Exchange Programs (J-1)
The United States established the exchange visitor programs in order to, in the words of the State Department, "increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through educational and cultural exchanges." In practice, the programs provide a wide variety of opportunities for training, travel, research, education, and employment in the U.S., subject to the sponsorship of governmental and private organizations. Since the inception of the J-1 Exchange Programs, the U.S. has approved some 5,000 sponsored programs (not all of which are currently active) which have facilitated U.S. admission for hundreds of thousands of exchange visitors in the professions and other walks of life.
The key disadvantages to the exchange programs can be the duration of stay for some of the categories (brief) and the requirement that program participants return to their sponsoring country for two years after the program ends. This can constrain those with immigrant intent or who expect to seek employment as a nonimmigrant, but the requirement may be waived under certain conditions.
Types of Exchange Programs
The State Department has authorized a broad range of J-1 exchange programs applying to many activities and settings. These opportunities include:
- Professors and Research Scholars;
- University students (e.g. Fulbright Scholars);
- Interns – foreign college and university students or recent graduates hosted by a U.S. employer for up to 1 year;
- Trainees – early to mid-career professionals hosted by a U.S. employer for up to 18 months;
- Specialists – experts “in a field of specialized knowledge or skill coming to the United States for observing, consulting, or demonstrating special skills” hosted by a U.S. employer for up to 1 year;
- Teachers – coming to the U.S. to teach in elementary and secondary schools or Pre-K language immersion programs;
- Au Pairs – provides the opportunity to participate directly in the home life of a U.S. host family for up to two years;
- Camp Counselors – available to youth workers, students, teachers, or individuals with specialized skills;
- Summer Work Travel – broadly available for post-secondary students; and
- Several others, including foreign physicians, international visitors (State Department sponsored), and government visitors (sponsored by federal, state, and local government agencies).
More information on the various programs is available here
In addition to category specific requirements, participants must have been accepted by a recognized sponsor of an exchange program, have sufficient funds available for the duration of the stay, be proficient in English, and maintain medical insurance for themselves and their family.
Exchange program participants must first identify a “program sponsor” authorized to provide assistance for the specific J-1 category. After meeting the sponsor’s requirements, the program participant applies for a J-1 visa for themselves, and J-2 visas for their spouse and minor children (if any), by submitting the visa application package to a US consulate, as well as a SEVIS Form DS-2019 (Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor), which has been provided by the program sponsor. On application for admission, the exchange participant and dependents present their issued J visas and consulate-stamped DS-2019 to the immigration inspector at border/point of entry. The participant and their family may be admitted up to thirty days prior to the commencement of the program and may stay up to thirty days after it ends, enabling the visitor to make preliminary and departure arrangements, as well as to travel in the U.S.
The J visa permits multiple reentries into the U.S. during its period of validity. Before departing, the individual must have their DS-2019 endorsed for travel by their program sponsor. Upon their return, the J visa holder presents their passport with visa and valid DS-2019 at the port of entry.
J programs can be extended to the maximum allowed for the particular type of program at the discretion of the program sponsor. Additional extensions are only possible if exceptional or unusual circumstances require that additional time is necessary for the program participant to complete the program. These extensions must be approved by the Department of State. If the J holder is eligible for change to H-1b status but for the exhaustion of available visa numbers for the year, the beneficiary may remain in J status until the next fiscal year.
Two Year Abroad Requirement
Under certain circumstances, exchange program participants are ineligible to adjust status to permanent residence, apply for an immigrant visa, or change to H or L nonimmigrant status until they have resided for two years in their country of last residence (residing in a third country would fail to comply). This is also known as the Sec. 212(e) requirement, named after the related section of the immigration code. These circumstances include:
- Government funded Exchange Program: Where the individual's participation in the exchange program was financed in whole or in part by the U.S. Government or the government of the participant's home country;
- Specialized Knowledge or Skill: Where the program is related to a field of expertise (or “skill”) identified on the U.S. Government's skills list, indicating that skill is needed by the home country; or
- Graduate Medical Education/Training: Where an exchange participant came to the U.S. to acquire graduate medical training or education.
Waiver of the Two Year Requirement
There are a number of bases for waiver of the two year requirement, including:
- If the participants country of last residence poses no objection to his or her decision not to return home, unless the US Government financed a portion of the expense;
- Where the participant would be subject to persecution on return to the country of last residence on account of race, religion, or political opinion;
- Where the participant's two years abroad would impose an exceptional hardship on their U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse or child, including economic, physical, and/or emotional hardship; and
- On motion of an interested U.S. Federal Government agency concluding that waiver is in the public interest and that the two year bar would be clearly detrimental to the agency’s interest (e.g. if you are working on a sensitive project that is not complete).
Waiver of the two year home residence requirement can be a complex undertaking requiring the consent of several government agencies within the U.S. and abroad, and is best undertaken with advice and assistance of counsel.