How to Apply for J-1 Status From Within the United States

If you're already in the U.S. legally, you might be able to use the "change of status" application process on Form I-539 to stay longer as a J-1 exchange visitor.

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

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:

  • You apply to, and are accepted by, an approved exchange program.
  • Your designated program sponsor supplies you with a Form DS-2019 "Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status."
  • You pay the SEVIS fee.
  • You apply for a change of status through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
  • After approval, you begin your exchange program.

Are You Truly Eligible to Apply for a Change of Status in the U.S.?

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:

  • you entered the U.S. legally, and not under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), nor using a C (alien in transit), TWOV (alien in transit without a visa), D (crewman), K-1 (fiancé), K-2 (dependent of a fiancé), J-1 (exchange visitor), or M-1 (vocational student) visa.
  • you have never worked in the U.S. without authorization, and
  • the date shown on your I-94 card or record has not yet gone by.

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.

Step One: You Find a J-1 Sponsoring Organization

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.

Step Two: J-1 Sponsoring Organization Issues a Certificate of Eligibility

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.

Step Three: Pay the SEVIS Fee

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.

Step Four: Apply to USCIS on Form I-539

Assemble the items on the below list and submit them to USCIS in order to apply for the change of status.

  • Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status, with accompanying fee ($370 in early 2024, but fee changes are likely to take effect in April 2024; if submitting by mail, send a check or money order, not cash). One Form I-539 and fee will cover you, your spouse, and all your children, if they are in the U.S. with you and in the same visa status or accompanying beneficiaries of your current visa status. But be sure to complete the I-539 Supplement for your spouse and children.
  • Copy of Form SEVIS DS-2019, filled out by your school.
  • Copy of receipt for having paid your SEVIS fee.
  • Copies of proof of your family members' relationship to you, such as marriage and birth certificates.
  • Copies of Form I-94 entry document (including those of your spouse and children, if applying with you) or other proof of your current lawful, unexpired immigration status (except Canadians just visiting the U.S., who are not expected to have I-94s).
  • If either you or your spouse has ever been married before, copies of divorce and death certificates showing termination of all previous marriages.
  • If your program involves studying at a school, copies of transcripts, diplomas, and results of any standardized tests required by the school you'll be attending, showing your previous education and your qualifications to pursue your chosen course of study.
  • Copies of documents showing reasons that you'll return to your home country, such as ownership of real estate, relationships with close family members staying behind, or proof that an employer is holding a job open for you.
  • If your program doesn't include salaried employment, provide proof that you have sufficient funds to pay for it and your living expenses while in the U.S., such as:
    • Form I-134, Affidavit of Support from a U.S. friend or relative, or a letter from a friend or relative promising support.
    • Bank statements.
    • Personal financial statements.
    • Evidence of your current sources of income.

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.

Step Five: USCIS Approval of Change of Status to J-1

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.

Talk to a Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
NEED IMMIGRATION HELP ?

Talk to an Immigration attorney.

We've helped 85 clients find attorneys today.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you