IMMIGRATION: J-1 Visas - Exchange Visitors

THE "J-1" VISA CATEGORY The Exchange Visitor Program

The "J-1" Visa category is used by certain foreign students (not to be confused with the "F-1" or "M-1" student visas), scholars, expert, medical interns and residents, and industrial and business trainees, to enter the United States as "exchange visitors" under an approved Exchange Visitor Program, for the purpose of gaining work experience, doing research, or studying.

A J-1 generally obtains a visa through a pre-approved Exchange Visitor Program Sponsor, and once obtained, the alien can work for any qualifying employer.

For issuance of a J-1 visa it is not required that the employer prove there are no U.S. workers available, however, the alien must maintain a residence abroad which he or she has no intention of abandoning during the pendency of the J-1 visa and, at the time of the visa interview and at time of entry into the United States, must exhibit an intention to depart the United States upon the termination of J status.

Spouses and Children under 21 years of age receive J-2 Visas. Although spouses and children are not authorized to work in the United States without separate work permission, they may attend school. A child's
J-2 Visa status expires on their 21st birthday.

Overview - About the Exchange Visitor Program

The Exchange Visitor Program is carried out under the provisions of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, as amended. The purpose of the Act is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchanges. International educational and cultural exchanges are one of the most effective means of developing lasting and meaningful relationships. They provide an extremely valuable opportunity to experience the United States and our way of life. Foreign nationals come to the United States to participate in a wide variety of educational and cultural exchange programs.

The Exchange Visitor Program is administered by the Office of Exchange Coordination and Designation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The internet website for information on the Exchange Visitor Program is:

At the conclusion of their program Exchange Visitor program participants are expected to return to the home countries to utilize the experience and skills they have acquired while in the United States. However this is not mandatory for all J-1 programs, and for programs with mandatory foreign residence requirements, it may be possible in some instances to receive a waiver of the foreign residence requirement.

In carrying out the responsibilities of the Exchange Visitor Program, the U.S. Department of State designates public and private entities to act as exchange sponsors. Designated sponsoring organizations facilitate the entry of foreign nationals into the United States as exchange visitors to complete the objectives of one of the exchange visitor program categories, which are:

  • Au pair Camp
  • Counselor
  • Student, college/university Student, secondary
  • Government Visitor International Visitor (reserved only for
    U.S. Department of State use
  • Alien physician
  • Professor
  • Research Scholar
  • Short-term Scholar Specialist Summer work/travel
  • Teacher
  • Trainee

Each category of exchange has specific requirements and regulations.

About the Exchange Visitor Visa

A citizen of a foreign country, who wishes to enter the United States, generally must first obtain a visa, either a nonimmigrant visa for temporary stay, or an immigrant visa for permanent residence. The type of visa you must have is defined by immigration law, and relates to the purpose of your travel.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides the exchange visitor (J) nonimmigrant visa category for persons who are approved to participate in exchange visitor programs in the United States. This means that before you can apply at an American Embassy or Consulate for a J visa you must apply, meet the requirements, and be accepted for one of the Exchange Visitor Program categories through a designated sponsoring organization.

If you are accepted as a participant in an exchange program, the sponsor will provide you with information and documents necessary to apply for the J visa to enter the United States. Changes introduced shortly after September 11, 2001 involve extensive and ongoing review of visa issuing practices as they relate to our national security. Visa applications are now subject to a greater degree of scrutiny than in the past. Applicants affected by these procedures are informed of the need for additional screening at the time they submit their applications. So it is important to apply for your visa well in advance of your travel departure date.

Applicants must demonstrate that they properly meet the requirements to be issued an exchange visitor visa, including the following:

  • That they plan to remain in the United Statee for a temporary,
    specific, limited period;
  • Evidence of funds to cover expenses in the United States;
  • Evidence of compelling social and economic ties abroad;
    and other binding ties which will insure their return abroad
    at the end of the visit.

What is SEVIS and SEVP? What should you know about it?

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is designed to help the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State better monitor school and exchange programs and F, M and J category visitors. Exchange visitor and student information is maintained in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS is an Internet-based system that maintains accurate and current information on non-immigrant students (F and M visa), exchange visitors (J visa), and their dependents
(F-2, M-2, and J-2).

SEVIS enables schools and program sponsors to transmit mandatory information and event notifications via the Internet, to the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State (DOS) throughout a student or exchange visitor's stay in the United States.

All exchange visitor applicants must have a SEVIS generated DS 2019 issued by a Department of State designated sponsor, which they submit when they are applying for their exchange visitor visa. The consular officer will need to verify your DS 2019 record electronically through the SEVIS system in order to process your exchange visitor visa application to conclusion. Unless otherwise exempt, participants whose SEVIS DS-2019 was issued on or after September 1, 2004 must pay a SEVIS I-901 Fee to the Department of Homeland Security for each individual program. The fee may be paid either through a special web site, via Western Union, or by mail.

Where and When Do I Need to Apply for My Visa?

Applicants may apply for their visa as soon as they are prepared to do so. Exchange visitor visa applicants are encouraged to apply for their visa early to provide ample time for visa processing. Applicants for visas should generally apply at the American Embassy or Consulate with jurisdiction over their place of permanent residence. Although visa applicants may apply at any U.S. consular office abroad, it may be more difficult to qualify for the visa outside the country of permanent residence.

