Students: How to Spend Summer Working in the U.S. on a J-1 Visa

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If you’re a student attending a college or university outside the U.S., you can work in the U.S. on a “J-1” visa during the summer break between school years. After your job ends, you can travel throughout the U.S. until school starts again. The U.S. government makes J-1 visas available so that non-U.S. citizens have opportunities to participate in educational and cultural programs in the U.S. and return home to share their experiences.

Working With a J-1 Visa Sponsor

J-1 summer work/travel programs are arranged by organizations or companies that sponsor students for the visa. You’ll need to find a sponsor to get the visa process started.

J-1 visa sponsors probably advertise at your school. You can choose to work with whichever sponsor you like. Sponsors will guide you through the whole process of finding a job and getting the visa.

Before you leave for the U.S., your sponsor will provide you with an orientation explaining everything you need to know about maintaining J-1 status and how to get help if you need it.

Eligibility Requirements

To be eligible for a J-1 summer work/travel visa, you must be enrolled full-time and pursuing studies at a non-U.S. postsecondary academic institution, and have successfully completed at least one semester (or its equivalent). The visa is not meant for students who have graduated and don’t plan to pursue further studies.

You must have English language skills sufficient to successfully function on a day-to-day basis at your J-1 job. Your sponsor will verify your English language proficiency, either through an interview or a test.

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. You can obtain insurance on your own, but most sponsors will be able to arrange the insurance for you.

Finding a Job in the U.S.

Most sponsors will maintain a list of employers looking to hire students for short-term or “seasonal” work, and you’ll be able to see which jobs are available.

For the most part, J-1 seasonal jobs are entry-level jobs such as cashiers, housekeeping staff, waiters and kitchen help, resort workers, amusement park and casino workers, ski lift operators, lifeguards, and sales help in retail stores.

You’re not allowed to do certain types of work, like patient care, child care in someone’s home, or taxi driving. The sponsor will work with the employer and you to create a match.

You don’t have to find your job through the sponsor, however. If you have already arranged employment in the U.S., the sponsor will handle the visa paperwork and give advice and support, but first you’ll have to make sure that you and the employer meet all the J-1 visa requirements.

If you’re from a country whose citizens don’t need a visa to visit the U.S., you can get a J-1 visa before finding your job if your sponsor will allow it. Your sponsor must maintain a list of job openings and provide you with job search help if you haven’t found work within two weeks of arrival.

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 summer work/travel 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 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 (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 summer work/travel 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 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.

Payment for Your Work

Your employer must pay you at least the amount that similar workers in the area earn. It can’t be any lower than the minimum amount set by state or federal law, whichever is higher.

You must be allowed to work the number of hours the employer agreed to when it offered you the job. If you work overtime, your employer must pay you for the extra hours in accordance with the state’s employment laws.

Switching Jobs

In the U.S., you can’t be forced to stay at your job. If you leave the job that you agreed to do when you got the visa, however, your permission to stay in the U.S. might expire unless the sponsor approves you for another J-1 job. You can work two J-1 jobs if you want, but your second job can’t interfere with the first one.

Length of Stay in the U.S. on a J-1 Summer Work/Travel Visa

The maximum amount of time a summer work/travel program can last is four months. However, you can be in the U.S. only on your summer break between school years, so if your break is shorter, you won’t have as much time. The beginning and end dates of the program are shown on your DS-2019 form. You can’t ask for an extension.

You are allowed to enter the U.S. up to two weeks before your program is supposed to start, and you can stay for 30 days after the program ends. Programs are often set up so that you work for three months and then have time to travel for a month before your next school year starts.

You can come back to the U.S. to do a J-1 summer job again, if you remain eligible and obtain another J-1 visa.

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