HomeResourcesThe ultimate guide to the J-1 visa
October 29th 2019

The ultimate guide to the J-1 visa

This guide contains an overview of everything you need to know as a J-1 visa holder from eligibility to requirements, costs, employment authorization and more.

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Each year thousands of people travel to the U.S. on J-1 visas to partake in research, training, study as well as intercultural activities as camp counselors, au pairs, and more. During their stay, J-1 visa holders must navigate requirements from taxes to insurance, and more. Many individuals in the U.S. on J-1 visa, however, are subject to the two-year home residency requirement in order to adjust to permanent resident status or change to a non-immigrant status (such as H-1B or L1). 

This guide contains an overview of everything you need to know as a J-1 visa holder from eligibility to requirements, costs, employment authorization and more. 

What is a J-1 visa?

The J-1 exchange visitor visa program was created in 1961 to encourage cultural and educational exchange between the U.S. and other countries. Today, The U.S. Department of State oversees the J-1 exchange visitor program, which allows noncitizens to come to the U.S. to study, research, teach, work,and gain new skills by participating in one of 15 different program categories through approved sponsors across the U.S.

J-1 visa categories

15 different program categories are available for the J-1 visa exchange visitor program, including the following:

  • Trainee

  • Physician

  • Teacher

  • Summer work travel

  • Specialist

  • Secondary-school student

  • Au pair

  • Intern

  • Government visitor

  • College or university student

  • Short-term scholar

  • Research scholar

  • International visitor

  • Professor

  • Camp counselor

The U.S. State Department’s comparison chart allows applicants to compare the different programs that suit their interests, educational levels and backgrounds. 

Each program category has requirements and offers J-1 visas of varying durations. Some programs allow the spouses and dependent children of J-1 visa holders to get J-2 visas so that they can accompany their J-1 visa holding-family members to the U.S. while others do not. For example, the camp counselor program does not allow immediate family members to travel to the U.S. during the J-1 visa holder's program while the physician category does. You will need to check the program category that you are interested in to see whether your spouse or children will be allowed to accompany you during your stay in the U.S.

J-1 visa for physicians

The J-1 visa exchange visitor program is popular among doctors trained abroad who and want to come to the U.S. to further their medical education and training. The Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates is the designated sponsor for all physicians who participate in the J-1 exchange visitor physician program. This program has stringent eligibility guidelines, but it provides great opportunities for physicians who want to further their medical education through graduate or clinical training. To qualify for the physician program, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Background, experiences and needs fitting the program

  • Oral and written English competency

  • Pass medical qualifying exams from the ECFMG

  • Contract signed by the responsible officials and doctors of the host institution

  • Statement from your home country stating that skills and training provided through the J-1 program are needed in your home country

You must intend to return to your home country after you complete your J-1 visa program as a physician. Participants in the program are subject to the two-year home-country residence requirement unless they can secure a waiver of the requirement. 

Physicians participating in the program can perform work associated with their program's curriculum, but cannot seek outside employment during their stay in the U.S. Physicians who agree to work in medically underserved areas for a minimum of three years after they complete their programs may be eligible to secure a waiver of the home-country residency requirement. This path can eventually lead to a Green Card, the right to permanent residence in the U.S.

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J-1 visa duration

The duration of your J-1 visa will depend on your particular program and whether you can get a J-1 visa extension. Once you enter the U.S. with your J-1 visa, you can remain in the country until the final date listed on your Certificate of Eligibility. The USCIS does place specific maximum time limits for the duration of J-1 visas that depend on the type of program. Here are a few examples: 

Secondary school students between age 15 and 18 1/2 can typically only remain in the U.S. for a maximum of one year. In contrast, college and university students are usually stay in the U.S. until the completion of their studies. Following the end of their program, they can also spend an additional eighteen months in the U.S. working in a related field.

Research scholars, people with specialized skills, teachers, and professors who are present in the U.S. as exchange visitors may stay in the country for a maximum of five years. They can take an additional 30 days to prepare to return to their home countries.

