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The J-1 Visa for Exchange Visitors and Its Requirements

1. The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program

The Immigration and Nationality Act provides J-1 non-immigrant visa category for persons to participate in exchange visitor programs in the United States. The exchange visitor program is designed to promote the interchange of persons, knowledge, and skills in the fields of education, arts, and sciences, designated by the U.S. Department of State. 

A J-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa available to aliens that fall under the designation of "exchange visitor". To obtain a J-1 visa, the sponsor must be accredited through the Exchange Visitor Program designated by the U.S. Department of State. Individuals who qualify for J-1 status if sponsored through an accredited Exchange Visitor Program include:  

  • Secondary school and college students, including students working towards a graduate degree.
  • Business trainees
  • Primary and secondary school teachers.
  • College professors.
  • Research scholars. 
  • Specialists.
  • Medical residents or interns receiving medical training within the U.S.

The spouse and minor children of J-1 visa holder  may apply for derivative J-2 visas to accompany or follow to join the principal alien by presenting a copy of the principal's SEVIS DS-2019 Form (or IAP-66 Form). They must demonstrate that they will have sufficient financial resources to cover all expenses while in the United States. Dependents may apply to the USCIS for authorization to accept employment in the United States. 

2. The Requirements for the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program

1) Financial Resources: Participants in the J-1 exchange visitor program must have sufficient funds to cover all expenses, or funds must be provided by the sponsoring organization in the form of a scholarship or other stipend.

2) Scholastic Preparation: J-1 exchange visitors must have sufficient scholastic preparation to participate in the designated program, including knowledge of the English language, or the exchange program must be designed to accommodate non-English speaking participants.

3) Medical Education and Training: Exchange visitors coming under the J-1 program for graduate medical education or training must meet certain special requirements. This may include having passed the Foreign Medical Graduate Examination in Medical Sciences, demonstrating competency in English, being automatically subject to the two-year foreign residence requirement later, and being subject to time limits on the duration of their program. Physicians coming to the United States on exchange visitor programs for the purpose of observation, consultation, teaching, or research in which there is little or no patient care are not subject to the above requirements.

4) Forms: Participants in the J-1 exchange visitor program must present a SEVIS DS-2019 Form prepared by a designated sponsoring organization.

3. The Employment of J-1 visa holder

Employment while in J-1 exchange visitor status depends on the terms of the program. Participants in programs which provide for on-the-job training, teaching, research, or other activities which involve paid employment may accept such employment. Participants in programs which do not involve work may not accept outside employment. Generally, USCIS regulations require J-1 holders to work for their program sponsors.

In some situations, however, J-1 holders may work for non-sponsor employers, provided that they meet the eligibility requirements. J-1 research scholars are eligible to work for a non-sponsor employer in a closely-related research program, provided that the program has been approved (written authorization required) by the original sponsor. This allows J-1 scholars to lecture and consult at institutions not listed on their SEVIS DS-2019 Form (or IAP-66 Form).

An alternative available for J-1 students is the Practical Training Program. J-1 college students and post-doctoral students are eligible to receive relevant practical training upon graduation.

The J-1 visa is the only non-immigrant visa which allows employment of dependants. J-1 holders' spouses and minor children (J-2 status) may accept employment with USCIS authorization, provided that their income is not used to support a J-1 holder. J-2 holders who are applying for employment authorization should complete Form I-765 along with filing fee. After obtaining an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), the J-2 holder may accept offers from any employer within the authorized period. 

4. The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program Skill List 

Some individuals who hold or have held J-1 exchange visitor status are subject to two-year Home Residency Requirement (HRR). This requires such individuals to return to their home countries for two years at the completion of their J-1 stays. Such individuals cannot change status in the United States, obtain H-1B or L-1 status, or become permanent residents in United States until the two-year requirement has been met. There are provisions for requesting waivers of the two-year home residency requirement.

Not all J-1s are subject to this requirement. One of the reasons an individual would be subject is due to the Department of State's J-1 Exchange Visitors Programs Skill. This is a list of subject areas determined to be in limited supply in one's home country. If an individual participated in a J-1 program included on the skills list for his/her country, then HRR would apply. 

