Complete Guide to the J1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program

Posted by Frank Gogol

What is the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program?

The J1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program (the J-1 Visa) is a U.S. Department of State program that gives non-U.S. citizens (exchange visitor) the opportunity to work, learn, teach, consult, do research (and much more) in the U.S.

The purpose of the exchange visitor program is to promote and enhance the exchange of skills and knowledge in art, education, and science.

How Does It Work?

Various private and public entities are designated to act as sponsors. These entities run the various exchange visitor programs and offer the different opportunities for which you can apply for this specific visitor visa.

Who is Eligible for a J1 Visa Visitor Exchange Program?

Each exchange program category has its own eligibility criteria. One basic requirement which applies to all categories is that the exchange visitor (and his or her J-2 dependents) must be proficient in the English language. There are also some benchmark insurance requirements, such as program participants having medical insurance which provide for the minimum benefit levels as required by the program regulations.

Full details on each category and its eligibility requirements can be found here.

J1 Visa Application Process

There are a few simple steps to follow if you want to apply for a J-1 Visa as an exchange visitor.

Step 1 – Choose a Sponsor

There are many entities in different industries offering different opportunities for exchange visitors who want to get a J-1 Visa. Finding the right entity through which you want to apply, and whose program you will do, is important.

Here’s a quick guide for searching for a sponsoring entity:

You don’t have to worry too much about the entity’s physical location. Most sponsoring entities can place you throughout the U.S. — regardless of their physical location.

Step 2 – Submit a Form DS-2019

The Form DS-2019 is a Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status. This was previously known as the IAP-66.

You can get this form from the entity at which you want to apply (your sponsor). There will be specific people appointed at your sponsor. They are known either as a Responsible Officer (RO) or Alternate Responsible Officer(ARO) and are authorized to issue this form. It is a good idea to work closely with the RO or ARO, as they will help guide you through the application process and will be able to answer any questions you may have.

Details such as the description, cost and dates of the program you are applying for should already be filled in by the RO.

Take note, if you want your family (spouse and/or your children) to travel with you, they will have to submit a different form to apply to be a J-2 Visa holder.

Step 3 – Pay the SEVIS I-901 Fee

The SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) I-901 fee is part of the standard application process. This fee is paid to the Department of Homeland Security. Some sponsors already pay this as part of the exchange program fee you are required to pay when applying to your sponsor. Check with the RO or ARO if they already paid this fee. If they did, make sure you get proof of payment.

If you have to pay the SEVIS I-901 fee yourself, you can pay it here. Remember to keep your proof of payment!

Step 4 – Submit your Application to the Embassy

After completing the Form DS-2019, you submit it, together with other supporting documents, to the U.S. Department of State at an embassy or consulate.

Your application must consist out of at least:

  • DS-2019 Form,
  • DS-7002 Form (Training/Internship Placement Plan),
  • Form DS-160 (Online Nonimmigrant Visa Electronic Application),
  • A valid passport for travel in the U.S. This passport must be valid for 6 months after the period in which you intend to stay in the U.S. ends, and
  • One 2″ x 2 ” photograph.

Your embassy or consulate may require additional documents, so it is preferable to contact them directly to make sure.

Step 5 – Interview

There is no fixed time between the application and interview, so make sure you submit your application as soon as possible.

At the interview, they will ask you various questions applicable to an exchange visitor so they can be sure you are not planning to immigrate illegally. It will be a good idea to prepare for this interview, as it is your ticket in.

Some of the interview questions and topics they might ask you about are:

  • The program you are applying to
  • What your intentions are after the program?
  • How you plan to cover your expenses during your time in the U.S.?

Make sure you emphasize the fact you intend to return home after the program. It might also help if you can show them you have binding ties to your own country. Bringing documents to prove this will definitely be a bonus.

Important Fees

Apart from paying the SEVIS I-901 Fee, there might be some other fees that will need to be paid before you can get your J-1 Visa.

Visa Fees

This is the Nonimmigrant Visa Application Processing Fee. You will need proof of payment of this fee when you go for your interview.

A Visa Issuance Fee (otherwise known as a Visa Reciprocity Fee) might also be payable when your Visa is issued.