Medical graduates who come to the U.S. to pursue graduate medical education can usually remain in the U.S. until they complete their studies for a up to a maximum of seven years plus an additional 30 days to prepare to return to their prior home countries. 

Trainees in business and industry may remain in the U.S. for a maximum of 18 months plus 30 days to prepare to leave the country.

Interns can hold J-1 status for a maximum of 12 months to work in a field associated with their degree with a U.S. employer following the completion of their studies. 

Au pairs must be between the ages of 18 and 26 to participate in the J-1 visa au pair program as exchange visitors. They are allowed to remain in the U.S. and work as an au pair for a maximum of 12 months. During that time, they must be paid the minimum wage, can only work for up to 10 hours per day and 45 hours per week and must earn at least six credit hours in a college or university.

Camp counselors can typically stay in the U.S. on J-1 visas for a maximum of four months. Similarly, people can participate in the summer work program and stay in the U.S. for a maximum of four months during the summer.

Short-term scholars may remain in the U.S. while they complete their programs for a maximum of six months. 

Government visitors may be issued J-1 visas to complete their programs up to a maximum of 18 months.

Requirements for J-1 visas

To receive a J-1 visa, applicants must meet the requirements of their program of interest. Some programs have more rigorous requirements than others. For example, aspiring J-1 physicians must have graduated from a medical program in their home countries, want to pursue graduate medical education in the U.S., pass rigorous examinations and meet other requirements.

All J-1 visa holders must generally find a sponsor and secure admission to a program, be proficient in English, demonstrate non-immigrant intent and meet insurance requirements. Visa applicants must also be able to cover any associated visa fees unless the government or their specific program will shoulder these costs. 

Finding a sponsor

The first requirement that you must meet as a J-1 visa applicant is finding a sponsor and securing admission to an exchange visitor program. The U.S. Department of State has designated sponsor organizations in the various program categories that are located across the U.S. Once you have identified a program and have secured an offer, you will be issued a Form DS-2019.

English language proficiency

All of the J-1 exchange visitor visa programs require that the participants be able to speak, understand, read, and write in English.

Nonimmigrant intent and the two-year home-country residency requirement

As part of your J-1 application, you will be required to prove to the U.S. government that you do not intend to intend to return to your home country after your program has finished. As part of your evidence, you can show ties to your family and community well as any documents showing ownership of property or investments. You can demonstrate your employment ties by submitting letters from your current employer that you will resume working when you return to your home country. Finally, you can also show that you have had other visas in the past and have always returned to your home country following each stay in a different country.

Insurance requirements

A third general requirement for all J-1 visa exchange visitors is that they have adequate medical insurance to cover them during their stay in the U.S. The insurance requirements also apply to J-2 visa holders who accompany J-1 exchange visitors to the U.S. People must have medical insurance that meets the standards of the Affordable Care Act and that provides the following minimum amounts of coverage:

  • Minimum coverage of $100,000

  • Medical evacuation coverage of $50,000

  • Minimum repatriation coverage of $25,000

  • Maximum deductible of $500

You must provide proof that your coverage will remain in effect while you are in the U.S. If you let your insurance lapse during your program, you may violate the terms of your visa, which can result in termination. While you can purchase your own insurance, some sponsors may provide medical coverage. 

Costs of J-1 visas

Several costs and fees are associated with participating in J-1 visa programs. Sponsors of non-federally funded programs may charge program fees to participants that can vary based on the program and duration. To get a list of all applicable fees and costs, contact your sponsor.

The SEVIS I-901 fee is payable to the Department of Homeland Security. When you receive acceptance into a J-1 exchange visitor program, the sponsor's responsible officer will issue a Form DS-2019 and tell you whether you are required to pay the SEVIS I-901 fee or if your sponsor pays the fee for you. If your sponsor pays it on your behalf, you should receive a receipt to confirm that it has been paid. Most J-1 exchange visitors typically pay SEVIS I-901 fees of $220. However, participants in the au pair, camp counselor, and summer work travel programs usually only have to pay SEVIS I-901 fees of $35. Participants in exchange visitor programs that are federally funded do not have to pay any fees. J-2 visitors do not need to pay SEVIS I-901 fees.

