J-1 Visa – Exchange Visitor

The J-1 Exchange Visitor program enables foreign nationals to come to the U.S. to work, study, teach, train or observe U.S. culture. The program is administered by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the objective is to promote the interchange of persons, knowledge, and skills in the fields of education, arts, and sciences. J-1 Exchange Visitors are expected to return to their country of residence to utilize the experience and skills they have acquired while in the U.S.

Benefits of the J-1 Visa

  • The J-1 visa allows students, scholars, trainees in business and industry, research assistants, teachers, and international visitors on cultural missions come to the U.S. to participate in a variety of informational exchange programs sponsored by schools, businesses, and various organizations and institutions.
  • J-1 visas can be issued quickly, with approval from one to two days if filed at home consulates, or one to three months if filed in the U.S.
  • J-1 visa holders may work legally in the U.S. if it is part of the program (i.e., trainee in a business) or if they receive permission to work from the program sponsor.
  • Travel in and out of the U.S. is allowed until the completion of the program.
  • Visas are available for the J-1 visa holder’s spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age.
  • Spouse and children are eligible for employment authorization if the money is not needed to support the J-1 visa holder.
  • J-1 visa holders are exempt from Social Security and Medicare tax (although, they are subject to personal income tax).

Restrictions of the J-1 Visa

  • J-1 visa holders may only participate in the visitor exchange program under which the visa was approved (e.g., an approved camp counselor cannot participate in an au pair program).
  • Must be accepted into an approved exchange program before applying for the J-1 visa.
  • Participants in certain types of programs may be required to return to their home country for a minimum of two years before they are permitted to obtain a green card or change to another nonimmigrant status.

I. J-1 Visa Categories

In order to apply for a J-1 Visa, an applicant must be accepted for on the Exchange Visitor Program categories through a designated sponsoring organization. The Department of State designates public and private entities to act as exchange sponsors. Exchange programs are available for the following categories:

  • Au pair
  • Camp Counselor
  • Student, college/university
  • Student, secondary
  • Government Visitor
  • International Visitor (reserved for U.S. Department of State use)
  • Alien physician
  • Professor
  • Research Scholar
  • Short-term Scholar
  • Specialist
  • Summer work/travel
  • Teacher
  • Trainee

Each category of exchange has specific requirements and regulations. In addition, the admission time varies for each category. Please refer to the J-1 Visa Categories and Specifications list for a detailed description of each of the categories and admission time.

II. Who can be a J-1 Sponsor?

The sponsor of a J-1 visa program is a legal entity designated by the State Department to conduct an exchange visitor program. The following entities are eligible to apply for designation as a sponsor:

  • United States federal, state and local government agencies;
  • International organizations of which the U.S. is a member and which have an office in the United States; or
  • Reputable organizations that are citizens of the United States.

The sponsoring entity is required to submit an application (DS-3036) to the Department of State through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and to comply with all provisions of 22 CFR Part 514. Once the program is approved, it receives notification through the SEVIS system. Alternatively, if State Department has not designated the organization as a sponsor, the organization may participate in the program through an intermediary, known as an umbrella organization, which acts as the sponsoring agency.

III. What is SEVIS and SEVP?

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is designed to help the USCIS and Department of State better monitor school and exchange programs and F, M and J category visitors. Exchange visitor and student information is maintained in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS is an Internet-based system that maintains accurate and current information on non-immigrant students (F and M visa), exchange visitors (J visa), and their dependents (F-2, M-2, and J-2). SEVIS enables schools and program sponsors to transmit mandatory information and event notifications via the Internet, to the USCIS and Department of State throughout a student or exchange visitor’s stay in the United States.

All exchange visitor applicants must have a SEVIS generated DS 2019 issued by a Department of State designated sponsor, which they submit when they are applying for their exchange visitor visa. The consular officer will need to verify your DS 2019 record electronically through the SEVIS system in order to process your exchange visitor visa application to conclusion. Unless otherwise exempt, participants whose SEVIS DS-2019 was issued on or after September 1, 2004 must pay a SEVIS I-901 Fee to the Department of Homeland Security for each individual program. The fee may be paid either through a special web site, via Western Union, or by mail. See SEVIS-901 Fee or SEVIS for further information on how to pay the fee.

