can be authorized to work in the United States. However, their income may not be used to support you. To apply for work authorization as a J-2 nonimmigrant, your spouse or child should file Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization. Form I-765 will ask for your eligibility category; for J-2 participants it’s (c)(5).
Have any questions?
Post your questions to the J Visa section of the discussion board.
Or you can schedule a free consultation with an immigration attorney here.