Exchange visitors usually also pay a nonimmigrant visa application processing fee when they apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy. The fee for most J-1 visa program categories is $160. However, no fees are charged for official U.S. government-sponsored exchange and education programs. When you apply for your J-1 visa, you must attend an interview with a consular officer at a U.S. consulate or embassy in your home country. At the time of your interview, you will need to bring a receipt that confirms that you have paid the visa application processing fee unless you are participating in a U.S. government-sponsored exchange program that has a serial number that begins with G-1, G-3, G-2, or G-7 on the Form DS-2019.

Finally, depending on your home country of residence, you may have to pay a visa issuance fee. If you live in a country that charges a visa issuance fee to U.S. visitors, the U.S. charges a reciprocal visa issuance fee. You can look at the visa reciprocity tables to determine whether you will need to pay a visa issuance fee and its amount. However, if you are participating in a U.S. government-sponsored J visa exchange visitor program, you and your dependents will not usually have to pay visa issuance fees.

Families of J-1 visa holders

Spouses and dependent minor children are allowed to accompany certain J-1 visa holders to the U.S. on J-2 visas while the J-1 visa holder completes his or her program. Not all J-1 programs allow spouses and children to travel to the U.S. on J-2 visas. Like J-1 visas, J-2 visas are nonimmigrant visas. Programs that do not allow family members to secure J-2 visas include the following:

  • Au pair

  • Camp counselor

  • Summer work travel

  • Secondary school student

Check with your program sponsor to find out whether your spouse or children will be allowed to secure J-2 visas to stay with you during your program in the U.S.

J-2 visa holders must meet the same insurance requirements as J-1 holders. If their health insurance lapses, the J-1 visa holder and the J-2 visa holder will both violate the terms of their visas and may be immediately forced to return to their home country. J-2 visa holders are generally allowed to work in the U.S. if they secure work authorizations from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

How to get a J-1 visa

To get a J-1 visa, you will generally need to complete the following steps:

  • Find a sponsor

  • Apply to the program and gain acceptance

  • Submit the DS-2019 Form and schedule an interview at the U.S. consulate or embassy in your country

  • Pay the fees and secure insurance coverage

  • Attend the interview at the U.S. consulate or embassy

Once your application to your program is approved, the responsible officer of the sponsoring organization will issue you a Form DS-2019. This is a certificate of your eligibility and will include details about your program, including the dates and other information. You will need to submit this form to the U.S. consulate or embassy in your home country to schedule an interview, pay any required fees and bring receipts to your interview.

When you attend the interview at the U.S. consulate or embassy, bring evidence demonstrating your intent to return to your home country. If you meet all of the requirements, you will receive your J-1 visa stamp in your passport and can travel to the U.S. to participate in your exchange visitor program.

Employment authorization and J-1 visas

Most J-1 visa holders can usually work for their sponsoring programs without the need additional employment authorization documents; however,  they are generally not allowed to work outside of these programs during their stay in the U.S. Any job must first be approved by their program sponsors. In case of an emergency, program sponsors may make an exception to this rule.

J-2 visa holders who accompany the J-1 visa holder must obtain employment authorization documents from the Department of Homeland Security to work in the U.S. They can apply by submitting Form I-765 to the Department after they arrive in the U.S. The processing time for the additional employment authorization application can range from three to five months.

J-1 visa exchange visitor tax requirements

J-1 exchange visitors are subject to U.S. taxes while participating in their programs in the U.S. For tax purposes, J-1 exchange visitors are designated as nonresident aliens who must pay local, state, and federal taxes.

Income taxes for J-1 visa holders depend on the location of your program. In all states, you will be required to file a federal income tax return (either be the 1040NR or the 1040NR-EZ form) if you earn money through your program. 

