One of the defining characteristics of the J-1 visa for exchange students is its requirement, in many cases, that the person holding the J-1 visa return home for two years before returning to the U.S. on a nonimmigrant (temporary) visa or as a lawful permanent resident (green card holder).
This requirement has caused frustration for many J-1 students who, while they are in the U.S., receive a job offer or marry a U.S. citizen – either of which would, for most other foreign visitors to the U.S., entitle them to apply for continued U.S. residence.
There is a reason for the home residence requirement, however. The J-1 visa is intended for exchange programs where people learn something that is particular to the United States. Exchange students are expected to go back to their home countries and use or share their knowledge about the United States. This is the “exchange” element of the visa.
Let’s take a closer look at who this requirement normally applies to, an how to find out whether it applies to you.
Exceptions to the Two-Year Home Residence Requirement
Not all J-1 visa holders are subject to the two-year home residence requirement. It applies only to participants in the following three types of exchange visitor programs:
- programs for foreign medical graduates who receive graduate medical training (residencies)
- programs in which the participant receives money from his or her foreign government, the U.S. government, or an international organization, and
- programs for teaching people certain skills that are in short supply in their home countries. The Department of State (DOS) maintains a list of such skills and the countries where they are especially needed. You can access this on the “Exchange Visitors Skills List” page of the DOS website.
Also note that the two-year period need not be an unbroken stretch of time. An aggregation of two years in your home country can also suffice.
Finding Out Whether You Are Subject to Two-Year Home Residence Requirement
How do you tell whether you are subject to this requirement? First, check your Certificate of Eligibility, or Form DS-2019, which you received from your program sponsor. It should have a notation as to whether you are subject to the home residence requirement. Also, if you were issued a J-1 visa at a U.S. consulate, check the visa, which will state whether or not you are subject to the home-residence requirement.
But do not take either of these as the last word on the matter. Neither the DS-2019 nor the J-1 visa designations are entirely authoritative, and you wouldn’t want to waste your time applying for an immigration benefit only to ultimately be rejected.
The DOS Visa Office has the final say on whether you are subject to the two-year home-residence requirement. You may request an advisory opinion as to whether you are subject and may also initiate J-1 visa waiver applications by visiting the “Waiver of the “Exchange Visitor Two-Year Home-Country Physical Presence Requirement” page of its website.
If you are subject to the two-year home-residence requirement, then you are ineligible to apply for a green card, to change status to another nonimmigrant visa, or to obtain an H or L visa -- without a waiver, that is. For more information, see "Waivers of Two-Year Home Residency Requirements for J-1 Visa Holders."