Information on Incoming Exchange Students' U.S. Visas

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) implements section 641 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996, Public Law 104-208, which requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to collect current information, on an ongoing basis, from schools and exchange programs relating to non-immigrant foreign students and exchange visitors during the course of their stay in the United States.

SEVIS is an internet-based system that provides tracking and monitoring functionality, with access to accurate and current information on non-immigrant students (F and M visa) and exchange visitors (J visa), and their dependents (F-2, M-2, and J-2). SEVIS enables schools and program sponsors to transmit electronic information and event notifications, via the Internet, to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State throughout a student's or exchange visitor's stay in the United States. SEVIS is informed of status events for international students and exchange visitors including, but not limited to, entry/exit data, changes of address, program extensions, employment notifications, and changes in program of study. SEVIS provides system alerts, event notifications, and reports to the end-user schools and programs, as well as for Department of Homeland Security and Department of State offices.

F-1 and J-1 Visa Categories

The following general description of the immigrant regulations for the F-1 and J-1 visas is by no means complete; readers are urged to seek further clarification as needed from knowledgeable experts and appropriate government offices.

F-1 Students and Approved Schools

The F-1 academic student program is a non-immigrant visa category intended for use by nonresident aliens whose primary purpose for visiting the United States is to study full-time at an approved institution. Key features of the F-1 visa exchange are as follows: " The visa is regulated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). " The school is the responsible party in the United States, accountable to DHS. " The visa cannot be used for elementary (K-8) or adult training exchanges (see the discussion of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, below). " The student must pay tuition to the public host school.

Upon receiving approval from DHS, a school is authorized to issue certificates of eligibility to students for use in securing a visa and admission to the United States. Form I-20A-B is the certificate of eligibility for F-1 students. The Designated School Official, who is obliged to ensure that the school complies with DHS regulations, may issue it. Schools that are authorized to issue I-20 forms are required to register on the SEVIS system.

Congress enacted limitations on certain foreign students planning to study in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools. The "Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996," which took effect on November 30, 1996, places the following restrictions on students seeking F-1 visas who wish to study at public secondary schools. The student (or his or her sponsor) is required to reimburse the public secondary school for the full, unsubsidized per capita cost of education for the intended period of study. Proof that such tuition has been paid must be evidenced on the I-20A-B application form for the visa. Waivers are not allowed. This law also limits school attendance to a maximum of twelve months for secondary students under F-1 visas. Overseas advisors should know that this law additionally prohibits attendance in public elementary schools, K-8, or publicly funded adult education programs by any individuals coming under F-1 status. These restrictions do not apply to students who come to the United States under a J-1 visa, nor do they apply to private schools. Violating the law or failure to reimburse the school district can lead to a student being barred from the United States for five years.

F-1 non-immigrant students must maintain a full course load while in the United States. They must follow a specific transfer procedure if they change schools. They are eligible for certain types of employment, provided the Designated School Official or DHS grants permission before the employment begins. The F-1 foreign student's obligations under U.S. immigration regulations are to: " provide evidence that the unsubsidized cost of tuition for any academic study in the United States is paid in order to obtain their visa, " have sufficient financial resources for the anticipated stay in the United States, " have a residence abroad to return to upon completion of the program in the United States, and " always maintain lawful immigration status while in the United States by keeping a valid passport, not working without authorization, and leaving the United States upon expiration of the visit or securing an extension of permission to stay if needed.

J-1 Exchange Visitors and Program Sponsors (as amended 4/4/06)

The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program is a non-immigrant visa category designed to promote mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through bona fide educational and cultural exchange. Sponsors of such programs, as described in the Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act (the "Fulbright-Hays Act"), may be considered for an Exchange Visitor program designation. Program designations are made by the State Department upon application from an eligible program sponsor. Generally, Exchange Visitor programs for secondary school students may be sponsored by the government, educational institutions, and not-for-profit organizations. Key features of the J-1 High School visa are as follows: " Regulated by the State Department as cultural/educational exchanges under the Fulbright-Hays Act. " Designated nonprofit organizations which have to comply with certain orientation and selection criteria are the sponsors and responsible parties. " Students are generally not required to pay tuition to schools. " Students must be between the ages of 15 and 18 at the start of the program or not have graduated from high school.

Upon receiving a designation from the State Department, an exchange organization may issue certificates of eligibility to its participants for use in securing a U.S. non-immigrant J-1 visa and admission to the United States. The J-1 certificate of eligibility is Form DS-2019 (formerly IAP-66) and may only be issued by a Responsible Officer from a designated program. This individual is obligated to ensure compliance with State Department regulations by both the sponsoring organization and its program participants. Consequently, the exchange student is the responsibility of the exchange organization and not the host family, school, or other party where the student is placed. State Department designated J-1 program sponsors are required to register on the SEVIS system (schools hosting J-1 exchange students are not required to register on the SEVIS system unless they also issue I-20 forms for the F-1 visa).

Not all programs fall under the purview of the J-1 visa. For example, foreign students who participate in programs during the summer do not qualify for a J-1 visa status since they do not attend accredited U.S. educational institutions and the program duration is less than three months. Organizations that sponsor only outbound programs are not State Department designated because the State Department only regulates inbound programs.

The State Department regulations were amended on April 4, 2006, and control the J-1 program sponsor and participants, including stipulations about mandatory health and accident insurance and maintenance of accurate records for each participant.

Among the responsibilities of sponsors of Teenage Exchange Visitor programs are the following: " to be not-for-profit organizations exempt from federal income tax, " to limit their programs to participants between ages 15 and 18 (as of the beginning of the program) or who have not completed more than eleven years of primary and secondary education (exclusive of kindergarten), " to ensure adequate orientation to participants and their host families, " to verify that each member of the host family household eighteen years of age and older has undergone a criminal background check, " to ensure that all officers, employees, representatives, agents, and volunteers acting on their behalf are adequately trained and supervised and that any such person in direct personal contact with exchange students has been vetted through a criminal background check, " to assure that participants from one program are not clustered together in one school; the limit is five per school unless a school requests more; " to ensure that no J-1 student is placed more than 120 miles from an authorized program representative, " to maintain monthly contact with student, host family, and host school, and " to secure written permission from school officials before placing a student at the school. J-1 participants themselves must: " have sufficient financial resources for their stay in the United States, " have a residence to return to upon completion of the program in the United States, " maintain lawful immigration status while in the United States by keeping a valid passport at all times, not work without authorization, and leave the United States upon expiration of the visa or securing extension of stay if necessary, and " have sufficient command of the English language to enable them to function well in an English-speaking academic and community environment.

Most youth exchange program participants are barred from employment in the United States. The State Department regulations state that students may not be employed on either a full- or part-time basis, but may accept "sporadic" or "intermittent" employment such as baby-sitting or yard work. Program participants must consult their J-1 sponsoring organization to secure permission for any type of employment while in the United States.

For more information on the J visa program consult the U.S. Department of State (click here) or the U.S. embassy or consular section in your country. You may also fax questions regarding visas to the Department of State at 202-203-5087.

For more information on the F visa program, please follow this link.