What is a J-1 visa?
J-1 (exchange visitor) visas are given to nonimmigrants who are traveling to the United States as part of an officially approved exchange program in the arts, education, or sciences. Beneficiaries could be professors, researchers, students, teachers, au pairs, or specialists of various kinds (a more complete list is provided in the “Eligibility” section).
Sponsors may be public or private institutions, and must be approved by the U.S. Department of State. Ultimately, the J-1 visa program is meant to foster cultural and intellectual exchange between countries.
In this guide, we’ll explain the step-by-step process for obtaining a J-1 visa:
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Fees for the J-1 visa program will vary depending on the sponsor, the category, and the duration of stay. The applicant should be sure to contact the sponsor ahead of time to determine the precise breakdown of costs.
Prior to the interview, the program sponsor will enter the applicant’s name into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which will then generate Form DS-2019 (officially called “Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status”). The applicant may, at this point, need to pay a I-901 SEVIS fee of $220. Program sponsors will sometimes cover this cost.
The applicant will need to pay $160 for the nonimmigrant application processing fee — though this fee may be waived for those participating in government-sponsored programs. The applicant may also need to pay a reciprocity fee on top of these charges, once the interview is complete.
The applicant should be sure to contact the sponsor ahead of time to determine the precise breakdown of costs.
The J-1 visa processing times will vary depending on the applicant’s home country. For instance, applicants in Bogotá, Colombia, can expect to wait 22 days before an appointment becomes available, while applicants in Beijing, China will only have to wait 2 days — that’s after they’ve submitted their application and paid the processing fee. Use the U.S. Department of State’s handy tool to get an up-to-date estimated wait time.
Note: these times do not include any additional administrative processing, which may extend the process significantly, depending on the circumstances.
Each program category has its own set of J-1 visa requirements, which we will discuss in this section. Much of the information in this section may be found in the Code of Federal Regulations (22 CFR Part 62).
Regardless of the category, the applicant must demonstrate sufficient knowledge of English, using one of the following:
- Signed documents from an English-language school or university proving the applicant has passed an officially-recognized test
- An in-person or teleconferencing interview with the sponsoring exchange program
Each applicant must have a certain level of medical coverage, as determined by the program regulations. J-2 dependents — including spouses and unmarried children under 21 — must also have the required coverage. If the applicant is not covered, or if their coverage is insufficient, the sponsor, such as the college or university, can help the applicant obtain the necessary insurance. If the applicant loses their coverage during the course of the exchange program, they may be asked to leave.
Exchange Program Categories
Each program category has different J-1 visa requirements. Below we’ll provide a basic description of each category.
Anyone applying for a J-1 visa as a student must be a foreign national studying in the United States, and they must intend to do one of the following activities:
- Take on a full course load at an accredited secondary or post-secondary academic institution
- Pursue training related to their concentration
- Study the English language at an accredited post-secondary school (or an approved program)
- Be a full-time student intern in a program led by an approved secondary educational institution
A professor or research scholar — or someone with comparable training — may obtain a J-1 visa if, during a short-term visit, they do one of the following:
- Demonstrate specialized skills
They may do any of these activities at places such as:
- Research institutions
- Post-secondary academic institutions
If the applicant plans to attend a structured training program related to their occupational field, they may obtain a J-1 visa if they satisfy one of the following:
- They have a degree or certificate from an approved institution in addition to 1 year of work in the field
- They have 5 years of experience working in their field (outside the United States)
Note: the sponsor must be approved for this particular occupation
A foreign national may apply as a teacher if they have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a related subject, or in education. They must:
- Have two years of full-time teaching experience, completed after finishing their degree
- Be a teacher when applying for the J-1 visa
Professors may apply to do one or more of the following:
If permitted by the sponsor, they may also pursue research projects. They may do these activities at places like:
- An accredited post-secondary academic institution
If applying as a research scholar, the applicant may do one or more of the following:
- Conduct research
They may also pursue teaching, if the sponsor allows it. They may do these activities at places like:
- Accredited post-secondary academic institutions
A person may apply as a specialist, if they have expertise in a particular field and plan to observe, consult, or demonstrate their knowledge, once in the United States.
Persons of Similar Description
Applicants whose occupation or training is designated by the State Department as being similar in nature to the aforementioned categories, may apply for the J-1 visa. These applicants must also intend to study, teach, lecture, observe, instruct, conduct research, demonstrate special skills, consult, or receive training, once in the United States. The following are categories designated by the State Department as being “persons of similar description.”
- Alien physician
- International visitor
- Government visitor
- Camp Counselor
- Au pair
- Summer work and travel
It’s important to note that certain categories are required to leave the country for at least 2 years before being able to apply for certain benefits. You can avoid this requirement by applying for a J-1 visa waiver.
Not sure if you qualify for a J-1 exchange student visa? Start by checking your eligibility.