IV. Background Requirements

A. Financial Resources

Participants in the “J” exchange visitor program must have sufficient funds to cover all expenses, or funds must be provided by the sponsoring organization in the form of a scholarship or other stipend.

B. Scholastic Preparation

“J” exchange visitors must have sufficient scholastic preparation to participate in the designated program, including knowledge of the English language, or the exchange program must be designed to accommodate non-English speaking participants.

C. Medical Education and Training

Exchange visitors coming under the “J” program for graduate medical education or training must meet certain special requirements. These requirements include passing the Foreign Medical Graduate Examination in Medical Sciences, demonstrating competency in English, being automatically subject to the two-year foreign residence requirement (after completion of their program), and being subject to time limits on the duration of their program. Physicians coming to the United States on exchange visitor programs for the purpose of observation, consultation, teaching, or conducting research in which there is little or no patient care are not subject to the above requirements.

D. English Language Proficiency

Exchange visitors must possess sufficient proficiency in the English language to participate in their programs. Sponsors are required to ensure that their participants are sufficiently proficient in the English language to participate in their exchange programs before they enter the United States.

E. Insurance

Participants and any J-2 dependents (spouses and minor children — children under the age 21) accompanying them are required to carry medical insurance at the minimum benefit levels stated in the program regulations. Program sponsors are required to ensure that all participants have the appropriate medical insurance. They will verify that the participant’s medical insurance meets the regulatory requirements, and will facilitate the purchase of coverage to participants who do not have their own insurance, or whose coverage does not meet the requirements. Participants interested in obtaining appropriate medical insurance should contact the responsible officer of the organization sponsoring their program. Willful failure on the part of the participant and/or any J-2 dependents to maintain active insurance coverage is grounds for termination from the program. Please refer to the regulations for details.

V. Application Procedures, Visa Issuance and Entry to the U.S.

The first step is applying to and being accepted into an approved exchange program in the U.S. Once accepted as a participant in an exchange program, the participant will be issued a SEVIS Form DS-2019 (Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1). Next, the participant applies for the actual visa at the consulate. Then, he/she will be required to appear for an in-person interview. If the visa is granted, the participant will be issued a visa in accordance with the Form DS-2019.

A. When to Apply

Applicants may apply for their visa as soon as they are prepared to do so. Exchange visitor visa applicants are encouraged to apply for their visa early to provide ample time for visa processing. Applicants for visas should generally apply at the American Embassy or Consulate with jurisdiction over their place of permanent residence. Although visa applicants may apply at any U.S. consular office abroad, it may be more difficult to qualify for the visa outside the country of permanent residence.

The regulations require that all J exchange visitors, and J-2 spouse and dependents enter the U.S. 30 days or less in advance of the applicant’s program start date as shown on the Form DS-2019. Therefore, applicants should be careful when making travel plans to the U.S. Immigration officers may deny a J visa holder entry into the U.S., at his/her expense if he/she attempts to enter more that 30 days before the program start date. The 30-day limitation does not apply to current exchange participants who are returning to continue with their exchange program.

Applicants who want to enter the U.S. earlier than 30 days prior to the course start date, must qualify for, and obtain a visitor visa; however, this is strongly discouraged (see section below entitled “Entering on a B Visa and Changing Status”.)

B. Visa Application Procedures and Consular Interview

Once a participant has been issued the SEVIS Form DS-2019, he/she may apply for the visa at the U.S. Consulate having jurisdiction over his/her residence. Visa applicant will be required to appear for an in-person interview. Consulates set their own interview policies and procedures regarding J visas. Be sure to check the consulate’s website for their specific instructions.

Applicants will be required to provide:

  • Non-immigrant visa application (and supplemental forms, if applicable)
  • Original SEVIS Form DS-2019
  • Passport valid for at least six months after the proposed date of entry to the U.S.
  • One 2×2 photograph

In addition, applicants should be prepared to provide:

  • Evidence demonstrating significant ties to the country of residence that they have no intention of abandoning
  • Evidence of credentials, if applicable
  • Degree/s and transcripts, if applicable
  • Evidence of licensure in country of residence, if applicable

No assurances regarding the issuance of visas can be given in advance. Therefore, final travel plans or the purchase of nonrefundable tickets should not be made until a visa has been issued.

