The Exchange Visitor Program is an initiative by the U.S. Department of State to foster cultural exchange between Americans and individuals from around the world. Each program offers participants a unique, immersive experience in an academic, professional, or cultural domain.
The J-1 exchange visitor visa is a nonimmigrant visa for foreign nationals participating in this initiative and may be your ideal visitor visa option.
This guide will provide helpful tools for finding a program sponsor and give detailed information about the U.S. J-1 visa application process. It will also provide important information about maintaining, extending, and changing J-1 status and what happens when your visa expires.
About the U.S. Exchange Visitor Program
The U.S. Exchange Visitor Program allows participants to share their own culture while learning about American culture. It also provides an opportunity for participants to sharpen language, professional, and interpersonal skills that will serve them in future careers.
The exchange visitor program consists of 15 categories. Each category has specific J-1 visa requirements and regulations for participation.
You may be eligible to participate in an exchange program if you fall under one of these categories:
- Professors – Academics facilitating the exchange of ideas and research
- Research scholars – Academics partnering with American institutions to research and exchange ideas
- Short-Term Scholars – Accomplished scholars intending to lecture, observe, consult, or train at U.S. institutions
- Trainees – Professionals gaining exposure and work experience in the U.S.
- Interns – Students or recent graduates completing an internship in the U.S.
- College & University Students – Students participating in a degree program at an accredited post-secondary school
- Teachers – Working full-time at a primary or secondary school
- Secondary School Students – High school exchange students
- Specialists – Experts coming to the U.S. to share their knowledge
- Physicians – Doctors observing, consulting, teaching, researching, or pursuing further medical training in the U.S.
- Camp Counselors – Youth workers, teachers, and students traveling to interact with American youth at camps
- Au Pairs – Young adults providing in-home childcare while taking courses at an accredited school
- Summer Work Travel – Post-secondary students gaining work experience in seasonal or temporary positions.
- Government Visitors – Distinguished international visitors coming to develop or strengthen relations with U.S. officials
- International Visitors – Participants of State Department-sponsored and funded exchange programs
What is the Difference Between the J-1 Visa and the F-1 Visa for Students?
The J-1 exchange visitor visa and F-1 student visa both allow high school and college or university students to study in the United States. Usually, international students, including study abroad students, qualify for F-1 student visas.
Here are some of the fundamental differences between the F-1 and J-1 visas for students:
Choosing an Exchange Visitor Program & Finding a Sponsor
The first step to obtaining a J-1 exchange visitor visa is determining which exchange program category is right for you. The U.S. State Department’s Program Requirement Comparison Chart is a helpful tool for determining your placement and eligibility.
Once you’ve identified the correct program category, begin looking for a sponsor. Sponsors are organizations that administer specific exchange programs and select and monitor participants.
Individuals who wish to participate in an exchange program must reach out to sponsors directly to learn about the program they offer and its application requirements. The website of the Exchange Visitor Program provides two helpful search tools for finding J-1 visa sponsors by country and by program category.
Here are a few examples of popular exchange visitor programs:
- The Summer Work Travel Program for Australians
- The Summer Work Travel Program for New Zealanders
- The Intern Work Travel Program for Irish
- WEST (Work, English Study, and Travel) Program for South Koreans
NOTE: A sponsor is absolutely required for a J-1 exchange visitor visa. You will not be able to apply for a J-1 visa without one.
Who is Eligible to Apply for a J-1 Visa?
The application requirements for a J-1 exchange visitor visa vary by category. On the website of the Exchange Visitor Program, you can find detailed lists of J-1 visa requirements for each program.
However, two requirements apply to all exchange program participants:
- Proficiency in the English language
- Adequate medical insurance that meets J-1 visa insurance requirements
All J-1 visa applicants must demonstrate proficiency in the English language. Most participants can do so by taking a standardized test of English proficiency for non-native speakers, such as IELTS, TOEIC, or TOEFL.
Applicants must also have medical insurance that meets these minimum established benefit levels:
- Medical benefits of at least $100,000 per accident or illness
- Repatriation of remains in the amount of $25,000
- Medical evacuation expenses in the amount of $50,000
- A maximum deductible of $500 per accident or illness
Your primary medical insurance policy may not provide adequate coverage for accidents and illnesses that might occur while studying abroad in the United States. You may need to purchase travel medical insurance to meet the J-1 visa insurance requirements.
Tokio Marine HCC – MIS Group offers two travel medical insurance plans that meet J-1 visa insurance standards: Atlas Travel and StudentSecure. See how these plans meet J-1 visa insurance requirements below.
