Generally, a citizen of a foreign country who wishes to enter the United States must first obtain a visa, either a nonimmigrant visa for temporary stay, or an immigrant visa for permanent residence. Exchange visitor (J) visas are nonimmigrant visas for individuals approved to participate in exchange visitor programs in the United States.
Exchange Visitors cannot travel on the Visa Waiver Program or with Visitor Visas - An exchange visitor visa (J) is required to participate in an exchange visitor program in the United States. Foreign nationals may not study after entering on a visitor (B) visa or through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) For more information on the VWP, see Visa Waiver Program.
Acceptance in Exchange Visitor Program - The first step is to apply for and be accepted into an exchange visitor program through a designated sponsoring organization in the United States. Visit the Department of State J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program website to learn about program requirements, regulations, and more.
After the exchange visitor program accepts your participation, you will be registered for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and must pay the SEVIS I-901 fee (except in certain cases – consult your exchange visitor program sponsor). Visit the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) website to learn more about SEVIS and the SEVIS I-901 Fee.
There are several steps to apply for a visa. The order of these steps and how you complete them may vary by U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Please consult the instructions on the embassy or consulate website.
Interviews are generally required for visa applicants with certain limited exceptions below. Consular officers may require an interview of any visa applicant.
If you are age:
Then an interview is:
13 and younger
Generally not required
14 - 79
Required (some exceptions for renewals)
80 and older
Generally not required
You should schedule an appointment for your visa interview at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the country where you live. You may schedule your interview at another U.S. Embassy or Consulate, but be aware that it may be more difficult to qualify for a visa outside of the country where you live.
Wait times for interview appointments vary by location, season, and visa category, so you should apply for your visa early. Review the interview wait time for the location where you will apply:
Gather and prepare the following required documents before your visa interview:
You must read the Legal Rights and Protections pamphlet to learn about your rights in the United States and protection available to you. Review this important pamphlet before applying for your visa.
A consular officer will interview you to determine your qualifications for an exchange visitor visa, and may request additional documents, such as evidence of:
Evidence of your employment and/or your family ties may be sufficient to show the purpose of your travel and your intent to return to your home country. If you cannot cover all the costs for your travel, you may show evidence that another person will cover some or all costs for your travel.
Review the instructions for how to apply for a visa on the website of the embassy or consulate where you will apply.
A consular officer will interview you to determine whether you are qualified to receive an exchange visitor visa. You must establish that you meet the requirements under U.S. law to receive a visa.
Ink-free, digital fingerprint scans are taken as part of the application process. They are usually taken during your interview, but this varies based on location.
After your visa interview, the consular officer may determine that your application requires further administrative processing. The consular officer will inform you if this is required.
After the visa is approved, you may need to pay a visa issuance fee (if applicable to your nationality), and make arrangements for the return of the passport and visa to you. Review the visa processing times to learn more.
When you agree to participate in an Exchange Visitor Program and your program falls under the conditions below, you will be subject to the two-year home-country physical presence (foreign residence) requirement. This means you will be required 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.
Two-year Home-country Physical Presence Requirement Conditions - An exchange visitor is subject to the two-year home-country physical presence requirement if the following conditions exist:
Restrictions - If you are subject to the two-year home-country physical presence requirement, you must return to your home country for a cumulative total period of at least two years before you can do any of the following:
Waiver of Two Year Home-Country Physical Presence Requirement - If you are not able to fulfill the home country presence requirement, you may apply for a waiver. Select Waiver of the Exchange Visitor Two-Year Home-Country Physical Presence Requirement to learn more about this requirement and how to request a waiver.
A visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. A visa only allows a foreign citizen to travel to a U.S. port-of-entry (generally an airport) and request permission to enter the United States. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials at the port of entry have authority to permit or deny admission to the United States.
After you present your passport, visa, and DS-2019 at the port-of-entry, a CBP official will make this decision. Once you are allowed to enter the United States, the CBP official will provide an admission stamp or paper Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record.
Learn about procedures for students (with F or M visas) entering the United States on the CBP website under Arrival Procedures for Students or Exchange Visitors. Learn more about admissions and entry requirements, restrictions about bringing food, agricultural products, and other restricted/prohibited goods, and more by reviewing the CBP website.
See Program Extension on the Department of State Exchange Visitor Program website to learn about requesting to extend your exchange visitor program beyond the date listed on your Form DS-2019.
Additional information to maintain exchange visitor status is on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement SEVP website under Maintaining Your Immigration Status While a Student or Exchange Visitor.
Failure to depart the United States on time will result in being out of status. Under U.S. law, visas of individuals who are out of status are automatically voided (Section 222(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act). Any multiple entry visa that was voided due to being out of status will not be valid for future entries into the United States.
If your plans change while in the United States (for example, you marry a U.S. citizen or receive an offer of employment), you may be able to request a change in your nonimmigrant status to another category through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). See Change My Nonimmigrant Status on the USCIS website to learn more.
While you are in the United States, receiving a change of status from USCIS does not require you to apply for a new visa. However, once you depart the United States, you must apply for a visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the appropriate category for your travel.
Exchange visitors are not permitted to enter the United States earlier than 30 days before their program start dates. If you want to enter earlier than 30 days, you must separately apply and qualify for a visitor (B) visa.
After you are admitted to the United States by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials in visitor (B) visa status, you must separately apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a change of status to exchange visitor (J) status status prior to the start of your exchange program. You will not be permitted to begin your exchange program until the change of status is approved. You may also depart the United States and re-enter on your exchange visitor (J) visa.
There are two nonimmigrant visa categories for persons to participate in exchange visitor programs in the United States. The J-1 exchange visitor visa is for educational and cultural exchange programs designated by the Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The Q-1 visa is for participation in certain international cultural exchange programs. These programs are designed to provide practical training and employment and allow program participants to share the history, culture, and traditions of their home countries in the United States. A person who wants to participate in an international cultural exchange program must be approved in advance by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on the basis of a petition filed by the U.S. sponsor.
Select Temporary Worker Visas to learn more.
You may reapply if you believe you have additional evidence of your qualifications for an exchange visitor (J) visa, or you believe your circumstances have changed. Review Visa Denials to learn more.
Citizens of Canada and Bermuda do not require visas to enter the United States as students, although they must present a valid Form DS-2019 at the time of admission. For more information see information for Citizens of Canada and Bermuda.
Additional resources for Canadian visitors to the United States can be found on the U.S. Embassy and Consulate websites in Canada.