J1 visa process
Expat in the US,  Expat life,  Travel

J1 Visa Application: A Step by step guide for your internship in the USA

Looking for more information about the J1 Visa application? Wondering what are the requirements about the J1 and how to apply? You’re in luck! I had two J1 visas between 2016 and 2018 and I know it might be a bit scary but I’ll share with you my experiences and a step by step guide to obtain your J1 without the hustle of looking for information all over the place!

Keep in mind, I only write about what I experienced and I do not pretend to have all the answers. I just want to share what I know and help you understand the process. Your experience might be different from mine so make sure to always refer to the official documentation.

What is a J1 visa?

The J1 category is used to classify the exchange visitor program and the visa that allows people to come to the united states with the purpose of getting trained or getting work experience. It gathers different categories such as professors, au pairs or students. For a full list of the different categories, visit the USCIS website.

I will only describe the process of getting a student J1 Visa, or in other words, for an internship in the United States. It is different than the trainee one because the trainee visa is meant for people who already graduated and have a year or more of work experience. To keep it simple, if you are looking for an internship for school credit and that you did not yet graduate or you graduated less than a year ago, then you will ask for a J1 visa under the student category.

The J1 visa for students allows you to work for an American company in order to gain experience and knowledge of the American work environment. In order to apply for a J1 visa, you need to find a company that will host your internship and a sponsor. The sponsor is an American entity that was approved by the government to issue your documentation and to make sure your experience goes well while you are in the United States.

Step 1: How to find your internship and your sponsor for a J1 Visa?

While there are a lot of different ways to find an internship in the United States, it is a bit different for your sponsor as you can only choose an entity that is approved by the government. To help you in your search, you can check out the official list here.

I used the same sponsor for both of my internships and I worked with Intrax. Whichever sponsor you will end up choosing should not change the final purpose that is to provide you with the necessary papers for your visa interview and your entrance to the united states first, and then protecting you and helping you in case of need while you are in the united states.  Sponsors might have different prices and different ways of proceeding though so you might want to check out multiple ones to make sure to find one that will suit your need.

When it comes to secure an internship placement, you have a lot more freedom. You can directly contact some American companies that are willing to take on international interns by sending them a cover letter and your resume or you can find some opportunities within your own circle or a job board for example. You can also use the help of some placement companies. Your sponsor companies might also provide a placement service. I found my first internship through myinternshipabroad. If you do choose to work with a placement company be aware that you will have to pay for the service. You should only pay when a placement for you is secured though, but it does add to the final cost of your visa.

What you should understand is that you can find and secure an internship by yourself and then look for a sponsor to finalize your J1 Visa application. But if you do not find one by yourself, you can also contact a sponsor company that will take care of your placement and your visa paperwork. And by placement service, I mean they will find you some companies that match your skills but you will still have to interview with them and have a cover letter and a resume ready.

Step 2: Enrolling with your J1 Sponsor

This step takes place once you secured your internship (whether by yourself or with the help of your sponsor) and you are ready to start the J1 Visa application process. The J1, as well as the F1 visa, is an exchange visa and you need to be registered within the SEVIS Program. SEVIS keeps track of all individuals entering the United-States under a visitor program. Click here if you want more info on the SEVIS Program.

First of all, this process might differ a bit depending on the sponsor you chose, but it is highly possible that you will have a first « interview » with your sponsor so they can assess your English level. Since you will be working in an American environment, it is important to have some basic knowledge of English, but don’t worry if you’re not fluent yet, it does not disqualify you in any case!

You should also receive some paperwork to fill in for them. Here are the documents I was asked to provide for Intrax :

  • A screenshot of an online English test
  • A copy of my passport
  • A certificate to prove I was a student
  • A letter of guarantee
  • The terms and conditions signed
  • My former visas (Only because I already had some US visas)

Once I gathered and signed all the documents I was asked to pay for my program and for the SEVIS fee (called I-901 Fee) that is $220. Depending on your sponsor, the fee might already be in the cost of your program, or you might have to pay it yourself on top of your program, so make sure to check with your advisor!

After you are done with the payment, you should receive your DS-2019 and your training plan (DS-7002). Those two documents are really important so make sure to keep them somewhere safe. You will need them for your interview!

Step 3: Apply for your J1 Visa

Once you are enrolled with a sponsor, you will have to actually apply for your J1 Visa on the embassy website. The J1 Visa application is completed once you fill in your DS-160 Form online, and you booked your interview at the embassy.

Get your SEVIS Fee Payment receipt

Remember, I mentioned above you paid a fee for your registration into the SEVIS system. This system gives you a SEVIS ID Number that will be important throughout your program. You HAVE TO have the receipt of this payment. If you do not have it, no worries you can still find it and here’s how :

Click here and then click on « check status ». Fill in the information asked for. Remember you can find your SEVIS ID Number on your DS-2019 or on your Training plan (DS-7002). And then click on « check status/view payment confirmation ». And just make sure to save it on your laptop and to print it for your interview!

