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Working in the US using a J-1 Student visa

by Emily Draper

Posted: 12th January 2022 10:09

Upon returning to my university student house on a cold rainy January day after a festive Christmas break to embark on the second term of my degree, I was greeted by a pile of dishes that had clearly sat in the sink for the entire two weeks I was gone and of course, a broken boiler. After changing back into my Christmas pj’s (even though it was 2pm) and piling blankets on top of myself, I opened my laptop to check my university account emails and remind myself what the upcoming term looked like, but I didn’t get very far. Sat at the top of my inbox was an email titled ‘Spend your summer working in the US.’

Suddenly this cold, grey day got a lot brighter and the years’ prospects a lot better. The email outlined information about what’s call a J-1 visa, which would allow me to spend five months living, working and travelling in the US – an opportunity I never previously considered possible. It didn’t take much deliberation before I decided to pursue this radical idea, and certainly no time at all before I completed my year at university and boarded a flight on my own to a new adventure. 

Life in the US

The job

I landed a job as a trail guide for a horse-riding adventure tour company in a small vacation-town (Wisconsin Dells) in Wisconsin, a Midwestern state bordering Canada known for its yee-haw cowboy history and fried cheese obsession. As a trail guide it would be my job to lead families around a canyon on horseback, round the horses up each morning into the stables, saddle, brush and feed them. This job was a dream-come-true, but unfortunately my six horse-riding lessons as an eight year-old didn’t suffice when it came to leading a whole group of horses around a canyon and it wasn’t long before I found another job, this time as a receptionist at a major hotel and waterpark resort. Due to the fact it was far less life-threatening, and I got free wristbands for the waterpark, I was much happier here.

The location

I worked six days a week, but I finished at 3pm each day, allowing plenty of time for some afternoon adventures. Wisconsin Dells offered plenty of things to see and do; with boutique shops, candy stores, diners, museums crazy golf, laser tag and much more, I spent most days feeling like I myself was on vacation. The town sat along the lazy Mississippi River and surrounding it were stunning national parks and so when I wasn’t exploring the town, I was lazing on the beach next to the river, or hiking and camping around the woodlands. It’s safe to say that life was bliss. I may not have ended up in one of the US’ most renowned cities like New York or San Francisco, which is where I imagined myself going, but as it turned out, there wasn’t anywhere else I’d rather have gone.


As with most J-1 jobs, accommodation was organised for me by my employer before arriving in the country. Some employers have onsite accommodation, whilst others will organise a student house share, home stay or a shared apartment. I personally was assigned to live in a homestay, which may not have been as exciting as a student house, but I was eager to get an insight into real American life and have someone there to assist me with my needs. As it turned out, I was placed in a trailer with a fellow employee called Jerry – a 75 year-old retired policeman. On paper this sounded slightly odd, but he turned out to be the kindest, most helpful and generous person I could have wished for and we had so much fun together. Oh, and the trailer park wasn’t as ‘trashy’ as they’re pre-conceived to be – it was like a holiday park!

Making friends

One of my greatest fears when anticipating my trip to the US was the possibility I would spend the entire summer in a strange country all alone. Luckily, the friendships came easier than I ever imagined. Businesses that employ J-1 students are often seasonal, and therefore hire multiple J-1 students at once to cover the busy summer period. This was the case for the horse-riding adventure trail company that I worked for, who happened to employ another British student too. We got on like a house on fire and from the moment we met were inseparable. I then met more J-1 students when I began working at the hotel and as everyone there had also travelled to a new country on their own, they were just as keen to get to know me as I was them. I left the US with friends for life.

What is a J-1 visa?

A J-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa granted by the United States which allows you to work, study and train in the US for a limited period of time; a privilege that cannot be honoured through a tourist visa. It is granted to those who enrol into the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, of which there are 14 categories, including the Summer Work/Travel Programme, offered exclusively to full-time degree-level university students between the ages of 18 and 30. The J-1 visa aims to provide an exchange of culture, whereby visitors from participating countries can experience student/ work life in the US and in turn, teach US citizens to be more inclusive and understanding of other cultures. 

