An often underutilized visa option for companies seeking to participate in the development of foreign professional talent is the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program. The Exchange Visitor Program is carried out pursuant to the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, and it is designed to promote the interchange of persons, knowledge, and skills in the fields of business, education, arts, and sciences. The purpose of the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program is to further the foreign policy interest of the United States by increasing mutual understanding between people of other countries and the United States by means of mutual educational and cultural exchanges.
The J-1 Exchange Visitor Trainee enters the United States for the purpose of participating in a structured training program or internship conducted by a U.S. company or organization, sponsored by a Department of State-designated organization which can be a school, company, public or private organization, in order to enhance the trainee’s career skills. As the program is essentially an extension of U.S. foreign policy, the Exchange Visitor Program is under the purview of the U.S. Department of State, and not controlled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
On July 19, 2007, the U.S. Department of State amended several aspects of the J-1 regulations governing the Exchange Visitor Program. In addition to heightened screening of candidates and verification of English language skills by J-1 sponsoring organizations, the new regulations modify the eligibility requirements of trainee candidates and create the new internship category.
Under the new regulations, in order to qualify for sponsorship as an Exchange Visitor Trainee, candidates are required to possess:
- A degree or professional certificate from a post-secondary academic institution outside the United States and at least one year of prior related work experience in their occupational field acquired outside the United States; or
- Five (5) years of work experience outside the United States in their occupational field.
The maximum duration of most training programs remains 18 months. The new regulations also eliminate the prohibition on participating in more than one training program in a lifetime, but require that the trainee be absent from the U.S. for 2 years after the completion of their initial training program.
Under the new internship category, Interns are required to be:
- Currently enrolled in and pursuing studies at a degree or certificate granting post-secondary academic institution; or
- Graduated from such an institution no more than 12 months prior to their exchange visitor program begin date.
The maximum duration of internships is 12 months.
Upon the completion of traineeship or internship, the J-1 visa designate is expected to return to his or her home country and share experiences as a method of improving international relations.
Under State Department rules, the following fields are eligible for training programs:
- Arts and culture
- Information media and communications
- Education, social sciences, library science, counseling and social services
- Management, business, commerce and finance
- Health-related occupations
- Science, engineering, architecture, mathematics, and industrial occupations
- Construction and building trades
- Agriculture, forestry and fishing
- Public administration and law
- Other fields specified by the program sponsor
The process of entering the United States as a J-1 Exchange Visitor Trainee requires that the candidate be accepted into one of the Exchange Visitor Program categories through the sponsoring organization. Host companies are required to submit a Placement Plan to sponsoring organizations, detailing the traineeship or internship and demonstrating the specific skills and knowledge expected to be gained. The training cannot duplicate training the prospective trainee has already received, and training must be provided at the appropriate level.
Upon approval of the training or internship program, the sponsoring organization will issue Form DS-2019, a “Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status.” The trainee presents this form to a U.S. Consulate to obtain a J-1 visa stamp for purposes of entry to the U.S. in J-1 visa classification.
The issuance of a Certificate of Eligibility by a sponsoring organization does not guarantee approval of an application for a J-1 visa. The Consular Officer remains the final arbiter of whether the alien qualifies for the visa. An applicant must demonstrate that they properly meet the following requirements to be issued an exchange visitor visa:
- The trainee plans to remain in the U.S. for a only temporary, specific, limited period;
- Evidence of funds to cover expenses in the United States;
- Evidence of compelling social and economic ties abroad.
Once the visa is issued, the trainee may enter the United States up to 30 days prior to the anticipated start date of the training program, and may remain in the United States up to 30 days beyond its expected end date.
Some J-1 visa programs carry with them a “return home” requirement for two (2) years. They include situations where:
- The Exchange Program was financed, partly or wholly, directly or indirectly, by either the U.S. government or the home-country government;
- The Exchange Program was to provide the exchange visitor with skills which are needed in the home country, as identified by the "Exchange Visitor Skills List"; or
- The Exchange Visitor received graduate medical education or training.