Application instructions for the J-1 visa may differ from country to country. The applicant should therefore contact the local U.S. Embassy or consulate ahead of time. Below, we’ll go step by step through the J-1 visa application process.
Step 1: The Online Visa Application
First, the applicant should complete Form DS-160 (officially called the “Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application”) and print out the confirmation page, which they’ll need at their interview. During this process, they will need to upload a photo, following strict guidelines.
Note: the applicant can submit their application through the State Department’s portal.
Step 2: Make an Appointment
Once the applicant has finished the nonimmigrant visa application, they can contact their local U.S. Embassy or consulate to schedule an interview. As mentioned above, wait times vary according to region, and while the applicant is free to apply at a U.S. Embassy outside their country of origin, they may find it harder to successfully obtain a J-1 visa.
Step 3: Prepare for and Attend the Interview
In certain countries, the applicant may need to pay the application processing fee prior to their interview. In this case, they should go to the U.S. Embassy’s website to find out how to make a payment. Once they’ve made a payment, the applicant — and any dependents coming with them — will need to gather all the required documents prior to attending the interview. The required documents are as follows:
- A passport (valid for at least 6 months beyond your period of stay in the U.S.)
- A passport-style photo that follows the State Department’s guidelines
- Receipt of payment for the application processing fee (if requested)
- Confirmation page for the DS-160, online visa application
- Form DS-2019, which the sponsor will provide after they enter the applicant’s name — and the names of any dependents — into the SEVIS system.
- Form DS-7002 (officially called the “Training/Internship Placement Plan”), for those who are applying through the trainee and intern categories
The consular officer may request further evidence to prove that the applicant intends to return home after the completion of the program.
With the proper paperwork in hand, the applicant can attend their interview, where they will need to prove that they are eligible for the Exchange Visitor Program. At the interview, the applicant can expect to have their fingerprints taken. If the visa is approved — and assuming no further administrative processing is required — the applicant will need to retrieve their visa and passport, and pay any remaining fees, if necessary. For more info, Boundless has put together a guide about how to prepare for the J-1 visa interview.
Step 4: Entering the United States
To enter the United States, the applicant will need to bring their passport, visa, and Form DS-2019 to the airport (or other port-of-entry). It is up to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent to decide whether the applicant may enter the country.
Once in the United States, the applicant may be able to extend their stay, under certain conditions, or even change their status to green card holder.
Boundless + RapidVisa not only make it easy for you to complete your J-1 exchange visa application, but we can also help you get ready for your visa interview. Learn more about what you get with Boundless + RapidVisa, or get started now.
What is the “two-year home-country physical presence requirement,” and how does it affect me?
As per Section 212(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, certain exchange programs require applicants to return to their home country for at least 2 years after the completion of their program. For this rule to take effect, one of the following must be true:
- The program is funded at least partially by the United States or the applicant’s country of origin (or country of nationality)
- The applicant’s specialized skill has been deemed, by the country of origin, as being pivotal to the advancement of national interests
- The applicant used the exchange program for the purposes of graduate medical training
The physical presence requirement prevents applicants from changing status to temporary worker (H visa), intracompany transferee (L visa), or lawful permanent resident. The applicant may not apply for these visas at a U.S. Embassy or consulate for the duration of the two-year period.
How do I waive the two-year physical presence requirement?
Applicants who satisfy certain conditions may receive a waiver of this requirement. There are 5 possible scenarios in which a waiver may be granted. These are:
- The country of origin sends a “No Objection Statement” via its embassy in Washington D.C. This statement must say that the country of origin has no issues with allowing the applicant to remain in the United States after the completion of the exchange program.
- The applicant is working with a U.S. federal agency, who thinks the departure of the exchange visitor would negatively impact U.S. interests.
- The applicant believes they will be persecuted upon arrival in their country of origin.
- The applicant’s departure would result in “exceptional hardship” for a U.S. citizen (or lawful permanent resident) spouse.
- The applicant is a foreign medical graduate, and a State Public Health Department (or a similar entity) has requested them to remain. In this case, they would apply for a waiver through the Conrad 30 waiver program.
How do I qualify for a Conrad State 30 waiver?
To qualify for a Conrad State 30 waiver, you must:
- Take a full-time position for a minimum of 3 years at a health care facility in a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA), as designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The area may also be a Medically Underserved Area (MUA) or a Medically Underserved Population (MUP)
- Receive a “No Objection Statement” (see above) from the country of origin
- Agree to start work within 90 days of receiving the Conrad 30 waiver
Note: these criteria may be augmented, or slightly altered, depending on the state. If the applicant satisfies the eligibility criteria, they must complete Form DS-3035 (officially called the “J-1 Visa Waiver Review Application”), which the employer will then send to the DOS Waiver Review Division (DOS-WRD).