C. Exchange Visitors Cannot Travel on the Visa Waiver Program

Citizens from a country participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), who want to enter the United States temporarily, as exchange visitors traveling to the United States, must first obtain a an exchange visitor visa to come to the U.S. They cannot travel without a visa on the Visa Waiver Program. Those travelers coming on the Visa Waiver Program to participate in an exchange program may be denied admission to the United States by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. immigration inspector at the port of entry. For more information on VWP, see Visa Waiver Program.

D. Entering on a B-1 Visitor Visa and Changing Status to J-1

Applicants who want an earlier entry in the U.S. (more than 30 days prior to the course start date), must qualify for, and obtain a visitor visa; however, this is strongly discouraged. Applicants who travel to the U.S. on a visitor visa, before beginning an exchange program, must obtain a change of visa classification from the B non-immigrant status to J-1 non-immigrant status. To do so, applicants must file Form I-506, Application for Change of Nonimmigrant Status, with application fee, and also submit the required Form DS-2019 to the USCIS office where the application is made. However, be aware that the applicant cannot start the exchange visitor program until the change of status is approved. In light of the processing time for a change status in the U.S., the applicant may be in danger of missing the entire exchange program waiting approval of change of status.

E. When Can a Visitor Visa Be Used Instead of an Exchange Visitor Visa?

Some activities that are done on exchange visitor visas are also permitted on business (B-1) or tourist (B-2) visas in certain circumstances. Short periods of study, or study which is recreational, and not vocational, and incidental to the trip is permitted on a visitor visa. The determining factor is the traveler’s primary purpose in coming to the United States. Furthermore, any kind of study that would earn credit or certification is not permitted on a visitor visa. As an example, if you are taking a vacation to the U.S., and during this vacation you would like to take a two-day cooking class for your enjoyment, and there is no credit earned, then this would be permitted on a visitor visa. A consular officer will determine the visa category you will need based on the purpose of your travel, and your supporting documentation.

F. Entering the U.S. – Port of Entry

Applicants should be aware that a visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. The visa allows a foreign citizen to travel to a port-of-entry in the United States, such as an international airport, a seaport or a land border crossing, and request permission to enter the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection officer will permit or deny admission to the United States, and determine the length of stay in the U.S., on any particular visit. Exchange visitors must have their Form DS-2019 in their possession each time they enter the United States. Upon arrival, he/she will be enrolled in the US-VISIT entry-exit program. Some travelers will also need to comply with Special Registration upon their entry into the U.S. and departure. Select Special Registration to learn more. If the applicant is allowed to enter, the U.S. immigration official authorizes the traveler’s admission to the U.S. At that time, Form I-94, Record of Arrival-Departure, which notes the length of stay permitted, is validated by the immigration official. Form I-94, which documents the authorized stay in the U.S., is very important to keep in the passport.

G. Length of Stay for J Visa Holders

The initial admission of an exchange visitor, spouse and children may not exceed the period specified on Form DS-2019, plus a period of 30 days for the purpose of travel. The 30-day grace or travel status period is intended to be a period following the end of the exchange visitor’s program and is to be used for domestic travel and/or to prepare for and depart from the U.S., and for no other purpose. A spouse or child (J-2 visa holder) may not be admitted for longer than the principal exchange visitor (J-1 visa holder).

VI. Two-Year Home Country Residence Requirement

An individual admitted in J-1 status may be subject to a two-year foreign (home country) residence requirement. Without a waiver of this requirement, the individual is not eligible to apply for permanent residence or apply for any change of non-immigrant status (i.e., H or L status) in the U.S. This two-year period must be spent in the individual’s home country, or the country in which they last permanently resided before coming to the U.S. An individual is subject to the 2 year home residence requirement if:

  • The individual’s participation in an exchange visitor program was financed by the government of the country of his or her last residence;

  • At the time of admission, the individual was a national or resident of a country which the Department of State had designated as clearly requiring the services of individuals with the alien’s special skills or knowledge; or

  • The alien came to the United States to receive graduate medical education or training.

