Students coming to the U.S. may have a choice between three likely visas:
- the J-1 visa for exchange visitors (including scholars) participating full time in approved exchange programs
- the M-1 visa for full-time students in vocational programs, or
- the F-1 visa for full-time students in academic programs.
If you’ve got a choice, which visa might be best for you? Let’s look at some of the comparative advantages and disadvantages to these three visas.
Types of Program Covered
F-1 and M-1 visas offer the broadest coverage of school programs. One of these visas can likely be issued for almost any type of educational program imaginable.
The M-1 visa covers vocational training in things like cooking, mechanical or technical training, dance, music, photography, animation, and art and design. (For a casual course of under 18 hours a week that doesn’t lead to a degree, however, a B-2 tourist visa is more likely the appropriate one to use.)
The F-1 visa covers secondary and high school programs as well as all courses of study at colleges and universities.
J-1 programs, by contrast, are limited as to the level of education and types of subjects that can be studied – though they include both secondary and college or higher level education. For example, high school or college students may spend a semester or year in America on a J-1 visa, or a research scholar might come to a U.S. university on a visiting basis. Further examples can be found on the U.S. State Department’s list of “Designated Sponsor Organizations.”
Length of Stay in the U.S.
An F-1 student can stay in the U.S. for as long as it takes to complete their program, within the time authorized by the school. An M-1 student is allowed to attend school for a maximum of three years, including any extensions. For J-1 students, the permitted time in the U.S. varies by type of exchange program.
Permission to Work in the U.S.
It is easier to get work permission as an exchange visitor than it is on an F-1 or M-1 student visa.
Both F-1 and J-1 visa holders (but not M-1s) may work at on campus jobs. They are limited to 20 hours per week during the school term, but can do full-time work during official school breaks.
Many students wish to find jobs off campus, however, to gain experience with actual U.S. businesses or other employers. A J-1 visa holder may remain in the U.S. for up to 18 months after graduation for the purpose of working in a practical training position. F-1 student visa holders are limited to 12 months of practical training employment. M-1 students are limited to a mere six months.
Permissible Activities for Spouses and Children
The accompanying spouses and children of J-1 visa holders have more opportunities than those of F-1 or M-1 students. J-2 visa-holding dependents may study in the U.S. with no restrictions, and may work on- or off-campus after obtaining USCIS work authorization, so long as their earnings are not to support the J-1 student.
F-2 and M-2 visa-holding dependents, however, may not work. A spouse may sign up for avocational or recreational study (such as arts classes or English class), while children are allowed to attend elementary or secondary school. But they may not sign up for a degree-granting course of post-secondary study without getting a visa of their own.
School Transfers and Overall Flexibility
F-1 and, to some degree, M-1 student visas offer greater flexibility than J-1 exchange visitor visas. With an F-1 student visa, you may transfer from one school to another or change your course of study quite freely. M-1 students can (with USCIS permission) transfer within their first six months of study, though they cannot change their educational objectives at their school. After graduation, F-1 students may enroll in a new educational program without having to obtain a new visa. On a J-1 visa, however, you must remain in the exact program for which your visa was issued.
Ability to Change or Adjust to Another Lawful Status in the U.S.
F-1 and, to a lesser extent, M-1 visa holders can relatively easily change to another status after graduation. For example, an F-1 student might be sponsored by an employer for an H-1B visa for specialty workers (though this option is not available to M-1 students if their training or qualifications for the H visa were obtained as an M-1 student). An F-1 or M-1 student might also adjust status to permanent residence after marriage to a U.S. citizen.
These options are not necessarily available to J-1 visa holders. Certain J-1 visa programs come with a two-year home residency requirement, requiring you to wait outside the U.S. for two years before applying for a green card or a change to another nonimmigrant status.
For more information, see “Student and Exchange Visitor Visas.”