What Is a J-1 Visa?

A J-1 visa is a temporary visa that allows educational professionals and students to enter the country to receive or deliver training. J-1 Visas are essential to our educational system. It's a means by which college professors, researchers, exchange students and other scholars can enter our nation to get or deliver training in the spirit of cultural exchange. There are certain important requirements that you must meet to qualify for one of these visas, including a solid grasp of the English language, but if you have these qualifications, you can live and work in the United States during the exchange period.

J-1 Visa History

The J-1 Visa program was first established under the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961. This program, more properly called the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, granted the U.S. Information Agency the ability to administer a visiting scholar program to build on United States relations with other nations. The goal is to get experience and training in the United States which can then later benefit their home nations.

At first, the program began by bringing these scholars temporarily into the nation to carry out a specific objective—conducting research, teaching, etc. When this was successful, the program expanded to a number of other programs with similar goals, including Professor and Research programs, Short-Term Scholar programs, au pair programs and other work and travel or trainee projects.

Requirements

In order to earn a J-1 visa, you need to fulfill certain requirements beyond a grasp of the English language. Those on student visas must be admitted to a full-time degree program or course of study. Research scholars must conduct full-time research with a valid research institution. They may also lecture or teach courses. Professors must have a job teaching, consulting, observing, or lecturing, as well as conducting research. Specialists must have specialized knowledge in a particular field and use or demonstrate those skills in an observational or consulting capacity.

Finally, short-term scholars can be any of the above, but they are in the country for a short-term purpose up to a few months.

Duration of a J-1

The duration of this kind of visa depends largely upon the purpose for which it's granted. Recipients can stay in the country until the end of the exchange program, described in Form DS-2019, plus 30 days. This extra 30 days is a grace period for you to prepare for return to your home country. The normal duration of a J-1 ranges from three weeks to five years, though short-term scholars may have a term ranging from a few days up to six months.

It's important to note that this grace period isn't documented in the certificate, which has led to problems getting boarding passes on flights out of the country for students with expired visas. In addition, if the visitor leaves the nation during this grace period, they may not use the visa to re-enter.

Re-entering the U.S. as a tourist after your 30-day grace period requires obtaining a tourist visa, which is a different process. You have to leave the country before you can get a tourist visa to return.

Popular Short-Term J-1 Visa Programs

There are many popular programs for a J-1 visa holder. The most popular programs are usually short-term. Some of these programs include:

  • Scholar Program: Helping professors and researchers do research at colleges or universities in the US. You can stay in the country under this program for up to six months.
  • Au Pair Program: If you are between 18 and 26, you can provide au pair, or nanny, services for as long as two years. You usually live with the family of the children you care for and study at a U.S. school.
  • Internship: If have recently graduated college or are still a student, this program allows you to gain real-world experience in the profession of your choosing.  You also learn about U.S. culture.
  • Work and Travel Program: Full-time college students can come to the U.S. for work during their winter, spring, and summer breaks from school.
  • Camp Counselor: If you are over 18, you can come to the U.S. and work as a counselor at a summer camp.
  • High School: If you are a student at an accredited high school, you can come to America and either live with a host family or stay at a boarding school.

Home Residence

Those who have J-1 visas must fulfill a two-year home residency after the end of the visa term. Only after this can they switch over to H-1B, L1, or green card permanent resident status. This means that they must leave the United States and live in the home country as a primary resident for at least two years before they can return to the U.S.

This residency requirement fulfills the spirit of the J-1 program, which provides for the skills learned in the United States to help the holder's country of origin. There are certain circumstances under which the mandatory residency can be waived.

  1. The home country's government issues a "No objection statement," or NOS.
  2. The J-1 holder proves that leaving the nation would cause undue hardship to dependents who are legal permanent residents of the U.S.
  3. The J-1 recipient proves that they will be persecuted if they return to their home country.
  4. The U.S. Federal Government believes that the project upon which the person is working is of interest to the nation, and their departure would be harmful.
  5. The student is a medical graduate who has an offer to work full-time at an agency in a designated shortage of employment area. 