How did I obtain the visa?

Unsurprisingly, obtaining my J-1 visa wasn’t as simple as booking my flight; applying for a visa of any kind from the US is a long, drawn-out process that involves many of administrative hurdles. For me, this meant a lot of research and careful attention-to-detail was carried out every step of the way. As easily done as accidentally ticking the ‘yes’ box is when being asked if you have any previous criminal convictions, it can be the embarrassing difference between spending your summer at the beach in LA and a weekend on the beach in Brighton – and Brighton wasn’t adventurous enough for me. Here’s how I obtained a J-1 visa:

Step 1: Find a sponsor

Every application for a J-1 visa requires a visa programme sponsor ­– this is the organisation that will represent and support you whilst in the US. Without finding a sponsor, you cannot begin your visa application. The sponsor organisations will provide you with a job in the US, whether that is with themselves directly, or with one of the affiliated companies signed up to their J-1 jobs database. Although the jobs available are largely blue-collar, like waiting and reception work, it is up to you to choose what field of work you would like to apply for and where in the country you would like to live.

Step 2: Apply for the DS-2019

Once signed up to a sponsor, you will be given a DS-2019, or in other words, a ‘Certificate of Eligibility for Exchanger Visitor (J-1) Status’. This two-page form will ask you for all your personal details including name, address and passport number, a description of the exchange programme, including the start and end date, as well as the cost of the programme (with a breakdown on financial support). This form will be your official document used by the US Department of State to permit you an interview with the US embassy or consulate.

Step 3: Interview with a US consular

It is required for every J-1 visa applicant to attend a face-to-face interview at the US embassy or consulate with an official consulate officer. Each consulate offers time slots, which need to be booked well in advance as, depending on where you are located, waiting times can be lengthy and you don’t want to miss your chosen visa start date. If you do, you won’t be permitted into the country.

Be warned, the interviews can be tricky and there is no guarantee under any circumstances that the consulate officer will accept your application. Depending upon the officer on the given day you attend the interview, you can be lightly quizzed on your intentions for your visit to the US, or you can be (somewhat) interrogated about your ties to your home country, your reasons to return, how you plan to cover expenses and so on. Don’t be intimidated or disheartened; this is purely the duty of the consulate. Your application for a J-1 visa will be accepted or denied during your visit and if successful, you will hand over your passport to be adorned with your shiny new J-1 visa, which is then returned via post within the following two weeks. 

Requirements & Documents

So as to avoid disappointment upon your trip to the US consulate or embassy for your interview, I would advise being as prepared as possible. First of all, before you even endeavour to apply for the J-1 visa, ensure you are eligible for it by conducting thorough research and talking to programme sponsors. Secondly, upon attending your J-1 visa interview, be armed with the following correct documentation that is required by the US Department of State:

  • DS-2019 form
  • DS-160 form: Online Non-immigrant Visa Electronic Application
  • A passport valid for travel to the US with validity six months after the intended period of stay
  • One 2x2 photograph

Without these documents, any application will be declined on the spot. However, they do request further documentation to support your application. This includes:

  • University acceptance letter (to prove you are a student)
  • Proof of address (to ascertain your residency within your stated home country)
  • Bank statements (to prove that you have enough funds (around $800) to support yourself during your visit to the US)
  • Any document that proves you intend to return to your home country (a signed letter from your employer, landlord or university is usually most appropriate)

Costs: the breakdown

Sponsor fees: around $700/£550

J-1 visa: $160/£130

DS-2019/ SEVIS fee: $180/£145

Support funds: $800/£640

Total: around $1,880/£1,485

How did I afford it as a student?

The bottom line was that I couldn’t afford this trip, but I figured that if I was earning money over the summer, I could borrow money and pay back what I owed. That’s what a 0% interest student overdraft is for right? Either way, that’s what I did. I used my student account overdraft, which I paid back within the first two months of working in the US and used the rest of my earnings to spend on travel and activities in the US. I was broke again by the time I returned home, but at least I was enriched by my experiences and memories, which I will value forever.

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