Your sponsor will send you a W-2 form, a tax form that reports the wages or salary that you have earned during the previous year and the taxes withheld. This form should be provided to you by your sponsor no later than Jan. 31 of each year of your program. You need this information to complete your tax return form. The tax return must be filed by April 15.

In addition to federal income taxes, you may have to pay state and local income taxes. While most states have state income taxes, a handful do not. Some states allow local governments to charge local income taxes, but many do not. You should check with your sponsor about whether state and local income taxes are withheld in their particular locations.

If your program is located in a state that assesses state income taxes, you will need to complete and submit the state's income tax return in addition to the federal return.

Medicare and Social Security taxes are usually withheld from the paychecks of U.S. citizens and residents to provide retirement and health benefits to them after they retire. These are considered to be mandatory withholdings for U.S. citizens and residents. As a nonresident, you do not typically have to pay Social Security or Medicare taxes. If these taxes are withheld from your paycheck, you should apply to receive a refund from the Internal Revenue Service.

Even if you do not earn an income while you are participating in an exchange visitor program, you still must typically file a report with the IRS. You will need to submit Form 8843 to the agency. J-2 visitors must also file income tax returns for their stay in the U.S.

Other taxes that you might expect to pay include sales taxes. These are taxes on the sales of consumer goods and services and are not charged in every state. In states that have sales taxes, they will be added to the list price of consumer goods and services. This means that the price that you see will not be what you pay at the register when you complete your purchase. 

J-1 visa extensions

If you cannot complete your work in your exchange visitor program before your J-1 visa expires, you might be eligible to apply for a J-1 visa extension. To secure a J-1 visa extension, your program sponsor must give you a new DS-2019 Form, and your visa must also allow you to get an extension. J-1 visa extensions are not available for all of the program categories.

Your ability to secure an extension will depend on the maximum duration of your J-1 program category. If you have time remaining for the maximum time for your particular J-1 visa, you might be able to secure an extension to finish your program.

To apply, you will need to show that you have the financial resources to pay for your living expenses and tuition for at least one year if they are covered by your sponsoring organization. You will need to submit a Form I-94, a Form IAP-66, and a Form DS-2019 and present your passport. You will also be required to show that you have medical insurance that will cover you during the extension period and provide a detailed explanation of why you need the extension of your J-1 visa program. 

J-1 visa waivers

Some J-1 exchange visitors are subject to the two-year home-country residency requirement. This law mandates that certain types of J-1 visa holders must return to their home countries for a minimum of two years after their J-1 exchange visitor programs end. This two-year home-country residency requirement must be fulfilled before the J-1 visa holders are allowed to secure different non-immigrant visas to return to the U.S. or to pursue Green Cards. The requirement does not apply to all J-1 visa holders, however.

If the two-year home residency requirement does apply to you, you will either have to return to your home country for two years or secure a J-1 visa waiver to remain in the U.S. There are five categories of reasons for waivers, including the following:

  • Fear of persecution if forced to return to the home country

  • Hardship caused to a U.S. citizen or resident spouse or children if the J-1 visa holder returns to the home country

  • A U.S. government agency petitions for the J-1 visa holder to stay in the U.S. for its needs

  • A statement of no objection from the home country that the country does not need the J-1 visa holder to return

  • A state health department files an official request for the exchange visitor to remain in the U.S.

If you meet one of these requirements, you can apply for a J-1 visa waiver. You must apply to the Department of State, which will review the application materials and make a recommendation to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS), the agency that decides whether to grant or deny the waiver application.

J-1 visa advisory opinions

The home presence requirement does not apply to all J-1 visa holders. The two-year home presence requirement applies for J-1 exchange visitors participating in government-funded programs. It also applies to participants in graduate medical programs and training as well as exchange visitors with skills listed as “needed” by their home countries.

