The J-1 visa allows entry to the U.S. for participation in already-established exchange visitor programs. The object of these programs is to foster mutual understanding between the people of the U.S. and those of other countries in the world, through educational and cultural interaction. For more information on basic eligibility, see “A J-1 Visa to the U.S.: Who Qualifies?”. [http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/a-j-1-visa-the-us-who-qualifies.html]
If you are interested in participating in such an exchange program, here is an introduction to the application process. Getting a J-1 visa from overseas involves four major steps:
- You apply to, and are accepted by, an exchange program.
- Your designated program sponsor sends you a Form DS-2019 "Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status."
- You apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate in your home country
- You enter the U.S. and claim your J-1 status.
(If you are Canadian, your application procedures will be different from those of other applicants. Nolo’s book U.S. Immigration Made Easy contains details.)
Step One: You Find a Sponsoring Organization
You cannot start the J-1 application process until you have been admitted to an exchange program approved by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), through its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). The State Department provides a list of approved organizations, on its “Find Designated Sponsor Organizations” page. You’ll probably need to get started well in advance.
Step Two: Your Sponsoring Organization Issues a Certificate of Eligibility
Once a program has accepted you, it will issue you a Certificate of Eligibility, or SEVIS Form DS-2019. You do not fill out or sign any part of it. But be sure to carefully check the form for accuracy. Ask your sponsoring organization to correct any errors. You’ll use the DS-2019 in the next steps of your application process.
Step Three: Applying at a U.S. Consulate in Your Country
Anyone with a Certificate of Eligibility (Form DS-2019) from an exchange visitor program sponsor can apply for a J-1 visa at a U.S. consulate in his or her home country. You must be physically present in order to apply there.
You can normally apply 120 days or less before your program begins. Because of processing delays, it’s best to apply as soon as you can within that 120-day window. Check with your local U.S. consulate regarding its application procedures. Many insist on advance appointments. Just getting an appointment can take several weeks, so plan ahead.
Your application will consist of the online State Department Form DS-160 as well as documents that you collect yourself, as itemized on the checklist below.
- Form SEVIS DS-2019, filled out by your sponsoring organization.
- Receipt for having paid the SEVIS fee (currently $200).
- Form DS-160, Nonimmigrant Visa Application. This form must be prepared and submitted online at https://ceac.state.gov/genniv.
- Fee receipt showing that you have paid the relevant machine-readable visa (MRV) application fee at a nearby financial institution (currently $140). The financial institution at which you must pay depends on the country. Check the website of the U.S. consulate where you plan to apply for your visa in order to learn where to pay your fee in advance. Most consulates will not allow you to pay the visa fee at the time of interview.
- Visa reciprocity fee. There’s a small chance you may have to pay an additional fee if you are from a country that charges similar fees for visas to U.S. citizens.
- Your passport, valid for at least six months beyond your intended period of stay in the U.S.
- One passport-type photo of you and one of your spouse and each of your children, 2 inches x 2 inches.
- Long-form birth certificate for you and each accompanying spouse or child.
- Marriage certificate if you are married and bringing your spouse.
- 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: transcripts, diplomas, and results of any standardized tests required by the school you will be attending, showing your previous education and your qualifications to pursue your chosen course of study.
- Documents showing reasons that you will return to your home country, such as ownership of real estate, relationships with close family members staying behind, or proof that a job will be waiting for you on your return.
- If you are entering a flight training program, documents showing your reason for the training (be specific) current employer and your position, who is paying for the training (name and relationship), your most recent flight certifications and ratings, information on what kind of aircraft the training is for (document must be signed by a school official in the United States), certified takeoff weight of the aircraft type (document must be signed by a school official in the United States), and current rank or title if you are presently working as an active pilot.
- If your program doesn’t include salaried employment, proof of sufficient funds, such as:
- USCIS 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.
Before your visa appointment at the U.S. consulate in your home country, you will need to pay a fee to support the U.S. student tracking database called SEVIS. Your school or sponsoring organization may take care of processing this fee payment for you.
If not, you’ll need to do it yourself, either online or by mail. To submit the form online, go to www.FMJfee.com, complete the online Form I-901, and pay with a credit card. To submit the form by mail, download Form I-901 from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website, and 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 these requirements, see www.ice.gov/sevis/i901/index.htm.
Once you get a receipt for having made this payment, you’ll need to use it for your consular interview.
Attending Your Consular Interview
Most consulates will require an interview before issuing a J-1 exchange visitor visa. During the interview, a consular officer will examine the forms and documents for accuracy. The consular officer will verify your DS-2019 record electronically through the SEVIS system. Documents proving your ability to finance your study will be carefully checked, as will evidence of ties to your home country. During the interview, you will surely be asked how long you intend to remain in the United States. Any answer indicating uncertainty about plans to return home or an interest in applying for a green card is likely to result in a denial of your student visa.
Because of security requirements, you are unlikely to be approved for your visa on the same day as your interview. The consular officer will need to compare your name against various databases of people with a history of criminal activity, violations of U.S. immigration laws, or terrorist affiliations. This can add weeks or months to the processing of your visa, particularly if you come from a country that the U.S. suspects of supporting terrorism.
Step Four: Entering the U.S. Using Your J-1 Visa
You’ll be allowed to enter the U.S. up to 30 days before the start of your classes or program, but no earlier. When you arrive in the U.S. with your new J-1 visa, the border officer will examine your paperwork, ask you some questions, and if all is in order, approve you for entry. The officer may give you an I-94 card. Otherwise you can download this form from the Customs & Border Protection website. Form I-94 will note “D/S” indicating that you can stay until the completion of your program. As a practical matter, however, you are permitted to remain up to the expiration date on your SEVIS Form DS-2019 Certificate of Eligibility.
Each time you exit and reenter the U.S., you will get a new Form I-94.