Applying for an Exchange Visitor Visa -Required Documentation

As part of the visa application process, an interview at the embassy consular section is required for almost all visa applicants. The waiting time for an interview appointment for applicants can vary, so early visa application is strongly encouraged. If you are authorized by your sponsor to be accompanied by your spouse (husband or wife) and children, they will also be given a Form DS-2019 and they can apply at the same time. As part of the visa interview, a quick, two-digit, ink-free fingerprint scan will be taken, as well as a digital photo. Some applicants will need additional screening, and will be notified when they apply.

You may apply for your visa at an Embassy or Consulate any time before the beginning of your exchange program. Each visa applicant must submit these forms and documentation, and submit fees as explained below: DS 2019, Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status. You will need to submit a SEVIS generated Form, DS-2019, which was provided to you by your program sponsor. All exchange visitors, including their spouses and dependents must be registered in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), an Internet-based system that maintains accurate and current information on non-immigrant students and exchange visitors and their dependents (J-2 visa holders).

Your program sponsor is responsible for entering your information for the DS 2019 Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status into SEVIS. Exchange visitors not part of a U.S. Government-sponsored program will also have to pay a Sevis I-901 fee for each program. Questions regarding your exchange program should be directly to your program sponsor. An application, Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-156, completed and signed.. A Supplemental Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-157 provides additional information about your travel plans. Submission of this completed form is required for all male applicants between 16-45 years of age.

It is also required for all applicants from state sponsors of terrorism age 16 and over, irrespective of gender, without exception. Six countries are now designated as state sponsors of terrorism, including North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Sudan, Iran, and Libya.

A passport valid for travel to the United States and with a validity date at least six months beyond the applicant's intended period of stay in the United States is required. Applicants must demonstrate to the consular officer that they have binding ties to a residence in a foreign country which they have no intention of abandoning, and that they are coming to the United States for a temporary period. It is impossible to specify the exact form the evidence should take since applicants' circumstances vary greatly.

My Visa Has Been Issued - When Can I Travel to the U.S.?

Be advised of the Department of Homeland Security regulation which requires that all J exchange visitors, and J-2 spouse and dependents, enter the United States not more than 30 days in advance of the applicant's program start date as shown on the Form DS-2019. Please consider this date carefully when making travel plans to the U.S. Immigration officers may deny you entry into the United States at your expense if you attempt to enter more that 30 days before your program start date. The 30-day limitation does not apply to current exchange participants who are returning to continue their exchange program.

If you want an earlier entry in the U.S. (more than 30 days prior to the course start date), you must qualify for, and obtain, another nonimmigrant visa type, however, this is strongly discouraged.

Spouses and Children Spouses and/or children under the age of 21 who wish to accompany or join the principal exchange visitor (J) visa holder in the United States for the duration of his/her stay require exchange visitor visas (derivative J visas). The application procedure is the same as that for a primary visa applicant. The sponsor must approve the accompaniment of the spouse and/or children and who will each be issued their own Form DS-2019. This form is used to obtain the required visa and the spouse and dependents can enter the U.S. at the same time as the principal exchange visitor or at a later date.

Work for Spouse and Chidren Prohibited

The spouse and/or children of an exchange visitor in the United States may not work in J-2 status, but must independely qualify for any nonimmigrant employment authorized visa status.

Two-Year Foreign Residency Requirement

An exchange visitor is subject to INA 212(e) requirement,
only if the following conditions exist:

  • The program in which the exchange visitor was participating was financed in whole or in part directly or indirectly by the United States government or the government of the exchange visitor's nationality or last residence;

  • The exchange visitor is a national or resident of a country designated as requiring the services of persons engaged in the field of specialized knowledge or skills in which the exchange visitor was engaged for the duration of their program (Exchange Visitor Skills List 9 FAM 41.62, Exhibit II);

  • The exchange visitor entered the United States to receive graduate medical education or training. If the exchange visitor is subject to INA 212(e) requirement, he or she cannot change his or status to that of H, L, K, or immigrant lawful permanent resident (LPR) until he or she has returned to his/her home country for at least two-years or unless he or she has received a waiver of that requirement.

Such waivers can be obtained under five separate basis:

    • No Objection Statement
    • Exceptional Hardship or Persecution
    • Conrad Program, or Interested Government Agency.

Can You Enter on a Visitor Visa (B visa) or Student Visa (F or M)
and then Change Status to an Exchange Visitor Program (J visa)?

If you travel to the U.S. in another visa status before beginning an exchange program, you must obtain a change of visa classification to that of J within the United States.

Please be aware that you cannot start your exchange visitor program until the change of status is actually approved, therefore in view of the processing time to your change status in the U.S., you may be in danger of missing your entire exchange program waiting approval of change of status. Advance planning is a must.

Citizens from a country participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) who want to enter the United States temporarily as exchange visitors cannot change to J, or to any other nonimmigrant status, within the United States, but must first obtain a a J-1 exchange visitor visa at a U.S. consualte overseas, and then come to the United States to participate in a J-1 Program.


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