How to Come to the U.S. as a College or University Exchange Student

Learn the legal ins and outs of coming to the U.S. on a J-1 visa for an exchange program.

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One way to study at a U.S. college or university is through an exchange student program. Many U.S. colleges and universities have agreements with foreign universities by which the foreign university sends students to the U.S. and the U.S. university sends students to study abroad. There are also government-sponsored exchange programs, such as the Fulbright foreign student program, that provide funding to bring foreign students to the United States.

If you’d like to come to the U.S. as an exchange student, this article will acquaint you with the practical and legal steps to the process. The first step is to find an exchange program that will sponsor you.

Exchange Programs at Your University

If you’re like most prospective exchange students, you are already attending a university in your home country. You want to spend a year at a college or university in the U.S., and then return to your home university to complete your studies. Check to see whether your school participates in any exchange programs with U.S. schools, and see whether you qualify under the terms of that program. The exchange program might direct you to a particular U.S. college or university and help you throughout the process of enrolling there as an exchange student.

Government-Sponsored Exchange Programs

Two schools agreeing to accept each others' students is just one type of exchange program. Exchange programs are also created by agreements between U.S. universities and foreign governments, and between state or local government agencies in the U.S. and foreign countries. Check to see whether your government offers this type of exchange student opportunity and whether you meet the selection criteria.

Exchange Programs for Students Receiving Scholarship Funding

You can also study in the U.S. an exchange student if an American governmental agency (federal, state, or local) or the government of your home country will pay for your studies in the United States. They can pay you directly, or they can be funding a program you have been selected to participate in. You can also get exchange student status through funding from an international organization that includes the U.S. as a member. And finally, you can become an exchange student if anyone other than yourself or your family pays most of the cost of your studies in the United States.

Applying to a U.S. College or University

The exchange student program you’re participating in might help you with the process of applying for acceptance to the U.S. college or university. If you need to find a U.S.college or university that sponsors foreign exchange students, see the State Department's list at of "Designated Sponsor Organizations." You will need to meet the school’s standards for acceptance.

English Language Requirements

All exchange students must be able to speak, read, and write English well enough to succeed at the U.S. college or university. If English is not the native language of your home country, you may have to pass a test of English language proficiency.

Insurance Requirements

You will also need to pay for health insurance while you are in the United States. Your insurance policy must contain certain provisions, so you need to find an insurance company that knows what type of policy exchange students need.

Getting a Visa for the United States

Once you’ve been admitted to the U.S. college or university, the sponsor of the exchange program will give you a form called a “DS-2019.” This form shows that you are eligible to study in the U.S. as an exchange student.

That’s only the first step, however. Unless you’re Canadian, you still need to get a visa so you can travel to the United States. The visa for exchange students is called a “J-1” visa.

To get one, you might want help from a lawyer who knows U.S. immigration law. You will go online and fill out a form called a “DS-160,” which is your application for the visa. Print out the receipt to take with you to your visa appointment.

After submitting the DS-160, you’ll have a to pay a visa application fee, usually by going to a designated bank. Again, make sure you save the receipt.

Then, you will set up an appointment for an interview at the U.S. consulate in your home country. At least three days before the interview, you need to pay a “SEVIS fee,” which helps fund the system that tracks students and exchange visitors. At the interview, you’ll present all the documents that support your application for a J-1 visa, including the DS-2019 form you got from the sponsor. Applicants from certain countries must pay another fee, called a “reciprocity fee,” this day.

A consular officer will ask you questions (in English) to make sure you’re eligible for the visa. You’ll go through some security checks, too. See "The Day of Your Consular Interview" for more information. For one thing, the U.S. will want to make sure that you (or any other visa applicant) are not barred from entry due to health, security, or other issues, as described in "Inadmissibility: When the U.S. May Keep You Out."

The officer must be satisfied that you intend to return home after your time at school is finished. If everything goes well, you get your visa and can start planning your trip to the United States.

If you’re Canadian, you don’t need to fill out the DS-160 form or go to the consulate for a visa. You can bring your DS-2019 form to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the airport or border and ask to enter the U.S. in J-1 status. You’ll have the pay the SEVIS fee at this time. After a short interview, the officer should allow you into the country if you qualify for entry.

Permission to Work in the U.S.

As an exchange student, you can work part-time (up to 20 hours per week, except during official school breaks and your annual vacation), as long as you’re taking a full course load and you’re in good academic standing. The school must give you permission to work.

Ordinarily your job must be on campus, unless you have emergency economic circumstances or you have a scholarship, fellowship, or assistantship that requires you to work off campus.

How Long You Can Stay in the U.S. on a J-1 Visa

You can come to the U.S. on a J-1 visa 30 days before classes start.

If you’re taking classes that lead to a degree, you can stay in the U.S. in J-1 status as long as you’re taking a full course load and you’re in good academic standing. You can also stay if you have been approved to participate in an academic training program, either during the school year or after you’ve finished your classes. If you’re not in school to get a degree, you can’t stay for more than two years.

Students on a J-1 visa can stay 30 days after their classes or academic training is over.

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