The U.S. State Department maintains an exchange visitors skills list for participating countries that you can check. If you are unclear about whether the requirement applies to you, you can request an advisory opinion from the Department of State. The advisory opinion will explain whether your visa is subject to the two-year home presence requirement and can let you know whether you should try to seek a waiver or must return home.

To issue an advisory opinion, the State Department will review all of your J-1 visa documents. You will need to submit copies of all of the Forms DS-2019 that you have received, a letter to request a visa status review, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the Waiver Review Division at the Department of State by mail. Once it has completed its review, the Department of State will send its opinion to you in the SASE that you provided. You cannot request an advisory opinion by email or fax. To learn more, read our article about J-1 advisory opinions.

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J-1 visa to Green Card

While J-1 exchange visitors must demonstrate a non-immigrant intent, their circumstances may change when they are in the U.S., leading them to want to seek U.S. residency status. Some J-1 visa holders can transition to Green Cards, but not everyone is eligible to make this transition.

Applicants who are subject to the two-year home-country residence requirement must return to their home countries for a minimum of two years after they complete their J-1 exchange visitor programs unless they can secure waivers of the home presence requirement.

People who can secure waivers will need to prove that they had an intent to return to their home countries at the time that they applied for their J-1 visas. The reason for them wanting to gain immigrant visas must be due to an unexpected change in circumstances while they have been in the U.S.

A common reason why exchange visitors may want to remain in the U.S. is that they have met and married U.S. citizens or residents during their programs. The spouses of these visitors may petition on their behalf to secure marriage visas. If the exchange visitor is subject to the two-year home presence requirement, he or she might have to leave the U.S. for two years before he or she receives a marriage visa unless he or she can secure a J-1 visa waiver.

Marriage-based visa applications are carefully scrutinized by the USCIS. Some examples of evidence of the bona fide nature of marriage include living together, filing joint income tax returns, having joint bank accounts, having children or having intimate knowledge of the other person. The couple will be interviewed by the USCIS to determine whether their marriage is real before a marriage-based visa will be granted. If the visa is denied, the J-1 visa holder will have to return to his or her home country.

Another avenue for transitioning from a J-1 visa occurs when a sponsor is willing to sponsor the exchange visitor for an H-1B visa, which allows skilled workers to live and work in the U.S. for three years and may be extended for an additional three years. After a worker has lived and worked in the U.S. with the H-1B visa for six years, he or she may be eligible to apply for a green card. There are annual caps on the number of H-1B visas that are granted each year, and many applications are denied. This makes it important for your sponsor to apply for an H-1B visa on your behalf early.

Finally, physicians might also be able to transition to Green Cards from their J-1 visa statuses. This is allowed when the doctors receive J-1 visa waivers and are then able to secure offers of employment from hospitals in designated medically-underserved areas. They must then work full-time in their positions for a minimum of three years before they will be eligible to apply for green cards. 

The takeaway

The J-1 visa offers terrific opportunities to people from around the world to study, work, train, and live in the U.S. during their programs. The exchange visitor program also benefits the U.S. through the exchange of ideas and culture.

This guide is intended to help you to understand the exchange visitor program requirements and the obligations that you will have when you receive a J-1 visa. After you have been approved for your J-1 visa and are preparing to travel to the U.S., consider how you will live during your stay — especially how you manage your finances from setting up a bank account to managing your credit. In the U.S., credit history is important in securing things necessary for everyday life from credit cards to utilities and even your apartment. 

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More from Nova Credit:

A complete guide to health insurance for J-1 visa holders

Everything J-1 visa holders need to know about taxes

Everything you need to know about the J-1 visa waiver for physicians

J-1 to H-1B: A guide to changing your J-1 visa status

J-1 visa employment options: Do you need work authorization?

What is a J-1 Advisory Opinion? Why it matters to J-1 visa holders

Is it possible to transition from a J-1 to a Green Card in the U.S.?

What is a J-1 visa waiver, and what does it take to get one?

Guide: How to obtain a J-1 visa extension

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