Exchange Visitor Visas – J Visa

The Exchange Visitor Program is carried out under the provisions of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961. 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.

The Exchange Visitor Program is administered by the Office of Exchange Coordination and Designation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The website for information on the Exchange Visitor Program is http://j1visa.state.gov/.

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.

In carrying out the responsibilities of the Exchange Visitor Program, the Department 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 for U.S. Department of State use);
  • Alien physician;
  • Professor;
  • Research Scholar;
  • Short-term Scholar;
  • Specialist;
  • Summer work/travel;
  • Teacher; and
  • Trainee.

Overview – 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.

A visa allows a foreign citizen to travel to the United States port-of entry, and request permission from the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, U.S. immigration inspector to enter the United States. A visa does not guarantee entry into the United States.

Qualifying for an Exchange Visitor Visa

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is very specific with regard to the requirements, which must be met by applicants to qualify for the exchange visitor (J) visa. The consular officer will determine whether you qualify for the visa. 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 U.S. for a temporary, specific, limited period;
  • Evidence of funds to cover expenses in the United States; and
  • 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.

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 U.S. 30 days or less 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 with 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 a visitor visa, as explained below; 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 – The spouse and/or children of an exchange visitor in the U.S. may not work in J-2 status. If employment is desired, the appropriate work visa will be required. Before they can work, they must make an application to DHS, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and be approved for permission to work. They must file Form I-765 Application for Employment Authorization with the USCIS office that serves the area where they live for a work permit (employment authorization document).

Study – The spouse and/or children of an exchange visitor visa holder who are in the U.S. on an exchange visitor visa may study in the U.S. without also being required to apply for a student (F-1) visa or change to F-1 status.

Two-Year Foreign Residency Requirement

An exchange visitor is subject to INA 212(e) requirement, 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 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 I Enter on a Visitor Visa (B visa) and Change Status to an Exchange Visitor Program (J visa)?

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 a visitor visa; however, this is strongly discouraged. If you travel to the U.S. on a visitor visa, before beginning an exchange program, you must obtain a change of visa classification from the B status to that of J. You must file Form I-506, Application for Change of Nonimmigrant Status, with application fee, and also submit the required Form DS-2019 to the Department of Homeland Security office where the application is made. Please be aware that you cannot start your exchange visitor program until the change of status is approved, and 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.

Exchange Visitors Cannot Travel Without a Visa on the Visa Waiver Program

Citizens from a country participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), who want to enter the United States temporarily, as exchange visitors traveling to the United States, must first obtain a an exchange visitor visa to come to the U.S. They cannot travel without a visa on the Visa Waiver Program. Those travelers coming on the Visa Waiver Program to participate in an exchange program may be denied admission to the United States by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. immigration inspector at the port of entry.

When Can a Visitor Visa Be Used Instead of an Exchange Visitor Visa?

Some activities that are done on exchange visitor visas are also permitted on business (B-1) or tourist (B-2) visas in certain circumstances. Short periods of study, or study which is recreational, and not vocational, and incidental to the trip is permitted on a visitor visa. The determining factor is the traveler’s primary purpose in coming to the United States. Furthermore, any kind of study that would earn credit or certification is not permitted on a visitor visa. As an example, if you are taking a vacation to the U.S., and during this vacation you would like to take a two-day cooking class for your enjoyment, and there is no credit earned, then this would be permitted on a visitor visa. A consular officer will determine the visa category you will need based on the purpose of your travel, and your supporting documentation.