Fill in the DS-160 Form

The DS-160 Form is the actual visa application. In order to fill it in, you can go to the US Department of State website and start a new application. If you already had a US visa, start a new application anyway as it is a different one, but make sure to mention any former visas when it appears in the form.

You will be given an Application ID, make sure to screenshot it or write it down somewhere as the session can expire pretty quickly for security purpose. If you have an expired session, your ID will be asked to access your form again.

In order to be able to complete the DS-160 form faster make sure to have the following documents ready :

  • Your passport
  • Your travel dates to the United-States for the past 5 years
  • Your host company contact and address
  • Your resume
  • An ID picture
  • Your SEVIS ID Number

Once you are done completing the form, you will land on a confirmation page. It is very important you print or save this page as a PDF to print it later. To be safe, I used to send it to two different email addresses in addition to printing it.

Pay your VISA Fee and book your interview

Next step is for you to pay (yeah, another fee…) the fee for your J1 visa application which will then allow you to book a date for your interview at the embassy.

In order to do so, visit the US Embassy website of your country (for French people, it is here, for other nationalities find your country here!)

If like me, you already had a J1/F1 visa you can click on «continue» and log in. Then you will just have to add a new group and fill in the information to start. If you never had a visa and this is your first time on the Embassy website, you can just click on Apply.

After that, it is fairly easy, you just have to follow the website instructions until they ask you to pay the VISA fee. After you paid, you usually receive an email confirming your payment. I always printed this email, just in case. You will be then redirected to the page where you can book the date of your interview. Depending on what times of the year you apply, it might be a month or two before a date is available. I usually applied around May for a date at the end of July/beginning of August for a start date around mid-September/October. You will also receive an interview confirmation email, make sure to print this document too as you will need it for the interview.

Step 4: Attend your J1 Visa interview

The date of your interview is approaching and you start to feel a bit anxious? It’s alright, I’ve been there numerous times and I’ll guide you through the process!

Have your documents ready

In order to attend your interview you will absolutely need the following documents :

  • Your passport (make sure it is valid until six months after your intended return to your country)
  • Your DS-2019
  • Your training plan (DS-7002)
  • Your SEVIS Fee payment receipt (I-901 Fee)
  • Your DS-160 Confirmation page
  • Your Interview confirmation page
  • An ID picture

I personally always had those documents too :

  • VISA fee payment confirmation email
  • Copy of the letter of guarantee
  • Bank statement (from my parents and my own)
  • My parents’ taxes for the last three years
  • A school certificate to prove I had to come back to France to finish my studies
  • A family booklet (Livret de Famille in French) that stated that all my family was in France

Be ready for some questions

There is nothing to be afraid of about the questions asked, it is merely to double-check that everything is alright. At my two J1 Visas Interviews I was asked about my parents and about my internship and that was all.

I was asked what my parents’ jobs were and what my internship position would be.

Just be aware of what questions they might ask and have an answer ready, that’s all! They might ask you about your degree in France, about your internship in the USA and how it is related to your degree, why you seek an internship opportunity in the USA, how you will support yourself once you’re there, etc..

You have all the answers to those questions so don’t worry!

Go to the embassy

For French people, the US Embassy is located in Paris and is easily accessible with the Line 1 of the subway.

I usually arrived half an hour before my interview time. You are not allowed to wait on the sidewalk of the embassy, but you can wait on the opposite sidewalk. The guard calls your appointment usually 15mn before. You will have to go through security there. They will search you and have you turn off all your electronics. You will be then directed towards a first desk where they will take some of your documents out. If I remember correctly, it was the passport, the DS-2019, and the DS-160 confirmation page.

You will enter a first building, where you will leave all your electronics and go through a metallic portal. Make sure to keep the little card they give you as you will need it to get your belongings back.

Follow the way through the second building to enter the Embassy. Once you are in there, follow the Visa sign up to the stairs and get in line. After that, you just need to wait for your turn. The staff will usually indicate which window you have to go to. When I got my J1 Visas I only went to one window where they directly asked me some questions. The process inside the embassy might have changed a bit since then but people are there to help you so don’t worry! They will also take your fingerprints.

If your visa application is approved, the embassy will keep your passport to place the visa inside and will then send it back to your address within 7 to 10 business days. Once you received your visa make sure to check that everything is correct!

Step 5: Arriving in the USA with your J1 Visa

At the airport

Once you landed in the USA you will have to go through the customs and there are some documents you will HAVE TO present to the officer :

  • Your passport with your J1 VISA
  • Your DS-2019
  • Your DS-7002
  • The Custom declaration (a blue paper that you should have been given during your flight. If they do not hand them over, make sure to ask them about it because you need one of those as a VISA holder.)

