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.

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.

Criteria for 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. Also, you must be participating 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). Well before applying for the visa, you must apply to, and gain acceptance from, one of these programs.

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.

You will have to 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.

Another requirement of the J-1 visa is that you speak, read, and write English well enough to participate effectively in your exchange program. And, 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.

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.

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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