The U.S. government gives “J-1” visas to professors and research scholars who participate in “exchange visitor” programs. Participants in these programs get the opportunity to engage in research, teaching, and lecturing with their American colleagues, to participate actively in cross-cultural activities with Americans, and ultimately to share with their countrymen their experiences and increased knowledge of the U.S. and their fields of work.
Every J-1 exchange program has a “sponsor,” which is the organization that conducts the program and makes sure you are eligible to participate. For J-1 professors and research scholars, the sponsor is almost always your prospective employer – that is, the university, research institution, corporate research facility, museum, library, or similar type of institution in the U.S. that wants to hire you.
The U.S. government keep a list of all universities and other institutions that sponsor J-1 professors and research scholars.
After you have accepted a job, a designated “responsible officer” (“DRO”) at the university or other institution will be working with you to make sure you get the J-1 visa and maintain your J-1 status.
You’ll need to be able to speak English well enough to succeed in your job as a professor or research scholar. You’ll also need to have enough money to support yourself (and your spouse and children if they are coming with you) for your entire U.S. stay. While you are in the U.S., you will need to have medical insurance that covers your health care costs up to a certain amount if you get sick or injured.
If you have completed a previous J-1 professor or research scholar program anytime within two years of the date you want to start a new one, you won’t be eligible. Also, you can’t get a J-1 professor or research scholar visa if you have held any other type of J visa (except “short-term scholar”) within one year of the date you want to start the professor or research scholar program. This rule won’t apply if you spent less than six months in the U.S. on your previous J visa or if you’ve gotten sponsor approval to transfer between J-1 programs.
Your responsible officer at the university or research institution will issue you a form called a “DS-2019,” which certifies that you are eligible for a J-1 professor or research scholar visa.
That’s only the first part of the process, however. Unless you’re Canadian, you still need to get a visa so you can travel to the United States. 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 online, you’ll have to pay a visa application fee, usually by going to a designated bank. Again, make sure you save the receipt.
Then, you will need to set up an appointment for an interview at the U.S. consulate in your home country. At least three days before the interview, most J-1 visa applicants need to pay a “SEVIS fee,” which helps fund the technological system that tracks J-1 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,” on this day. See Nolo's article, "The Day of Your Consular Interview" for more information.
A consular officer will ask you questions (in English) to make sure you are eligible for the visa. You’ll go through some security checks, too. For one thing, the U.S.will want to make sure that you (like 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 job in the U.S. is finished. If everything goes well, you will 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 a U.S. consulate for a visa. You can bring your DS-2019 form to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the airport or the U.S. border and ask to enter the U.S. in J-1 status. You’ll have to pay the SEVIS fee at this time. After a short interview, the officer should allow you into the country if you qualify for entry.
Your spouse and unmarried, minor children (under age 21) can come with you to the United States (assuming they’re not separately inadmissible). Your program sponsor must issue each family member a separate DS-2019 form. At the consulate they will apply for a “J-2” visa. If any of your children gets married at any time during your U.S. stay, that child will no longer qualify for the J-2 visa.
Your children can attend school while in the U.S. without having to get a separate student visa. Your family members can apply for permission to work, but the money they earn must be used for their support only, not yours.
The SEVIS database will contain the location of your job, and you must work at that place only, except for occasional lectures or consultations at other locations approved by your sponsor. If you get an offer to lecture or consult at a different location, you’ll need to get a letter from the offeror setting forth the terms and conditions of the offer, including the duration, number of hours, field or subject, amount of compensation, and a description of what you’ll be doing.
You’ll also need to get a recommendation from your department head or supervisor with an explanation of how the lecture or consultation would enhance your J-1 program. If you’re paid for these incidental lectures or consultations, it must be as an independent contractor — a tax definition meaning that you must not be treated as an employee of the place where you give the lecture or consult.
As long as the responsible officer allows it, professors may freely engage in research and research scholars may freely engage in teaching and lecturing.
You and your family can stay in the U.S. on your J visas until your program is over (assuming you don’t violate the terms of the visa), but no more than five years from the date your program started. Your sponsor can’t give you an extension. However, participants in a Federally Funded National Research and Development Center program, or a program sponsored by a U.S. Federal Laboratory, can get an extension from the U.S. government at the sponsor’s request.