Honestly, to avoid any problem, I used to carry my entire visa folder with me just in case they ask for any other documents.

Make sure to check in with your sponsor

Once you arrived you need to let your sponsor know you are on the US soil. With Intrax, it was an online check-in that I had to do within 7 days of my arrival. I just had to connect to my account and start the check-in process. Also, since you are in the USA under a certain program, you usually have to report to your sponsor once a month.

Intrax would send me an email to remind me to do my monthly check-in. It is to assure you have no problem during your stay and it helps them keeping track of what is happening to you and where you are. It is very important because if you do not check in with them, they might cancel your J1 Visa and you would have to leave the US territory immediately.

Get your social security number

If you are paid during your internship, you are required to have a social security number. Your sponsor usually sends you a participant handbook to help you with all of that, so make sure to keep it with you. If you are not paid, you do not need a US Social Security Number.

Be aware of the taxes

Here again, if you are paid, you are required to pay taxes to the US. Your sponsor handbook should layout which ones you are required to pay and guide you on how to do so. Although, US taxes might be really difficult to understand so you can ask professionals to help you. Up to 2018, I believe that international students were able to benefit from the « standard deduction » which was making the taxes payment lower, but laws have changed for the 2018 taxes and we do not qualify for it anymore.

Make sure you have health/travel insurance

You do not qualify for health insurance through your employer while working under a J1 Visa but you should be provided with insurance through your sponsor. The insurance covers anything that might happen to you while you are working and it is very important to make sure you are covered and to know how it works. Talk with your sponsor to make sure you understand your insurance policy.

Common questions about the J1 Visa

Can I apply for a J1 student visa even if I already had one?

You absolutely can apply for a second J1 visa, as long as the first one is expired and finished.

How long can my internship last?

The J1 student visa is up to 12 months, while the trainee one is up to 18 months.

Can I extend my J1 visa?

If your internship is for less than 12 months (or 18 for the trainee) you can ask for an extension. Make sure to contact your sponsor for more information.

Can I do both of my internships in the same company?

You can! I did it. The only thing is that you need to have a new role within the company. You can not have twice the same tasks. The goal of these internships is for you to gain experience.

Can I travel outside of the USA with my J1 Visa?

You can travel to Mexico and Canada without any problem with your J1, you do need to have all your papers to come back inside the USA though. When it comes to traveling to other countries, you need to send your DS-2019 to your sponsor so they can sign it for your travel authorization. Make sure to check with them how long in advance you should send this one. Also, you absolutely need this paper, signed, to come back to the USA.

How long does the J1 Visa application process take?

The process depends on your sponsor but I would advise to start it at least 6 months before your intended start date.

When can I enter the USA and when do I have to leave?

You can enter the USA no more than 30 days before the start date of your internship. After the end date of your internship, you have a «grace period» of 30 days to leave the country.

If I am paid, is there a minimum wage for international interns?

It is always a hard question because there is a minimum wage in the USA (it varies depending on the state) but it is not clear if it does apply to international students under a J1 visa. It is very common for internships that last less than 6 months to be unpaid. If yours last longer, you should be compensated for it but it is up to you to see if you’ll accept a lower compensation than the minimum wage applied in your state.

To be honest, I accepted to be paid $500/month for a nine months internship in Los Angeles when the minimum wage in California was around $10,50/hour (which adds up before taxes around $1,600) and it was way too low. There are no set rules about this, it is really up to you to decide what you are willing to accept, but be aware of the cost of living and of anything else that you might feel obligated to accept as an international intern. If you know from the beginning that you are way underpaid, you might feel very frustrated throughout your experience.

What are the fees I should expect to pay for my J1 Visa Application?

You will have to pay different fees to several organisms for the J1 Visa:

  • Your J1 program to your sponsor. The amount depends on how many months your internship will last and what sponsor you chose
  • Your I-901 fee also called the SEVIS Fee. This fee is $220 for the student J1 Visa. It is the fee you pay for your registration into the SEVIS program. Make sure to save the receipt of this payment. You might have to pay this fee to your sponsor or to the SEVIS website directly.
  • The Visa fee ($160). You will pay this fee after you filled in your DS-160. It is a fee that covers the process of your visa application.
  • Placement fee if you chose to work with a placement organism or to use the placement service of your sponsor. This fee depends on the organism you chose.
  • You also might have to pay the visit fee to your American company. If the sponsor is not used to work with the company that will host your internship, they have to make an on-site visit to make sure it complies with the J1 host requirements and you will have to pay a fee for that.

That’s it, guys! You made it through the entire process of applying for an internship in the United States and getting your J1 Visa! Whatever your situation is, make the most out of your experience and enjoy your life in the US! This will change you for the best!

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