The United States boasts some of the world’s best universities and attracts top talent from around the world. Nowadays, almost one in five graduate students in the country are international. But navigating the moving process as an international student can be challenging. This article is aimed at international students and researchers who will be applying for a J-1 visa. It goes through the pre-departure process, arrival in the US, and setting up life in America.
The J-1 Visa
The J-1 is an exchange visitor visa that allows non-Americans to gain experience and training in the United States. Depending on the length of the program, the visa holder can stay in the US for a period of several weeks to multiple years. There are different categories of J-1 visas each with their own specific purpose and requirements. In academia, the most commonly-used visa categories are college and university student, research scholar (often a postdoc), professor, and short-term scholar.
Applying For the Visa
There are two documents that students need to be able to enter the United States as a J-1 student. The first is a DS-2019. This official document certifies that you are eligible for exchange visitor status. It is issued by your university and endorsed by a school official. It acts as proof of admission from your university and proof of your ability to pay schools fees and living expenses in the US. It is valid for the length of your program, usually five years. The institution will mail you your DS-2019.
Once you receive your DS-2019, you can apply for your student visa. The first step is to pay the mandatory SEVIS I-901 fee. SEVIS is the student tracking system and your SEVIS identification number in on your DS-2019. The fee is $200. You will not be issued a visa if you do not pay the fee. Print the payment receipt and bring it with you to your visa interview and to the US Port of Entry the first time you enter the country as a student.
To being the visa application process, you must fill out the DS-160 visa application online. Be as accurate as possible. Print the confirmation page with the barcode at the end of the application. Then schedule a visa interview at the US embassy/consulate in your home country. Please check the website of the US embassy/consulate in your home country for the most up to date information about the interview process. Note that Canadians are exempt from applying for a visa.
Bringing Your Family
Students who plan to bring dependents (a spouse and/or children under 21) with them to the US must include their dependent’s information in their applications. The student will also have to submit additional proof of financial support ($7,200 for a spouse and $3,600 for each child). The university will send their J-2 Dependent I-20/DS-2019 with your I-20/DS-2019. Your dependents should accompany you to the US embassy/consulate to apply for their J-2 visas when you apply for your J-1 visa.
Unlike F-2 dependents (who are not able to work in the US or apply for a social security number), J-2 dependents are allowed to work full or part-time in the US and apply for a social security number. They can apply for work authorization from US Citizenship and Immigration Services once they have entered the country. It is recommended to wait at least 30 days before starting the application process.
Entering the US
Your program start date is printed on your DS-2019. You may enter the US up to 30 days prior before the program start date but you may not start work during this time. When you arrive at a US airport, you must clear customs at a US Point of Entry. You will have to show the following documents: valid passport with the J-1 stamp, original DS-2019, SEVIS fee payment receipt, and financial documents consistent with what is stated on your DS-2019. When you enter the US you will also be assigned an I-94 number. You can obtain a print out of your I-94 number from US Customs and Border Patrol. You will need it this number to apply for a social security number and open a bank account.
Anytime you leave and re-enter the US as a student, you must remember to bring your passport with your valid J-1 visa inside and your original DS-2019 form with you. There is a travel endorsement signature on the bottom right of the DS-2019 form. It must be less than 12 months old on the date you re-enter the US. If is expiring shortly, you must have it resigned by the appropriate school official before you leave.
Social Security Number (SSN)
The American Social Security Number (SSN) is a nine-digit number used to identify citizens, permanent residents and temporary residents. You must have an SSN to work in the US.
J-1 students must have a job offer to apply for a SSN. J-1 scholars in the research scholar, professor, and short-term scholar are eligible to apply for a SSN because of their J-1 status.
To apply for an SSN you will have go in person to a Social Security Administration office. You will need to bring a completed social security card application, your passport with the F-1 stamp, your I-94 number, your DS-2019, and your job offer letter. In one to two weeks your social security card (with your social security number on it) will be mailed to you.
You will also use your SSN to file your tax return. If you are not eligible for an SSN but have an American source of income (eg. from a fellowship, stipend, or scholarship) you will have to apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). This number is only for tax filing purposes and does not authorize you to work. Your university payroll services or international student office can help you apply for an ITIN and will usually expedite the application process. It takes seven weeks to receive an ITIN.
Landlords, cable companies, and cell phone providers will ask for an SSN to run a credit check to determine the deposit amount you must pay for housing and their services. International students without an SSN will still be able to secure housing and access these services but they will have to pay a higher deposit first.
It is crucial that international students obtain health insurance. Healthcare in the US is very expensive and the US government does not provide health insurance. Most universities offer health insurance plans for their students at a lower cost than other private insurance providers. Your university funding package may cover the cost of your student health insurance. Make sure you read your policy very carefully to understand exactly what is and isn’t covered. Note that student health insurance does not normally include eye care or dental coverage.
As you are going to be living in the US for more than six months you should open an American bank account. This will make it easier for your university to pay you and for you to do things like pay rent. The big four American banks are Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup. To open a bank account, you should bring your passport with the J-1 stamp, DS-2019, and I-94 number to the nearest branch of your chosen bank. It is not necessary to have a social security number to open an American bank account.
It is a good idea to have a few weeks worth of living expenses available in your home bank account as it may take some time to get your American bank account and salary deposit set up. Check with your home bank before you travel to make sure you will be able to use your bank card abroad.
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