J-1 Visa Roadmap

The J-1 category is available to foreign nationals coming to the U.S. as “exchange visitors” to gain hands-on experience by participating in an authorized work or study program. Overseen by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), the Exchange Visitor Program was created in the early 1960s to facilitate a mutual educational and cultural exchange between the people of the United States and people from countries around the world. It currently offers programs in 15 exchange categories, including professors and research scholars, alien physicians, camp counselors, government visitors, secondary or post-secondary students, and au pairs. Our focus here will be on two frequently used categories: interns and trainees.

The J-1 internship program is for foreign nationals who are either currently pursuing a degree at a college or university abroad or are recent graduates. The J-1 trainee program was created for foreign nationals who already possess a foreign college or university degree and one year of related work experience or who have no degree but five years of work experience in their field. To be considered for eligibility, the relevant post-secondary education and work experience must have been gained abroad.

Internship and training programs are available in the following occupational categories:

  • The sciences, engineering, architecture, mathematics, and industrial occupations;
  • Agriculture, forestry, and fishing;
  • Information media and communications;
  • Management, business, commerce, and finance;
  • Health-related occupations;
  • Hospitality and tourism;
  • Arts and culture;
  • Construction and building trades;
  • Education, social sciences, library science, counseling, and social services; and
  • Public administration and law.

Interns or trainees may not be placed in unskilled or casual labor positions, positions involving more than 20 percent clerical work, or positions requiring them to provide therapy, medication or other clinical or medical care.

All J-1 exchange visitor records are tracked and monitored through the web-based Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which is managed by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). SEVIS maintains records on all sponsors, hosts, exchange visitors, and their dependents.

J-1 Requirements

There are several parties involved in the J-1 intern and trainee process, and each has its own set of responsibilities and requirements.

The sponsor organization: The DOS designates private and public entities to act as program sponsors in certain occupational categories. These sponsor organizations administer and facilitate internship and training programs by screening and selecting qualified and eligible participants and host organizations. The sponsor supports and monitors participants and hosts throughout the entire program and is responsible for:

  • Ensuring that no U.S. workers are displaced, and all assigned tasks are consistent with program goals and the participant’s skill level.
  • Periodic evaluations by the host, recordkeeping, and ensuring the host’s adherence to various labor laws.
  • Performing site visits at host companies.
  • Collecting and reviewing the completed DS-7002 Training/Internship Placement Plan, which describes in detail the program, its objectives, evaluation measures, and planned cultural exchange opportunities.
  • Issuance of the DS-2019, Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor. The form is generated by SEVIS and issued by the sponsor organization to the applicant.

The host organization: The organization or company where the foreign exchange visitor will be assuming an internship or trainee role must meet the following basic requirements:

  • Having sufficient resources and trained personnel to provide full-time (at least 32 hours per week) training and continuous on-site supervision and mentoring.
  • Providing a meaningful bona fide training program as evidenced by a completed and signed DS-7002 Training/Internship Placement Plan.
  • Keeping the sponsor informed of any issues or changes and performing periodic evaluations.
  • Providing exchange visitors with opportunities to experience U.S. business practices and culture on- and offsite and facilitating mutual cultural exchange.
  • Many sponsor organizations also require a host to have been in business for a minimum period of time and to employ a minimum number of full-time employees on-site.

The Foreign Exchange Visitor: The basic eligibility requirements for J-1 interns and trainees are as follows:

  • Minimum age of 18 years, no maximum.
  • English skills that are sufficient to successfully participate in and benefit from the internship or training program.
  • Insurance coverage for sickness and accidents during the program (can be obtained through either the sponsor or the host organization).
  • Sufficient funds to cover travel and living expenses or evidence of compensation through the host organization.
  • Present intent to leave the U.S. upon conclusion of the program.
  • Prospective interns must be currently enrolled in an academic degree program at a university or college abroad or must have graduated from such a program within 12 months of the internship start.
  • Prospective trainees must have a degree or certificate from a university or college abroad and one year of work experience in their field; in the alternative, they must have five years of relevant work experience. The qualifying work experience must have been gained abroad.

Documentation

The J-1 application process consists of two stages: First, the applicant must apply for and be accepted into an exchange visitor program through one of the designated sponsor organizations; during this stage, the host company undergoes its own screening and application process with the sponsor. Then, the applicant must apply for a J-1 exchange visitor visa at a U.S. consulate in his or her home country.