U.S. Department of State clarifies the Exchange Visitors Programs Skill List. Generally, individuals are subject to the skills list in effect at the time that they enter the United States to participate in a given program. The J-1 visa holders may travel outside the United States, and upon reentry they shall continue to be governed by the appropriate skills list, as long as they continue in the same program area. Continuing education to obtain a further degree in the same area would not constitute a change in the skills list. 

It is important to keep in mind that not all J-1 visa holders are subject to the two-year home country requirement. The general rules are that if a person is in a graduate medical training program or in a program that is funded by the U.S. or the foreign government, then the two-year home country requirement applies. Also, if the person's area of study is on the skills list that designates areas of expertise needed by the person's country, then the two- year home country requirement may apply as well.

5. The 2009 J-1 Exchange Visitor Program Skill List

The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program Skills List is a list of fields of specialized knowledge and skills that are deemed necessary for the development of a J-1 exchange visitor's home country. When you agree to participate in an Exchange Visitor Program, if your skill is on your country's skills list, you are subject to the two-year foreign residence (home-country physical presence) requirement, which requires you to return to your home country for two years at the end of your exchange visitor program. This requirement under immigration law is based on Section 212(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

In June 2009, the U.S. Department of State (DOS) issued an important clarification for some foreign nationals who are subject to the J-1 two-year Home Residence Requirement (HRR) based upon participation in programs included in the skills list. Some of these individuals will no longer be subject to the HRR. This change is the result of the issuance of a new skills list - 2009 Exchange Visitor Program Skills List, effective June 28, 2009. The new list eliminated certain countries. Individuals who were subject to the HRR under the prior skills list are relieved of that requirement, if their countries have been removed entirely from the new skills list. 

The 2009 skills list contains a master directory of subject areas, followed by the countries and the particular subject areas determined to be in short supply within each country. This update was much needed, as the old skills list had not been changed since 1997. 

In the updated 2009 skills list, some countries have been completely eliminated from the skills list. Individuals who were subject to the HRR according to the old skills list, are no longer subject, if their countries have been completely removed from the current list. 

The removed countries are: 

Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Botswana, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Croatia, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Hungary, Jordan, Kuwait, Lesotho, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malta, Morocco, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Qatar, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, Uganda, Western Samoa, and Zimbabwe. 

Individuals who became subject to the HRR under the old 1997 Exchange Visitor Program Skills List remain subject to the HRR if their countries are still on the list. This is the case even if their particular subject areas, which were previously considered a shortage skill, have been removed from their respective country's list.

This change does not impact those who are subject to the HRR due to the receipt of government funding. Similarly, it does not change the requirement for International Medical Graduates (IMGs) who obtained graduate medical education and/or training in J-1 status.

The revised 2009 skills list is helpful in facilitating the exchange visitor program. The clarification provided by the DOS will be a great relief to those countries who are removed from the list and whose nationals would otherwise have been subject to the HRR. However, it does not help those from countries where there were skill areas dropped from the list, if the country remains as having some needed skill areas.

6. The Grace Periods for F-1 Students and J-1 Exchange Visitors

The misunderstanding for "grace period" is common. A common misconception is that a grace period will allow alien students or visiting scholars to remain in U.S. after their education or after the denial of their immigration petitions. But in most situations, the grace period is very limited after their education to stay in United States, or even there is no such legal grace period after denial of their immigration petitions.

By definition, the grace period in the context of visa or immigration is a continuation of valid nonimmigrant status in the United States. For most cases, the term of grace period is used to refer to the continuation of F-1 student or J-1 exchange visitor status after the completion of the F-1 or J-1 study/research in the United States. Therefore, the alien students or visiting scholars who are present in a proper grace period are considered to be in a lawful nonimmigrant status in U.S.

For an international student, a "grace period" of 60 days of valid F-1 student status is added upon the completion of the F-1 study or F-1 post-completion practical training (OPT). During the 60 days grace period, a F-1 student may change status, transfer to a different study program, or prepare for departure from the United States to their home countries. For J-1 exchange visitors, there are generally 30 days of "grace period", following the completion of their J-1 programs or research.



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