The U.S. government promotes the exchange of American and foreign teachers in public and private schools by granting “J-1” visas to certain teachers who want to come to the U.S. to teach at a primary or secondary school.
Teacher exchange programs are designed so that teachers from outside the U.S. can participate actively in cross-cultural activities with Americans in schools and communities, and return home to share their experiences and their increased knowledge of the United States. Such exchanges enable visiting teachers to better understand American culture, society, and teaching practices at the primary and secondary levels, while enhancing American knowledge of foreign cultures, customs, and teaching approaches.
Eligibility for a J-1 Teacher Visa
To get a J-1 teacher visa, you must meet the qualifications for teaching in primary or secondary schools in your country of nationality or legal residence, and have at least three years of teaching or related professional experience. You must also be a person of good reputation and character.
You’ll need to be able to speak English well enough to perform your teaching duties. You’ll also need to have enough money to support yourself (and your spouse and children if they are coming with you) for the duration of your stay in the United States. 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.
Find a J-1 Teacher Visa Sponsor and Job
You will need to receive and accept a written offer of a full-time, limited-term teaching position from a primary or secondary accredited educational institution in the United States, and satisfy the teaching standards of the U.S. state in which you will work.
Also, you must find a J-1 visa “sponsor,” which is a company or organization that has been designated by the U.S. government to screen and accept teachers for the exchange program. Certain sponsors may be able to help you find a teaching job in the United States. (There are schools that act as sponsors, too.) Others begin to help you only after you’ve found a job.
Your sponsor is responsible for certifying to the U.S. government that you’re eligible for a J-1 visa. Your sponsor will evaluate your qualifications and get references from colleagues and current or former employers attesting to your good reputation, character, and teaching skills.
You may choose whichever sponsor you wish. The U.S. government keeps a list of sponsors, with phone numbers and addresses.
Getting a J-1 Visa
Your sponsor will issue you a form called a “DS-2019,” which certifies that you are eligible for a J-1 teacher 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, you 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 "The Day of Your Consular Interview" for more information.
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. 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 teaching job 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 Family Members
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.
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.
Your Teaching Job in the U.S.
Your teaching job on a J-1 visa can last up to three years. You must work at the school that hired you when the sponsor approved the DS-2019. Your sponsor will provide you with a written statement of the teaching requirements and related professional obligations.
If a teacher’s union has negotiated terms and conditions of employment at the school, your job must comply with those. Your sponsor will give you a written statement that clearly states how much you are going to be paid and any other financial arrangements involved in your participation in the exchange visitor program.