J-1 Reporting

All holders of J-1 Visas must have their progress monitored throughout the course of their stay. This ensures that all activities undertaken are consistent with the program identified on the J-1 form. Sponsors generate these DS-2019 reports which are verified electronically. A fee is required for each program under which they file. 

Participants must always keep contact information current. Failure to update any change of information within 10 days is a violation of status and can result in loss of the visa. 

Categories of J-1

The J-1 program is divided into categories, which are for the most part explicitly outlined in the program regulations. Others, however, are inferred from the language in the regulations. There are two overarching types of J-1, the private sector and the government or academic sector. 

In some cases, you can have a second J-1 program, but this involves developing skills that are more advanced or in a different field entirely. Extra internships are possible so long as your student status remains intact. Finally, you can return on a different J-1 after completing your post-visa 2-year residency. 

Breakdowns within these categories include: 

Private Categories

  • Physician
  • EduCare or Au pair
  • Summer camp counselor
  • Intern program
  • Secondary school student
  • Work or travel
  • Teaching program
  • Trainee program
  • Flight training program 

Government or Academic Categories

  • Government visitor program
  • International visitor program
  • Professor or research scholar program
  • Short-term scholar program
  • Specialist work program
  • College or university student program 

Income Taxes and Overtime

Earnings by J-1 holders are subject to local, state and federal income taxes, based on the job they're doing during their stay. They are, however, exempt from paying FICA (social security/Medicare) taxes for the first five calendar years if they're students or the first two years for trainees or teachers. These people use the 1040NR non-resident tax forms and may be eligible for treaty provisions, depending on the country of origin. 

This also helps employers, who normally have to match FICA taxes paid by employees. Since the J-1 holder isn't paying FICA, there's nothing to match, which saves on taxes for the employer. 

Overtime wages depend on the classification of the job. Current wage laws are under revision, and it's uncertain what the future holds. But if the job is classified as overtime exempt, overtime wages are not required. Otherwise, overtime is paid as it would be to anyone else. 

Benefits and Second Jobs

Organizations are not legally required to offer benefits in terms of time off with pay to J-1 holders, including sick time or vacation. This varies by organization and policy, however. It is not permitted for trainees to work a second job while on J-1 status, even for the purposes of earning benefits. 

Likewise, participants cannot change the training site. If anything about the training program changes, you must work with the sponsor to make arrangements to adapt the visa. If the right steps are not followed, the visa is at risk. 

Travel

Visa holders can travel outside the country for up to 30 consecutive days during the period of the training program. It's vital that they first get a signature on the DS-2019 from the sponsor confirming that they should be allowed back into the country upon return. It's essential to have this multiple-entry visa in the passport. 

If traveling to Mexico or Canada for less than 30 days, you do not need to surrender your I-94 at the border. You may show it to the border guard upon return to allow for re-entry into the U.S. You don't need a travel validation signature for these countries. 

Obtaining a J-1 Visa

Getting a visa requires close collaboration between the applicant and the employer or sponsor. This means that to receive a J-1 Visa, it's important to have a job offer in hand. It's important to get a head start on the process. Those students from Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, Russia, and the Ukraine must have the offer confirmed by a sponsoring organization. This is due to allegations and evidence of involvement by these countries in illegal businesses, poor housing, and sex trafficking. J-1 holders are especially vulnerable targets for these activities. 

Foreign Medical Visas

Specific to work in hospitals, these trainees have a TPL, or training program liaison, with whom they work to keep the visa. The liaison communicates with the government on the student's behalf. The Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, or ECFMG, reviews and processes all applications initiated and submitted by the TPL on behalf of the applicant. 

This process is online and is greatly streamlined from past paper iterations. The system breaks down specific roles in the process and allows people to send in all required information quickly and easily. Specific networks include the Exchange Visitor Network (EVNet) for TPLs and the OASIS, or Online Applicant Status and Information Systems. 

The EVNet system allows the TPL to submit details of the appointment, upload required supporting documents, and manage the entire process. They make sure that the contract or offer letter signed by both the applicant and program administrator is submitted before a sponsorship application is filed. This system also allows for tracking of reports on current J-1 holders. 

