Before Applying for a J Visa for Exchange Visitors: What to Know

By Richard Link, Attorney
Participation in a "J" exchange program in the United States has special consequences, including, for some participants, a two-year home residency requirement and an inability to change status in the United States.

If you’re thinking about participating in an exchange program between your home country and the United States, there are some important things to consider before applying for the “J-1” exchange visitor visa or changing your status to J-1.

Your Work Options in the U.S. May Be Limited

There are many different types of J-1 programs. Some involve work while others do not. You can work in the United States only under the terms of your exchange program. If you think you might need to work outside your program, ask your program sponsor whether you can do so or not.

Your Spouse or Child Can Come Along, But Will Need Permission to Work

The spouse or child of an exchange program participant can get “J-2” status, which will allow them to remain in the United States for as long as the exchange visitor has J-1 status. If the spouse and child want to work, they can apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for employment permission, which will come after about three months.

J-2 spouses and children can attend school without permission.

J-1 Exchange Visitors Need Insurance While in the United States

All J-1 exchange visitors must have insurance that covers them for sickness or accidents while they are participating in the exchange visitor program in the United States. If a spouse or child is coming along, they must have insurance too.

You May Have to Spend Two Years in Your Home Country After Your Exchange Visitor Program Ends

Exchange programs are designed to give persons training or experience they cannot get in their home country, with the expectation that they will return home and put their newly gained knowledge to work for the benefit of their fellow citizens.

To further that goal, U.S. law makes certain J-1 program participants return to their home country for two years before they can apply to become a permanent resident of the United States or get an “H” or “L” visa, which are long-term temporary visas that can lead to permanent residence.

It’s possible to get around this two-year home residence requirement by getting a “waiver,” but you should first know whether the two-year home residence requirement will even apply to you. The requirement applies to anyone who participates in an exchange program that was financed by his or her government or the U.S. government; anyone who is involved in a field of specialized knowledge or skill that the person’s home country needs (according to a “skills list” for that country published by the U.S. Information Agency); or anyone who receives graduate medical education or training.

As mentioned, if the two-year home residence requirement applies to you, you might be able to get it waived, but you can’t count on that happening.

You May Not Be Able to Change to Another Immigration Status Without Going Home First

If you’re one of the people who must comply with the two-year home residence requirement, you won’t be able to change your status to a different type of immigration status (except “A” or “G”) from within the United States unless you get a waiver of the two-year home residence requirement.

However, you can leave the United States and come back as soon as possible with a different type of visa (except “H,” “L” or a permanent resident visa) without getting the waiver.

If you are going to receive graduate medical education or training in J status, you likely won’t be able to change your status at all, whether you’re subject to the two-year home residence requirement or not. The exception is for recipients of a “Conrad” waiver to work in a medically underserved area, who will change to “H-1B” status.

Switching Programs or Extending Your J-1 Status May Be Hard

Just because you’re in the United States in J-1 status doesn’t mean you can participate in any exchange program you want. If you want to keep doing the same type of thing but with a different program sponsor, you’ll need the permission of the old and new sponsor. If you want to participate in a different J-1 program, the new program is going to have to be clearly consistent with and closely related to your original goal, and the switch must be necessary due to unusual or exceptional circumstances.

If you can’t complete your exchange program on time, you can ask for an extension of J-1 status from your program sponsor to allow you to finish, but you can’t stay past the maximum time the law allows anyone to complete your particular type of J-1 program.

You can stay in the United States for 30 days after your program ends, but no more. If you do something to lose your J-1 status, like quit the program, stop paying your insurance, or work without permission, you don’t get any grace period and must leave the United States right away.

If You Plan to Travel Out of the U.S. During Your Program, You May Need Another Visa

If you came to the United States with a J-1 visa (or with any other type of visa and then switched to J-1 status), that visa will have an expiration date. Your visa might even expire before your program ends. If it does and you leave the United States, you will need to apply for and receive another visa in order to come back to continue your J-1 program.

You have to get the visa at a U.S. consulate outside the United States.

You may be able to take advantage of automatic visa revalidation (and come back with an expired J visa) if you travel to Canada, Mexico, or an adjacent island (except Cuba) for 30 days or less. See an immigration lawyer for advice if you're in that situation.

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