If you are a  participant in a program sponsored by one of the following organizations, you will be exempt from paying the above fees:

  • U.S. Government
  • Department of State
  • U.S. Agency for International Development
  • Another U.S. Government-funded educational or cultural exchange program

Program Fees

Sponsors who are not exempted from the above Visa fees usually also charge exchange visitor program fees. These fees will differ from sponsor to sponsor and will depend on things like the category the program falls in, the duration of the program and so forth. You can ask your sponsor for a breakdown of all the cost and fees related to the program you are applying to.

J-1 Visa Program Categories

There are 15 different J-1 Visa categories.

  • Professors
  • Research Scholars
  • Short-term Scholars
  • Trainees
  • Interns
  • College and University Students
  • Teachers
  • Secondary School Students
  • Specialists
  • Physician Program
  • Camp Counselors
  • Au Pairs
  • Summer Work Travel Program
  • Government Visitors

Below is a brief description of each category. Full details on each category can be found here. There is also a nifty comparison different categories and requirements here.

Professors

The purpose of this category is to promote the exchange of ideas, research, and connections between academic institutions in foreign countries and in the U.S.

Participants will take part in teaching, lecturing, and research at various American schools.

Research Scholars

As above, the purpose of this category is to promote the exchange of ideas, research, and connections between academic institutions in foreign countries and in the U.S.

Participants will take part in teaching, lecturing, and research at various American schools.

Short-term Scholars

This category is for persons who want to do a short-term visit to the U.S. for the purpose of lecturing, consulting, observing, training or demonstrating special skills. This category is usually sponsored by U.S. museums, libraries and research or academic institutions.

Trainees

This category is for professionals with a professional certificate, degree or relevant work experience who want to gain additional training in U.S. business practices in their chosen occupational field.

Interns

With this category, college and university students or graduates can get exposure to U.S. business practices in the occupational field of their choice.

College and University Students

With this program, foreign students have the opportunity to study at an American university or college. You are required to study full-time under this program and to maintain good academic standing.

Teachers

Persons with an education qualification teach full time at accredited primary or secondary schools or in an accredited pre-kindergarten program.  

Secondary School Students

Secondary School students get the opportunity to live with an American host family or at an accredited boarding school while studying at an accredited private or public high school. You will have the opportunity to take part in school activities and to travel the U.S.

Specialists

If you are an expert in a field or possess specialized knowledge or skills, you can use this program to travel to the U.S. to exchange knowledge and skills with American specialists and colleagues. 

Physician Program

Foreign medical graduates who want to get training or additional education from an accredited U.S. medical school or scientific institution can apply through this program. This can include programs involving research, teaching, observation or consultation.

Camp Counselors

This is for the supervision of and interaction with youth at American summer camps. Eligible candidates include youth workers, teachers, post-secondary students or other persons with specialized skills.

Au Pairs

With this category, a candidate between 18 and 26 years will live with his or her host family for 12 months. While staying there, they mainly provide child care. Although your main priority will be to take care of the kids, you will also have enough free time to travel and explore the U.S.

Summer Work Travel Program

Foreign universities’ students have the opportunity to travel to the U.S. during their summer breaks to do temporary jobs and travel the country as a cultural exchange.

Government Visitors

This program allows distinguished international visitors (who are selected by U.S. federal, state or local government) to visit the U.S. in order to develop and strengthen the professional relationships between these officials and their American equivalents. Visitors will take part in workshops, professional meetings, tours, consultations and many more activities that result in a valuable cultural exchange.

J1 Visa Extension

Each program offered by accredited institutions has a maximum regulatory duration. The RO at your sponsor has the discretion to extend your program to this maximum duration. Some categories allow extensions beyond this maximum duration for unusual or exceptional circumstances related to the visa holders. Approval from the Department of State will be required in such an instance.

How does this work?

The RO will issue a new Form DS-2019 to you, which reflects the extension of your program. If you want to apply for an extension beyond the maximum duration, your RO will have to submit an electronic request to the Department of State which justifies the request and provide supporting documents. A non-refundable fee will be applicable in such a case.

Regardless of where you are in the J1 Visa application or extension process, a full understanding of the information outlined above will very very helpful. The more you understand, the easier it will be for you to make sure you fulfill the processes completely and the less likely you will be to encounter issues in the future.

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