If you are coming from overseas as an exchange visitor or scholar, you would need to apply for a J-1 visa as your U.S. entry document. If, however, you are already in the U.S. legally as a nonimmigrant (on some other temporary visa, most likely), you might have the option of changing status without returning to your home country first. In other words, you would want to apply for "J-1 status." (See I.N.A. § 101(a)(15)(J), 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(j).)
The object of exchange visitor programs is to foster mutual understanding between people in the U.S. and in other countries around the world, through educational and cultural interaction. Regarding basic eligibility, see A J-1 Visa to the U.S.: Who Qualifies?.
Getting a J-1 visa from within the U.S. involves four major steps, each of which is described further along in this article:
The mere fact of being in the U.S. is not necessarily enough to allow you to request a change to J-1 (or any other) status. People who are undocumented, for example, are ineligible to apply for a change of status, regardless of whether they have been accepted by an exchange program.
If you are physically present in the U.S., you may apply for a change to J-1 status without leaving the country only if:
If you have any questions about your eligibility to apply for a change of status, consult an immigration attorney. It's possible that you can still obtain a J-1 visa by leaving the U.S. first.
Before starting the J-1 application process, you must gain admission to an exchange program approved by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), through its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). See the State Department's list of approved organizations at its Designated Sponsor Organizations page. Get started on this well in advance, to leave time for submitting the USCIS paperwork and receiving a decision before the exchange program starts.
Once an approved program has accepted you, it will send you a Certificate of Eligibility, or SEVIS Form DS-2019. Carefully check it for any errors, and contact the sponsoring organization to correct them. You will need to use the DS-2019 in the next steps of applying.
Before submitting your application, you'll need to pay a fee. The amount is $220 for most applicants (early 2024 figure), but exceptions are made in some categories. Federally sponsored exchange visitor program (program codes start with G-1, G-2, G-3, or G-7) pay no fee; and au pairs, camp counselors, and summer work/travel program participants pay $35.
The purpose of the fee is to support the U.S. student tracking database called SEVIS. Your school might take care of processing this fee payment for you. If not, you will need to do it yourself, either online or by mail.
To do so online, go to www.FMJfee.com and pay by credit card. You will need to complete the online Form I-901.
For more information, see the SEVIS I-901 Fee page of the ICE website.
Assemble the items on the below list and submit them to USCIS in order to apply for the change of status.
After assembling the change of status application, you can either submit it online or mail it to a USCIS Service Center, as per the instructions on the USCIS website.
It normally takes USCIS several months to approve (or deny) change of status applications; and the agency is often backed up; expect to wait between 3.5 and 7 months for a decision (depending on which Service Center is handling cases from your area). Processing time averages can be found on its website. USCIS will notify you of its decision using a Form I-797 Notice of Action. It will send you a new I-94 card as well.
After approval, you may begin your program.