The J-1 Visa includes a lot of different programs because it is for various nonimmigrant work-and-study oriented, exchange visitor programs.

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The J-1 Visa includes a lot of different programs because it is for various nonimmigrant work-and-study oriented, exchange visitor programs. So it necessarily must have a lot of subcategories, fifteen in fact. All but two of the categories are privately funded and are administered through a variety of for-profit, non-profit, or federal, state, and local government entities. The only two publicly-funded subcategories are International Visitors and Government Visitors. A J-1 Visa necessitates a cultural exchange, which means you share your culture with your local American community, and vice versa. This sharing differentiates it from other visa categories that might seem to overlap.


Most people who participate in the J-1 program are young, and have a desire to strengthen their English and learn more about the U.S., as well as share their culture with Americans! The length of your visa depends on your program and sponsor, so it can vary quite a bit. In fact, the requirements vary by program, though all programs require you to meet their specific eligibility requirements (which can be found here), English language proficiency (whatever level is needed for participation in your selected program), and be sponsored either by a university, private sector or government program. The U.S. government issued 343,800 J-1 visas in 2017.

Students: Students between the ages of fifteen and eighteen can attend high school in the United States. They can study at a public or private school and live with an American host family, or they can study at a boarding school. Usually, a high school student on a J-1 visa can stay in the U.S. for one academic year. They cannot have been to the U.S. on a J-1 or F-1 visa and have not attended more than eleven years of primary and secondary school combined (not including kindergarten). While in the U.S., you can be a standard student and participate in any school-sponsored activities. You cannot work full- or part-time, but you can accept occasional work, like babysitting.

college or university student can study at a degree-granting academic institution in a degree, non-degree or internship program. For college and university students the ability to participate in non-degree and internship programs, make the J-1 visa different from a student F-1 visa. If you are participating in a degree program, your visa will usually be for the length of your program. If you are in one of the non-degree or internship programs, the usual length of the visa is twenty-four months or two years. You have to be financed directly or indirectly by the U.S. government, your home country’s government, or an international organization (that the U.S. is a member of), or substantially supported by any source that is not personal/family money. That can sound scary or difficult to achieve, but there are programs. Some countries pay for their citizens to attend school abroad. There are also programs like the Rhodes Scholarship. And if none of these funding requirements are possible for you, you can always look into other student visas (click here for more information)! You can have part-time employment with a J-1 student visa, but it is subject to conditions.

Summer Programs: College and university students from foreign universities can work seasonal/temporary jobs in the U.S., and travel as well. This is called the summer work travel program. It is a fun and easy way to gain first-hand experience, as well as see some of the United States. Another way to come to the U.S. for the summer is as a camp counselor. High school graduates and beyond, can come to the U.S. and work at an American summer camp and teach children. Usually, these programs are for sleepaway camps, but not always (sleepaway camps include room and board, so they can be quite appealing for that reason).

Au Pairs/Nanny: A high school graduate between the ages of 18-26 years old, can live with a host family for twelve months and provide childcare, and take courses at a U.S. college or university ( at least six credit hours). A potential au pair/nanny has to be proficient in spoken English and has to have passed a physical exam, and a background check (including a personality profile). You also have to be personally interviewed in English by a representative who will give a report to the host family. Working as an au pair lets you live in the U.S., and receive professional childcare training (at least thirty-two hours). You can even extend your time after your initial twelve months, by six, nine, or twelve additional months.

Other possible J-1 visa programs are for:

  • Professors
  • Research Scholars
  • Short-term Scholars
  • Trainees
  • Specialists
  • Physicians
  • Government Visitors
  • International Visitors
  • Interns
  • Teachers

Can you change categories or transfer programs partway through? You can! However, it is not the easiest thing to do, and there are some fairly strict requirements. To change categories, you have to show that the two categories (original and new) are related and consistent and that it is necessary, because of unusual or extraordinary circumstances. In order to transfer programs you have to transfer within the same category, and it has to be approved by the appropriate officer.

Foreign Residency Requirement: Nearly all J-1 visa-holders are required to return to their home country for at least two years. After those two years, you can then apply for other types of visas. You can get a waiver to skip your two-year requirement, but there are specific requirements for limited circumstances, which include circumstances like persecution in your home country, or your departure would cause exceptional hardship to your U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident dependents.

Extending/Changing Your Status: It is difficult to change your status when you start with a J-1 visa, and it makes sense when you think about it. The core goal of the J-1 visa is to “foster global understanding through educational and cultural exchanges.” It would be difficult to do that if you do not return to your home country to share your new knowledge and understanding. It is not, however, impossible. You cannot change if:

  • You came to the U.S. to attend graduate medical training, unless you get a special waiver.
  • You are required to meet the foreign residency requirement unless you receive a waiver.
    • If you do not get a waiver, you can only apply to change to diplomatic and other government officials (A visa) or representatives to international organizations (G visa).

An extension is usually within the power of your program sponsor who can, at their discretion, extend your stay for its maximum length. What is the maximum length you ask? That is dependent on your program category and your program sponsor’s designation, so it can vary.

J-2 Visas: These are visas for your spouse and minor children. It is dependent on your visa, when your visa ends, so does theirs. J-2 visa holders can attend school, recreationally or in a full or part-time program. If their visa ends before they finish school, they can apply to transfer to an F-1 visa. A J-2 visa holder can also apply for an employment authorization document (EAD) and can therefore work!

A J-1 Visa is a broad category that includes a lot of different types of exchange visitors. So in order to determine if it is right for you, you may need to do more research and speak to an experienced immigration attorney.

Can I leave the country and return on a student visa?

Yes! You should make sure you have all your documents with you (passport and I-20 at least). You will also need a travel endorsement signature. That is a signature from the International Student Affairs staff at your school on the second page of your original I-20 or DS-2019. The signature proves that you are maintaining your status, and this will be checked by an immigration official when you re-enter the U.S. after traveling abroad.

Will I and my dependents have to be interviewed?

You will most certainly need an interview. You will have to go to the embassy or consulate nearest you within 120 days of your program start. In general, anyone coming to the U.S. on any kind of student visa, or student visa dependent, will have to be interviewed if they are between ages 14 and 79. Sometimes those aged 13 and younger, and those aged 80 and older will need to be interviewed only if requested by the embassy/consulate, but that is not the standard practice.

What if my English needs some improvement?

Well, it depends on what program you are applying for. If you are applying for an English language intensive program, then that is fine, since the whole point is for a language immersion experience! For a J-1 visa, you need enough language skills to participate in whatever program you choose, so it is dependent on the needs of the program. In general, aside from a language-intensive program, your English skills should be high enough that you do not struggle in the program. Especially if you are trying to earn a degree!

Can I drive in the U.S.?

Yes, you can! You need to get a driver’s license in the state you are living. You should wait at least ten days after you arrive in the U.S. so that all of your information is updated in the various systems. The specific procedure varies from state to state, so you should look up your state’s requirements. You will almost certainly need your passport, your I-20, and proof of residence. Proof of residence means proof that you live in that state (not in your home country)–but what is actually required might be different in different states, so you should check with your state’s DMV.

Is there a limit on how many people can get a student visa per year?

There is no numerical limit! You have to meet the various requirements of the visa and your program, but the government does not have a set limit.

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