Applicant documentation required by the sponsor organization:

  • Copy of valid passport.
  • Resume with employment and educational history.
  • Educational transcripts and standardized test scores.
  • Certificates and diplomas from previously attended post-secondary academic institutions.
  • Proof of current full-time enrollment in a post-secondary degree program abroad (for interns).
  • Employment verification letters (for trainees).
  • Certified English translations for all foreign language documents.
  • Any other documentation requested by the sponsor organization.

Documentation and information commonly requested from the host organization include IRS Employer Identification Number, business formation papers, current number of employees and their nationalities, annual revenue, and workers’ compensation policy carrier and number.

Applicant documentation required at the U.S. consulate abroad:

  • Form DS-2019, Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor.
  • Signed DS-7002 Training/Internship Placement Plan.
  • A passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the intended period of stay in the U.S.
  • A printout of the barcode page of Form DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application.
  • Proof of payment of the machine-readable visa (MRV) fee and the I-901 SEVIS fee.
  • Any other documentation requested by the U.S. consulate abroad.

Applicants for J-1 status who have already been approved by a sponsoring organization and are currently physically present in the U.S., but in a different valid nonimmigrant status, may have the option to apply for J-1 status by filing Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) along with a copy of Form DS‑2019 and proof of payment of the I‑901 SEVIS fee.

Admission

Initial entry may be permitted as soon as 30 days before the program start date. Admission is granted for the duration of the internship or trainee program. Upon completion of the program, the J-1 visitor is given a 30-day grace period to prepare for departure from the U.S.

The minimum duration for internships and training programs is three weeks. The maximum duration is 12 months for internships and 18 months for training programs (training programs in the field of hospitality and tourism are usually limited to a maximum of 12 months).

The sponsoring organization may grant an extension on Form DS-2019 up to the maximum allowed program duration.

Family

The J-1 exchange visitor’s spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 are eligible to apply for J-2 status to accompany or join the J-1 exchange visitor in the U.S. Children and spouses in J-2 status may attend school or apply for a work permit by filing Form I‑765 with USCIS. However, a J-2’s income may only be used for discretionary family expenses, such as recreational or cultural activities, and not to financially support the J‑1 principal.

Strategies/Options

Two-Year Home-Residency Requirement (INA 212(e))

Depending on the individual’s home country, source of funding, and field of specialized knowledge, a J-1 participant—and any J-2 dependents—may be subject to a two-year residency requirement. The idea behind this requirement is that exchange visitors should apply their newly gained experience in their home country first. In practice, this means that these exchange visitors are barred from the following actions until they have returned to their home country and resided there for a total of two years:

  • Changing status from J-1 to H, K, L, and most other nonimmigrant categories while in the U.S.;
  • Adjusting status from J-1 to permanent resident status while in the U.S.
  • Applying for an H, K, or L visa or an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate abroad.

For example, a J-1 exchange visitor who is temporarily barred from the options listed above may still apply for an O visa at a U.S. consulate abroad—but should be aware that the two-year home residency requirement does not go away and must eventually be fulfilled unless it is waived.

A country-specific list of specialized skills and knowledge that trigger the requirement can be found here. However, both Form DS-2019 and the J-1 visa generally contain annotations on whether an exchange visitor is subject to the two-year home residency requirement or not.

Waiver of the Two-Year Home-Residency Requirement

Interns or trainees may apply for a waiver of the two-year home residency requirement based on one of the following reasons:

  • A request by an interested U.S. federal government agency.
  • A statement by the home country’s government expressing that it has no objections to the exchange visitor not returning home.
  • Possible persecution in the exchange visitor’s home country.
  • Exceptional hardship to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse or child.

Waivers of the two-year home residency requirement should be submitted as early as possible, since the processing of a waiver application may take anywhere between 8 to 24 weeks or longer.

Repeat Participation

J-1 trainees and interns may participate in additional internships or training programs as long as they meet all other eligibility requirements plus the following conditions:

Interns:

  • A new internship must address more advanced skills, for example after enrolling in or graduating from a higher degree level.
  • To be eligible for a training program, a former J-1 intern must have spent two years outside the U.S. between the completion of the internship and the start of the trainee program.

Trainees:

  • The new training program must address more advanced skills or be in a different field.
  • The trainee must have spent two years outside the U.S. between the completion of the previous training and the start of the new program.

The two-year abroad requirement for repeat participation is not to be confused with the two-year home residency requirement discussed above.

Legal and policy sources:

Immigration policies and regulations are complex and frequently subject to change. The information contained in this roadmap is intended to provide you with a general overview and may not address your particular circumstances and needs. Serotte Law will assist you with the application and documentation process and answer any questions you may have about the J‑1 classification. Request a consultation or give us a call at 888-875-8110.

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