J-1 status allows a foreign-born person who is staying legally in the U.S. to remain longer, in order to take part an established exchange visitor program. Normally you would be coming from overseas and need to apply for a J-1 visa as your U.S. entry document, but if you are already in the U.S. as a nonimmigrant, you may have the option of changing status without having to return to your home country first.
The object of exchange programs is to foster mutual understanding between people in the U.S. and in other countries around the world, through educational and cultural interaction. For information on basic J-1 eligibility, see “A J-1 Visa to the U.S.: Who Qualifies?”.
Getting a J-1 visa from within the U.S. involves four major steps, each of which is described further along in this article:
- You apply to, and are accepted by, an approved exchange program.
- Your designated program sponsor supplies you with a Form DS-2019 "Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status."
- You pay the SEVIS fee.
- You apply for a change of status through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
- After approval, you begin your exchange program.
Are You Truly Eligible to Apply for a Change of Status in the U.S.?
The mere fact of being in the U.S. is not necessarily enough to allow you to request a change to J-1 (or any other) status. People who are undocumented, for example, are ineligible to apply for a change of status, regardless of whether they have been accepted by an exchange program.
If you are physically present in the U.S., you may apply for a change to J-1 status without leaving the country only if:
- you entered the U.S. legally, and not under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), nor using a C (alien in transit), TWOV (alien in transit without a visa), D (crewman), K-1 (fiancé), K-2 (dependent of a fiancé), J-1 (exchange visitor), or M-1 (vocational student) visa.
- you have never worked in the U.S. without authorization, and
- the date shown on your I-94 card has not yet gone by.
If you have any questions about your eligibility to apply for a change of status, consult an immigration attorney. It’s possible that you can still obtain a J-1 visa by leaving the U.S. first.
Step One: You Find a Sponsoring Organization
Before starting the J-1 application process, you must gain admission to an exchange program approved by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), through its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). See the State Department’s list of approved organizations at its “Find Designated Sponsor Organizations” page. Get started on this well in advance, to leave time for submitting the USCIS paperwork and receiving a decision before the exchange program starts.
Step Two: Your Sponsoring Organization Issues a Certificate of Eligibility
Once an approved program has accepted you, it will send you a Certificate of Eligibility, or SEVIS Form DS-2019. Be sure to carefully check it for any errors, and contact the sponsoring organization to correct them. You will need to use the DS-2019 in the next steps of applying.
Step Three: Paying the SEVIS Fee
Before submitting your application, you’ll need to pay a fee ($180 in early 2014) to support the U.S. student tracking database called SEVIS. Your school may take care of processing this fee payment for you. If not, you will need to do it yourself, either online or by mail. To do so online, go to www.FMJfee.com and pay by credit card. You will need to complete the online Form I-901.
To submit form I-901 by mail, download it from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website. Then mail it, together with your check or money order drawn on a U.S. bank and payable in U.S. currency, to the address indicated on the form.
For more information on this fee, see the "SEVIS I-901 Fee" page of the ICE website.
Step Four: Applying to USCIS
Assemble the items on the below list and mail them to USCIS in order to apply for the change of status.
- Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status, with accompanying fee ($290 as of early 2014; if submitting by mail, send a check or money order, not cash). One Form I-539 and fee will cover you, your spouse, and all your children, if they are in the U.S. with you and in the same visa status or accompanying beneficiaries of your current visa status. But be sure to complete the I-539 Supplement for your spouse and children.
- Copy of Form SEVIS DS-2019, filled out by your school.
- Copy of receipt for having paid your SEVIS fee.
- Copies of proof of your family members’ relationship to you, such as marriage and birth certificates.
- Copies of Form I-94 (including those of your spouse and children, if applying with you) or other proof of your current lawful, unexpired immigration status (except Canadians just visiting the U.S., who are not expected to have I-94 cards).
- If either you or your spouse has ever been married before, copies of divorce and death certificates showing termination of all previous marriages.
- If your program involves studying at a school, copies of transcripts, diplomas, and results of any standardized tests required by the school you’ll be attending, showing your previous education and your qualifications to pursue your chosen course of study.
- Copies of documents showing reasons that you’ll return to your home country, such as ownership of real estate, relationships with close family members staying behind, or proof that an employer is holding a job open for you.
- If your program doesn’t include salaried employment,
provide proof that you have sufficient funds to pay for it and your living
expenses while in the U.S., such as:
- Form I-134, Affidavit of Support from a U.S. friend or relative, or a letter from a friend or relative promising support.
- Bank statements.
- Personal financial statements.
- Evidence of your current sources of income.
After assembling the change of status application, you can mail it to either a USCIS Service Center, as per the instructions on the USCIS website. Alternatively, you can e-file your I-539 application over the Internet. Doing so will allow you to use a credit card, and avoid worries about sending your application to the wrong mailing address or sending a check for the wrong amount. You will be issued a receipt number instantly, which is useful for tracking the status of your application. You can e-file Form I-539 on the USCIS e-filing page.
Step Five: Approval
It normally takes USCIS about one to three months to approve (or deny) change of status applications. USCIS will notify you of its decision using a Form I-797 Notice of Action. It will send you a new I-94 card as well. After approval, you may begin your program.