How to Come to the U.S. as a High School Exchange Student

How foreign students can come to the U.S. for a limited period of high school study, on a J-1 visa.

By , J.D.

Every year, thousands of young people come to the United States as exchange visitors, to live with an American family and go to an American high school. The idea is that they learn about American culture and tell their new American friends what it's like to live in a different country. You can be an "exchange student" too, if you follow certain rules and obtain a J-1 visa.

Who Can Be a High School Exchange Student in the U.S.?

A "high school" in the U.S. is the type of school students attend after having completed eight or nine years of primary or elementary school. To become an exchange student, you must be in school in your home country and not have completed more than 11 years of school ("kindergarten" doesn't count). If you're not in school right now, that's okay too, as long as you're between the age of 15 and 18 1/2 when you start high school in the United States.

You must show that you are mature, have good character, and can succeed in school. To succeed, you must be able to speak English well enough to take classes at the high school. You must also show that you have health insurance that would provide certain minimum benefits if you became sick or get injured while in the United States.

You can't become an exchange student if you've already gone to school in the U.S. with a student visa (F-1).

How Long Can an Exchange Student Stay in the United States?

Ordinarily, an exchange student comes to the U.S. for either half the school year, or a whole school year. You can't be an exchange student for more than that, or for less than that. Your visa will allow you to arrive in the United States 30 days before school starts, and you can stay for 30 days after school ends (a so-called "grace period," during which you are expected to pack up and ready yourself to depart).

Who Do Exchange Students Live With?

Some high schools, called "boarding schools," give you a place to live at the school with other students. If you don't go to a boarding school, you must live with an American "host" family. The host family is carefully chosen to make sure it consists of good people who can take care of you.

The family must provide you with a bedroom and bathroom, a place for your clothes and other things, a place to study, all your meals, and transportation to and from school. Ordinarily you would be the only exchange student living with the family.

You can't live with relatives, and you can't rent an apartment and live on your own!

Can Exchange Students Play on a School Sports Team?

Exchange students can play on a high school sports team, unless the local or state government has a rule that says they can't. If you're really good at a sport and want to go to a particular high school to play there, you have to tell school officials about that. Your program sponsor can't help place you in a particular school because of your athletic abilities.

Can Exchange Students Work After School, on the Weekends, or During Vacation?

You can't have a regular job in the United States, either full time or part time, if you're an exchange student. However, you can accept money for doing jobs that people ask you to do once in a while, like babysitting or painting a house.

I Want to Be an Exchange Student in the U.S.! What Should I Do?

If you want to be an exchange student, you need to contact a sponsor organization in the United States. Sponsors are companies that have been approved by the U.S. government to find a school for exchange students and place them with host families. You can find a list of all sponsoring organizations on the U.S. Department of State's BridgeUSA website.

Once you have selected a sponsoring organization, it will give you a form called a DS-2019. This form shows that you are eligible to study at the high school as an exchange student.

You're not done yet, however. Unless you're Canadian, you still need to get a visa so you can travel to the United States. The visa for exchange students is called a J-1 visa. To get one, you might want help from a lawyer who knows U.S. immigration law. You will go online and fill out a form called a "DS-160," which is your application for the visa. You need to show your DS-2019 form that you got from the program sponsor.

You'll have a to pay a fee and go through some security checks, too. For one thing, the U.S. will want to make sure that you (or any other visa applicant) are not barred from entry due to health, security, or other issues, as described in Inadmissibility: When the U.S. May Keep You Out.

Then you go to the U.S. consulate in your home country for an interview. See The Day of Your Consular Interview for more information. A visa officer will ask you questions (in English) to make sure you're eligible for the visa. The officer must be satisfied that you intend to return home after your time at school is finished. If everything goes well, you get your visa and can start planning your trip to the United States.

If you're Canadian, you don't need to fill out the DS-160 form or go to the consulate for a visa. You can bring your DS-2019 form to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the airport or the border and ask to enter the U.S. in J-1 status. After a short interview, the officer should allow you into the country if you qualify for entry.

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