I have J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa. Can I stay in the US as a Student?

Many people who come into the U.S. on the Exchange Visitor Program have a great experience and decide they'd like to pursue further opportunities here. 

In fact, if you've built great friendships and see additional excellent educational and work options available in the USA, you are wise to confirm what your options are.

Yes I'd Like to Foster Global Understanding but That Doesn't Mean I Have to Leave, Right?

If you're already here on a J-1 visa, you know that the purpose of the program is to "foster global understanding through educational and cultural exchanges."

You also probably know that after the standard period of time is up, you're expected to head back home to share the exciting things you've learned and thus spread some positive goodwill about how wonderful the U.S. is.  

But if you're convinced that staying in the U.S. as a student is a great choice for you, you understandably want to know what to do.

If You're Going to Stay Longer You Need to Carefully Monitor the Dates

Keep in mind that you need to carefully monitor the dates you're authorized to stay in the U.S.  You may not stay beyond the time listed on your Form DS-2019 - plus a period of 30 days to give some time to do a bit of domestic travel and get ready to leave.

Most importantly, look closely at the white I-94 card that is typically stapled in your passport. (Note: in the near future, these will become electronic records and you won't have a white card.

But one way or the other be aware you need to be very aware of this important deadline!) The U.S. government is very strict about making sure visitors actually depart on the departure date listed on the I-94.

If you don't leave when you're supposed to - and you haven't extended or changed your status as we describe below - then some undesirable things will happen: you will be "out of status," your visa could be voided, and you probably will find it difficult to apply for another visa in the future.

Many J-1 Visa Holders Have to Return Home for Two Years

The U.S. government set up this exchange program with the requirement that most participants return to their home country for two years after the program is finished. If this applies to you (look on your J-1 visa and also at the "Exchange Visitor Skills list" amongst other places) then you will need to seek a waiver. 

This waiver is difficult to secure and - among other things - you must show "exceptional hardship" and persecution for certain reasons if you returned home.

If You Aren't Subject to the Two-Year Home Residency Requirement, You Can Apply to Be a Student

After confirming it isn't mandatory for you to return home, you can move ahead with securing an F-1 visa. Here are some key steps to take:

  • Apply for a full-time program that is definitely certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)
  • Receive an I-20 form from the school or university.
  • Change to F-1 status either by applying for and receiving an F-1 entry visa from a U.S. consulate outside the U.S. and or through changing your status with the USCIS. This first option requires filling out Form DS-160 online and the second option requires filing I-539 with USCIS.

You May Have Some Great Options Awaiting You at a Stellar U.S. University

Overall, there's a good chance you may be able to stay in the U.S. after your J-1 stay is up as long as you meet the government's criteria and carefully follow the rules. 

The steps are complex and keep in mind that the explanation above has been greatly simplified and doesn't account for any of your unique circumstances. 

Erick Widman