Exploring the J-1 Visa Program: Exchange Visitors

The J-1 visa is part of the wider students and exchange visitor’s program. According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, this visa “is authorized for those who intend to participate in an approved program for the purpose of teaching, instructing or lecturing, studying, observing, conducting research, consulting, demonstrating special skills, receiving training, or to receive graduate medical education or training.”

The J-1 visa program is for non-immigrant visitors to the United States. The program also enlists public and private entities as exchange “sponsors” who sponsor petitioners.

Examples of Exchange Visitors

The J-1 visa program applies to a very wide range of non-immigrant, international petitioners, including the following:

Au pairs Camp counselors Scholars
Researchers Professors Interns
Students Teachers Specialists
Research assistants Trainees Medical graduates

How to Apply for a J-1 Visa

Applying for a J-1 visa isn’t particularly completed, but does require petitioners to take some specific steps.

  • Obtain and submit Form DS-2019, the Certificate for Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status. You will need to submit it to your local US embassy or consulate. This form not only identifies the petitioner, but also the designated sponsor, and provides an outline of the exchange visitor’s program. Note that you can only obtain this form from a designated sponsor.
  • Work closely with the officials at your sponsoring agency throughout the process. Note that you cannot apply for a J-1 visa without a sponsoring agency.
  • Work closely with your responsible officer (RO) or alternate responsible officer (ARO) to supply documents and information necessary for the process.
  • Next, apply for a J-1 visa with your local US embassy or consulate, or through the US Department of State.
  • Complete the interview portion of the process. Note that wait times for interviews can be lengthy and will vary from location to location. Timely submission of your visa application is important to reduce wait time.

Is a J-1 Visa Contingent on an Offer of Work?

No, the J-1 visa is not an employment-related program. While some petitioners do work while in the United States, others do not, and there is no requirement for an offer of employment for your petition to be granted in most cases. Note that in most cases, participants are only allowed to work within their program. However, your sponsoring agency may have restrictions that limit your ability to work during your stay.

J-2 Visas for Family

Your spouse and unmarried, dependent children under the age of 21 are eligible to J-2 visas and can accompany you to the United States. Note that while J-2 visas do not preclude spouses from working while in the United States, any income your spouse earns cannot be used to support you. Your spouse and each child must file Form I-765 for employment authorization as a J-2 non-immigrant.

What Is the Length of Stay on a J-1 Visa?

The length of stay varies significantly and is based on the type of activity in question. For instance, an au pair might have a 12-month stay, while a medical graduate might require seven years. You will need to work with your sponsoring agency to understand the length of stay that applies to your specific situation.

Are Extensions Available for the J-1 Visa Program?

Yes, your stay can be extended if necessary. The responsible officer (RO) has the discretion to extend or deny the extension. If an extension is offered, you will need to submit a new Form DS-2019 that reflects the new stay duration. As with the original stay duration, the extension length will vary from situation to situation. Note that in some cases, exceptional or unusual circumstances may be allowed beyond the maximum program duration, but this requires approval from the Department of State, not just your RO.

What Is a Change of Category with the J-1 Visa Program?

Unlike many other programs, the J-1 visa program offers some flexibility. For instance, you can apply for a change of category while in the US as a visa holder. However, changes must be clearly consistent with your original exchange objective. As an example, you cannot apply as an au pair and then change the category to a research scholar. As with extensions, the ultimate authority over category changes lies with your RO.

Can You Transfer to Another Sponsor?

Yes, the J-1 visa program does allow you to transfer between sponsors. However, some rules must be met. The authority to approve or deny the transfer rests with the RO of the new program. Note that transfers are not permitted in all categories and that transferring between sponsors does not increase the duration of the program. If the new RO approves the transfer, you will be issued a new Form DS-2019, which must be completed and signed by your current RO.

Can You Be Terminated from the J-1 Visa Program?

Yes, you can be terminated from the program for breaking any of your sponsor’s rules. Note that these vary from sponsor agency to sponsor agency. Also, you may be terminated for failing to pursue the stated exchange activities of the program, for an inability to continue with the program, for willful failure to maintain insurance coverage, or for unauthorized employment while in the program.

Are There Waivers with the J-1 Visa Program?

Yes, waivers are available in certain extraordinary situations. Note that program participants who are mandated to return to their home country for two years after completing the program cannot apply for any other waiver until that requirement is waived. The J-1 visa program recognizes five statutory bases for waivers, including:

  • A claim of exceptional hardship to a US citizen or legal permanent resident spouse or child of an exchange visitor if the visitor is required to return to their home country
  • A claim of persecution due to race, religion, or political opinions if the visitor is forced to return to their home country
  • A request from a US government agency on behalf of the visitor
  • A “no objection statement” from the visitor’s home government
  • A request by a designated state health department or a similar agency

J1 Waivers for Physicians

Each state has 30 J-1 waiver slots. The requirements for a J1 waiver for physicians include:

  • Working full-time on H-1B non-immigrant status
  • The contract received by the employer should be for the physician to work in an underserved area or for a population that’s underserved or where there is a shortage of physicians. Exceptions are that the physician can work in a non-underserved area if the people he or she serve do reside in such an area.
  • In the case of the physician’s home government sponsoring him or her, the home government will need to provide a no objection letter.
  • The physician’s work must begin within 90 days of receiving the J1 waiver and cannot begin on the day that the physician’s J1 visa expires. The physician must work no less than 3 years upon receiving the waiver.
  • Some physicians are allowed J-1 waivers for opening their own practices, but most physicians will find better success at attaining a J-1 waiver when working for large employers such as the VA, larger practice groups and hospitals.