A J-1 Visa to the U.S.: Who Qualifies?

Learn which types of professions and programs meet the criteria to obtain a J-1 exchange visitor visa.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

The J-1 exchange visitor visa is meant to promote educational and cultural exchanges between the U.S. and other countries around the world. This visa is primarily available to people who have signed up with an approved program that focuses on teaching, receiving training, or conducting research.

The J-1 visa is also used by U.S. employers that want to hire workers to either receive on-the-job training or to take part in an internship. (You'll find the laws and regulations on this in the Immigration and Nationality Act at I.N.A. § 101(a)(15)(J), and in the Code of Federal Regulations, at 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(j).)

And for college and university students outside the U.S., J-1 summer work/travel programs are available, allowing you to spend a summer working in the United States, typically at low-skill, seasonal jobs. The maximum time in the U.S. will be four months.

The law places no limit on the number of people who can receive J-1 visas each year.

Key Features of the J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa

Here are the main things to know about what rights and responsibilities come with a J-1 exchange visitor visa:

  • The main visa holder's spouse and children may receive J-2 visas to also come to the United States.
  • The J-1 visa holder may work legally in the U.S., provided that this work is part of the approved program or permission to work has been granted by the official program sponsor.
  • Spouses and children on J-2 visas may apply to USCIS for permission to work, so long as they prove that the money is not needed to support the J-1 visa holder.
  • J visa holders may travel in and out of the U.S. or remain here until the completion of the exchange visitor program.
  • Participants in certain types of programs may be required to return to their country of origin for at least two years before applying for a green card, a change to another nonimmigrant status, or approval of an L or H visa petition on their behalf.
  • You will need to pay for health insurance while you are in the United States. Your policy must contain certain specified provisions, so find an insurance company that knows what type of policy an exchange student needs.

Criteria to Receive a J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa

In order to qualify for a J-1 exchange visitor visa, you need to be:

  • Coming to the U.S. as a student, scholar, trainee, intern, au pair, teacher, professor, research assistant, medical graduate, or international visitor.
  • Applied to and been accepted for participation in a program of studies, training, research, or cultural enrichment that has been designed by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), via its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). Typical programs for which J-1 visas are issued include the Fulbright Scholarship program, specialized training programs for foreign medical graduates, and programs for foreign university professors who will be teaching or performing research within the United States.
  • Show that you have sufficient money to cover your expenses while in the U.S. as an exchange visitor. Those funds may not come from your own, personal resources, nor from family; but must come from your own government, the U.S. government, an international organization, or some other source outside your own family (at least, initially; once you enter the U.S., you may continue to be documented as a J-1 student even if your funding source goes away, so long as you come up with some lawful source of funding). If your J-1 visa is based on work activities, the salary you will receive may be counted as your means of support. If you are a J-1 student, a scholarship may also be counted toward these funds.
  • Speak, read, and write English well enough to participate effectively in your exchange program. If English is not the native language of your home country, you might have to pass a test of English language proficiency.
  • As with many other nonimmigrant visas to the U.S., you will need to prove that you intend to return to your country of origin when you have completed the exchange program.

If you meet all these criteria, the application process for a J-1 visa is relatively simple.

What Types of Exchange Programs Could I Apply To?

Below are some ideas for program types to look into.

Exchange Programs Offered Through Your University

If you're like most prospective exchange students, you are already attending a university in your home country. You want to spend a year at a college or university in the U.S., and then return to your home university to complete your studies.

Check to see whether your school participates in any exchange programs with U.S. schools, and whether you qualify under the terms of that program. The exchange program might direct you to a particular U.S. college or university and help you throughout the process of enrolling there as an exchange student.

Government-Sponsored Exchange Programs

Two schools agreeing to accept each others' students is just one type of exchange program. Exchange programs are also created by agreements between U.S. universities and foreign governments, and between state or local government agencies in the U.S. and foreign countries. Check to see whether your government offers this type of exchange student opportunity and whether you meet the selection criteria.

Exchange Programs for Students Receiving Scholarship Funding

You can also study in the U.S. as an exchange student if an American governmental agency (federal, state, or local) or the government of your home country will pay for your studies in the United States. They can pay you directly, or they can be funding a program you have been selected to participate in.

You can also get exchange student status through funding from an international organization that includes the U.S. as a member.

And finally, you can become an exchange student if anyone other than yourself or your family pays most of the cost of your studies in the United States.

Applying to a U.S. College or University

The exchange student program you're participating in might help you with the process of applying for acceptance to the U.S. college or university. If you need to find a U.S. college or university that sponsors foreign exchange students, see the State Department's list of Designated Sponsor Organizations. You will need to meet the school's standards for acceptance.

What Are the Next Steps in Applying for a J-1 Visa?

For information on the application process, see either How to Apply for J-1 Status From Within the United States or How to Apply for a J-1 Visa From Overseas.

Do J-1 Visa Applicants Need a Lawyer?

Your school or exchange visitor organization should provide you with a good deal of help and advice with the J visa application process. Nevertheless, a lawyer can provide valuable services, particularly you've had trouble getting visas in the past, overstayed your permitted time on a U.S. visa, or are from a country thought to sponsor terrorism.

Also, if you decide after coming to the U.S. that you want to apply for a different nonimmigrant status or green card, but think you might be subject to the two-year home residence requirement and would therefore need a "no objection" or other waiver, you should definitely get a lawyer's help.

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