J-1 Visa Insurance Requirements
Medical benefits of at least $100,000 per accident or illness
Up to $2,000,000 in maximum coverage for those under age 65
Coverage options begin at $100,000 per accident/illness and go up to $500,000
Repatriation of remains in the amount of $25,000
Coverage is included in the overall maximum limit and begins at $50,000
Plans cover repatriation of remains from $25,000 to $50,000
Medical evacuation expenses in the amount of $50,000
$1,000,000 lifetime maximum for emergency medical evacuation to the nearest appropriate facility. Cost for air or ground transportation ticket home are also provided for eligible injuries/illnesses.
Plans offer coverage from $50,000 up to $500,000 for emergency medical evacuation to the nearest appropriate facility. Costs for air or ground transportation ticket home are also provided for eligible injuries/illnesses.
A maximum deductible of $500 per accident or illness
Deductible options start at $0
Deductible options range from $25 to $50
Learn more about J-1 visa insurance and discover the benefits of choosing Tokio Marine HCC – MIS Group.
Before You Apply for a J-1 Visa
Once you have found a J-1 program sponsor and you have enrolled in an exchange visitor program, you must pay two fees before beginning the J-1 visa application process.
- Program Fees – These fees depend on your program details. You should ask your sponsor for a breakdown of these costs. Only individuals in a federally funded exchange program are exempt from program fees.
- SEVIS Fee – The SEVIS fee funds the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) and the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Your sponsor may pay this fee on your behalf. If they do, they must provide a receipt confirming payment. You will need this receipt during the J-1 visa application process. If your sponsor does not pay the SEVIS fee, you must do so at www.fmjfee.com. The fee can range anywhere from $35 - $350 depending on a number of factors.
After you have paid the required fees, your sponsor will register you for SEVIS and will issue you a Form DS-2019.
The Form DS-2019, also called the “Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status,” is the primary document used in the administration of the exchange visitor program. It identifies the exchange visitor, their sponsor, a program description including start and end date, program category, and an estimated cost of the exchange program.
Keep this form safe, as it is necessary during the J-1 visa application process and for all administrative procedures that take place during your program.
Spouses and dependents of individuals who qualify for a J-1 visa may be able to attain a J-2 visa.
How to Apply for a J-1 Visa
IMPORTANT NOTE: The order of the steps you must take to obtain a J-1 exchange visitor visa is subject to vary by U.S. consulate or embassy. The application process outlined below reflects a typical order of steps. You should check with your local institution before beginning the application process to determine the precise order of steps your consulate or embassy requires.
Step 1: Complete the Online Visa Application
Fill out the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (Form DS-160) to begin the U.S. J-1 application process. To complete the Form DS-160, you will need to upload a photo that meets specific photo requirements.
Print out the confirmation page to bring to your interview at the embassy or consulate after completed the online visa application.
Step 2: Schedule an Interview
J-1 visa applicants must complete an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country. Those under age 14 or over age 80 may be exempt from an interview.
Wait times for a visa interview appointment vary. Check with your local embassy or consulate for location-specific information and schedule an appointment as soon as possible. You may also use the State Department’s Visa Appointment Wait Time Estimation Tool.
Step 3: Pay the Visa Issuance Fee
All J-1 visa applicants must pay a $160 visa issuance fee either before or at their interview appointment. If you are required to pay before your interview, you will need to bring the receipt of payment to your appointment.
You must pay at your appointment if you are not required to pay beforehand. Be sure to bring an appropriate form of payment in the correct amount. You will find this information on the embassy or consulate website.
J-1 visa applicants participating in an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), or other federally funded exchange program do not need to pay a visa issuance fee.
Step 4: Gather Required Documents for Your Interview
You will also need to bring several documents to your interview. Required documents include:
- Passport (valid for six months beyond your proposed stay in the U.S., unless exempt)
- Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (Form DS-160) confirmation page
- Application fee payment receipt, if you are required to pay before your visa appointment
- A Photo that meets photo requirements (in case the online photo upload failed)
- Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status (Form DS-2019) issued by your J-1 program sponsor
- Training/Internship Placement Plan (Form DS-7002), if participating in a Trainee or Intern program
The consular officer at your visa appointment may also request additional documentation to determine whether you receive a J-1 visa.
Additional documents may include:
- Documents supporting your purpose of travel
- Documents showing your intent to depart the United States after your travel
- Documents showing you or another person’s financial means of covering your cost of travel
You must also read the Legal Rights and Protections pamphlet before your visa interview to learn about your rights in the United States.