The OASIS system allows the applicant to verify acceptance. It also provides all necessary information including the contract, statement of need, Form I-94, passport, and other required documentation. The applicant receives an email when it's time to log on to OASIS to complete an application begun by the TPL through EVNet. 

When both parts of the application are filed, ECFMG forwards the information to SEVIS, the U.S. government agency that determines eligibility and eventually issues the J-1. 

The Visa Interview

Obtaining a J-1 visa requires proof of a strong tie to the home nation and the intent to return home after completing the program. This means you must undergo an interview process to determine your eligibility criteria. 

When attending a visa interview, you need to bring the DS-2019 Certificate of Eligibility, any nation-specific supporting documents, a valid passport still good for at least six months, the SEVIS fee, receipt of payment of the visa application fee, a recent passport-style photograph, and proof of insurance.

The DS-2019 form is important, as is the form that certifies eligibility to receive on-the-job training within the U.S. and to get paid for work performed. This form, however, is only a step towards the J-1 and holds no authority on its own. Obtaining a J-1 is still required. 

Entry and Required Documentation

After receiving a J-1 visa, the applicant must enter the U.S. no earlier than 30 days before the start date and no later than 15 days following. During the J-1 term, you should always keep the I-94 and DS-2019 with you. You should also carry with you proof of payment of the SEVIS I-901 fee. These forms prove that the participant is a legal temporary resident of the United States and is in the country as part of an approved work program. 

If you lose either of these documents, notify your sponsor immediately so they can help you get a new copy. It's essential that these documents are with you at all times.

Social Security

Participants in J-1 visa programs must have a Social Security number in the U.S. To apply for one you need to contact the local Social Security Administration (SSA) office or check out the ssa.gov website. To get your social security card, you need your I-94 and your DS-2019 as well as a birth certificate. 

The application process takes at least an hour or longer depending on how busy the office is that day. The agent at the office checks your arrival information in the SAVE, or Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, database maintained by Homeland Security. If the information has not yet been updated, you get a receipt of application and have to wait up to six weeks for an inquiry. During this time you can still be added to the payroll system with your employer, who simply assigns a dummy identifier number as a placeholder until you get your SSN.

Maintaining Your J-1

In order to keep the J-1, you must attend all mandatory programs and meetings required by the institute. You must work full-time at the designated place of employment, complete all reporting and transfer paperwork as needed, and meet the requirements of the job to stay in good standing. 

Many institutions also require participants to carry valid health insurance while they work in the United States. In some cases, the job might offer this benefit. In others, it must be obtained independently.

Children and Spouses

If you are in the country on a J-1 and have a dependent child or spouse who has a valid J-2 Visa, they can gain authorization to work through the USCIS. This process is the Employment Authorization Document, or EAD, and approval can take anywhere from a few weeks to three months or longer. The most important part of this process is proving that the J-2 holder is not financially supporting the J-1 holder. 

If the J-1 holder has a child during the program, that child is a U.S. citizen, provided that they're born within the boundaries of the country. Maintaining this citizenship requires obtaining a U.S. passport for the child before the J-1 program ends.

J-2 Visas

If you hold a J-1 visa and your spouse or child plans to join you in the United States, they would need a J-2 visa. Your spouse or child's eligibility depends on your J-1 visa program. The families of temporary workers like nannies or camp counselors do not qualify for the J-2 program. There are also some categories that are not eligible.

The application process for a J-2 visa is the same as for a J-1 visa. Approval from a program sponsor is required. Each person applying for a J-2 visa needs their own DS-2019 form. Your child or spouse can either immigrate at the same time as you or at a later time.

J-2 visa holders can usually work in the United States. However, they will need to apply to the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). The money that a J-2 visa holder earns cannot go to support a J-1 visa holder.

Get Help Applying for a J-1 Visa

The immigration process can be long and difficult. If you miss any of the application steps, your visa may be denied. Improve your chances of receiving your J-1 visa by finding an attorney with UpCounsel.

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