The J-1 visa allows entry to the U.S. for participation in already-established exchange visitor programs. The object of these programs is to foster mutual understanding between the people of the U.S. and those of other countries in the world, through educational and cultural interaction. For more information on basic eligibility, see A J-1 Visa to the U.S.: Who Qualifies?.
If you are interested in participating in such an exchange program, here is an introduction to the application process. Getting a J-1 visa from overseas involves four major steps:
(If you are Canadian, your application procedures will be different from those of other applicants. Nolo's book U.S. Immigration Made Easy contains details.)
You cannot start the J-1 application process until you have been admitted to an exchange program approved by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), through its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). The State Department provides a list of approved organizations, on its Find Designated Sponsor Organizations page. You'll probably need to get started well in advance.
Once a program has accepted you, it will issue you a Certificate of Eligibility, or SEVIS Form DS-2019. You do not fill out or sign any part of it. But be sure to carefully check the form for accuracy. Ask your sponsoring organization to correct any errors. You'll use the DS-2019 in the next steps of your application process.
Anyone with a Certificate of Eligibility (Form DS-2019) from an exchange visitor program sponsor can apply for a J-1 visa at a U.S. consulate in his or her home country. You must be physically present in order to apply there.
You can normally apply any time before your program begins. Because of processing delays, it's best to apply as soon as you have your DS-2019 form. Check with your local U.S. consulate regarding its application procedures. Many insist on advance appointments. Just getting an appointment can take several weeks, so plan ahead.
Your application will consist of the online State Department Form DS-160 as well as documents that you collect yourself, as itemized on the checklist below.
For more information on these requirements, see the ICE website.
Most consulates will require an interview before issuing a J-1 exchange visitor visa. During the interview, a consular officer will examine the forms and documents for accuracy. The consular officer will verify your DS-2019 record electronically through the SEVIS system.
Documents proving your ability to finance your study will be carefully checked, as will evidence of ties to your home country. During the interview, you will surely be asked how long you intend to remain in the United States. Any answer indicating uncertainty about plans to return home or an interest in applying for a green card is likely to result in a denial of your student visa.
Because of security requirements, you are unlikely to be approved for your visa on the same day as your interview. The consular officer will need to compare your name against various databases of people with a history of criminal activity, violations of U.S. immigration laws, or terrorist affiliations. This can add weeks or months to the processing of your visa, particularly if you come from a country that the U.S. suspects of supporting terrorism.
Once your visa is approved, you might also need to pay a visa issuance fee, depending on what country you are from.
You'll be allowed to enter the U.S. up to 30 days before the start of your classes or program, but no earlier. When you arrive in the U.S. with your new J-1 visa, the border officer will examine your paperwork, ask you some questions, and if all is in order, approve you for entry.
The officer will stamp your passport and note your period of stay as "D/S" for Duration of Status. In addition to the annotation in your passport, you can download an I-94 Departure Record confirming your arrival date and status from the Customs & Border Protection website. Duration of Status means that you can stay until the completion of your program. As a practical matter, however, you are permitted to remain up to the expiration date on your SEVIS Form DS-2019 Certificate of Eligibility.
Each time you exit and reenter the U.S., you will get a new Form I-94 for the same "D/S" period.