Step 5: Attend Your Interview
At your interview, a consular officer will determine your eligibility for an exchange visitor visa based on your submission of the necessary documents and forms. They will then ask you to provide an ink-free, digital fingerprint.
Your application may also require additional administrative processing, which will be determined by your consular officer.
After receiving approval, you must pay a visa issuance fee (if you did not pay before your interview) and arrange for the return of your passport along with the visa.
How to Maintain J-1 Visa Status
Exchange program participants with active J-1 visa status must comply with the following rules. Failure to meet any of these rules could result in a temporary loss of status. It may also lead to a nonrefundable fee of $367.
- If you plan to extend your J-1 visa, you must do so before the program end date listed on your Form DS-2019.
- You must complete program transfers before the program end date listed on your Form DS-2019.
- You must receive approval and an amended Form DS-2019 before accepting payment for any allowable activity.
- You must maintain valid program status for more than 120 calendar days after the end date on the Form DS-2019
- If you are a student, you must maintain a full course of study, unless you have the approval of your student advisor and sponsor's responsible officer of the student’s sponsor.
Serious infractions could also result in non-reinstatable loss of J-1 visa status. Here are a few such offenses:
- Willful and knowing failure to meet insurance requirements
- Unauthorized employment
- Involuntary suspension or termination from the most recent exchange visitor program
- Failure to maintain valid program status for more than 270 days
Employment With a J-1 Visa
Although J-1 visa holders can perform work, if that is the activity listed on their Form DS-2019, they cannot perform any other kind of paid activity. Doing so could result in the permanent loss of J-1 visa status.
You can, however, seek work from an employer other than the J-1 program sponsor if the type of work is permissible under the regulations of the exchange program category. You must also obtain approval from your program sponsor’s responsible officer.
Changing or Extending Your J-1 Visa
Your J-1 visa is initially valid for the duration of your specific exchange program. You may request to reinstate or extend your J-1 visa status in some cases by asking your sponsor’s responsible officer.
However, you may only extend your J-1 status to your program’s maximum regulatory duration, as established by the U.S. State Department.
Here are the maximum allowed durations for each program category:
- Short-Term Scholar – 1 day to 6 months
- Professor & Research Scholar – 3 weeks to 5 years
- Physician – up to 7 years unless there is an exceptional need
- Intern – 3 weeks to 12 months
- Trainee – 3 weeks to 18 months (12 months if in hospitality)
- Specialist – 3 weeks to 12 months
- Secondary School Student – 1 to 2 academic semesters
- College and University Student – one full course of study or 24 months for non-degree students or 12 months for student interns
- Camp Counselor – 4 months (12 months for AUS/NZ pilot program)
- Au Pair – 12 months (with the possibility to extend up to 12 more months)
- Teacher – up to 3 years
Your J-1 visa does not allow you to change your program or sponsor. It is only valid for the program and sponsor listed on your Form DS-2019. If you want to participate in a different exchange program, you must return to your home country and apply for a new J-1 visa.
What Happens When Your J-1 Visa Expires?
Your J-1 visa expires at the end of your exchange program. However, you don’t have to return to your home country immediately due to the 30-day “grace period.”
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has established this period for exchange program participants to settle their affairs and prepare to return to their home country. Participants may also use this grace period to travel within the United States.
This Grace Period is also applied to the beginning of your program, allowing you to enter the United States up to 30 days before the start of your program.
NOTE: During the "Grace Period," your J-1 visa is technically expired. If you travel beyond U.S. borders during this period, you may not be allowed to reenter.
After the 30-day grace period has elapsed, exchange program participants are subject to the Two-Year Home-Country Physical Presence Requirement. This is a condition of the J-1 exchange visitor visa that requires most participants to maintain residency in their home country for a cumulative total of two years after the exchange program ends.
You are subject to the two-year home-country physical presence requirement if one of these applies to you:
- The U.S. government or your home country’s government is financing your program
- You received graduate medical education or training in the U.S.
- Your program involves “specialized knowledge” or skills that your home country deems necessary
*Certain individuals may be entitled to apply for a waiver.
The two-year home-country residency requirement does not prohibit you from traveling to the United States with a visitor (B) visa or under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). However, until you have completed two years of residency in your home country, you may be prohibited from applying for certain U.S. visa statuses in the future.
Throughout your J-1 visa application process, your local embassy is your best source for accurate information specific to your home country. Don’t hesitate to reach out with questions to ensure a smooth application process. Also, know the process can be lengthy, so make sure you start well in advance from the start date of your program.