Waiver of the Home Country Residence Requirement

Those who think they may be subject to the requirement and who do not wish to go home may consider applying to the Department of State for a waiver of the requirement. The basis for a waiver are as follows:

  • Possible persecution:If the J-visa holder can demonstrate that he or she would be subject to persecution at home on account of race, religion or political opinion, the home residency requirement may be waived. The standard is similar to that of asylum.
  • Exceptional Hardship to United States Citizen: If the J-visa holder can demonstrate that his or her compliance with the home residency requirement would impose exceptional hardship on a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse or child, the home residency requirement may be waived. The hardship must amount to more than that normally associated with separation. In other words, forced separation from family always imposes hardship, but for a waiver to be granted the exchange visitor must show some exceptional hardship or combination of hardships, often of a medical, financial, or psychological nature. The likelihood of the hardships must be well documented.

  • “No Objection” Waiver: If the J-visa holder’s home country does not object to the person’s decision not to return home, the home residency requirement may be waived. A “no objection” statement is a diplomatic communication between the home country’s government and the Department of State. Please keep in mind that a “no objection” statement does not compel the Department of State and the USCIS to waive the requirement, and the waiver may still be denied. Also, this form of waiver is generally not granted to those whose exchange visit was funded, directly or indirectly, by the U.S. government, and cannot be granted at all to those whose J program consisted of graduate medical education or training.
  • Request by an Interested Government Agency: A federal government agency (or, in the case of physicians, a state health department) may also request that a waiver be granted. Such an “interested government agency” must show both (i) that granting a waiver is in the public interest, and (ii) that compliance with home residency requirement would be “clearly detrimental” to a program or activity of official interest to the agency. The government agency need not employ or intend to employ the exchange visitor. Requests for waivers should be made as early in the exchange program as possible: the application process is lengthy, and most applicants will want to apply concurrently for an H-1B visa, which is much harder to get at some points in the year than at others. Some of the agencies that most commonly request waivers are the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and, for physicians willing to practice in medically underserved areas, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Veterans Affairs, and Housing and Urban Development, and state health departments. Any federal agency can request a waiver, but some other agencies that somewhat commonly do so are the National Science Foundation, the Departments of Energy and Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

VII. Spouses and Children

Spouses and/or children under the age of 21 who wish to accompany or join the principal exchange visitor (J) visa holder in the United States for the duration of his/her stay require exchange visitor visas (derivative J visas). The application procedure is the same as that for a primary visa applicant. The sponsor must approve the accompaniment of the spouse and/or children and who will each be issued their own Form DS-2019. This form is used to obtain the required visa and the spouse and dependents can enter the U.S. at the same time as the principal exchange visitor or at a later date.

A. Employment Authorization

The spouse and/or children of an exchange visitor in the U.S. may not work in J-2 status. If employment is desired, the appropriate work visa will be required. Before they can work, they must make an application to DHS, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and be approved for permission to work. They must file Form I-765 Application for Employment Authorization with the USCIS office that serves the area where they live for a work permit (employment authorization document).

B. Study

The spouse and/or children of an exchange visitor visa holder who are in the U.S. on an exchange visitor visa may study in the U.S. without also being required to apply for a student (F-1) visa or change to F-1 status.

pouses and/or children who do not intend to reside in the U.S. with the principal visa holder, but visit for vacations only, may be eligible to apply for visitor (B-2) visas, or if qualified, travel without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program.

C. Family Members Following to Join the Exchange Visitor

The spouse and children can also apply for visas after the principal applicant has already traveled. In general, they must present the following:

  • Form DS 2019, SEVIS generated, and approved by the sponsor
  • Proof that the principal applicant (the person who received the DS-2019 or IAP-66) is maintaining his/her J visa status
  • Copy of the J-1’s (principal applicant’s) visa
  • Proof of relationship to the principal applicant
  • Proof of sufficient money to cover all expenses in the United States

Spouses and children of exchange visitors may not enter the United States before the principal visitor enters for the first time.