U.S. Government Regulations Regarding International Youth Exchange

Youth exchange program participants, like all non-U.S. citizen visitors to the United States, are subject to U.S. immigration laws. Educational institutions, including high schools, are subject to immigration regulations with regard to non-immigrant students who visit the United States as F-1 academic students. High school student exchange organizations are subject to regulations with regard to non-immigrant students who visit as J-1 exchange visitors.

United States Department of Homeland Security

As of March 1, 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) became part of the newly-created United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Through the Bureau for Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), DHS now administers the nation's immigration laws and will continue the tradition of welcoming immigrants into the country.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)

SEVIS implements section 641 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996, Public Law 104-208, which requires the INS (now DHS) to collect current information, on an ongoing basis, from schools and exchange programs relating to nonimmigrant 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 nonimmigrant 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 will be 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 will also provide system alerts, event notifications, and reports to the end-user schools and programs, as well as for DHS and DOS 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

Key features of the F-1 visa exchange (used primarily for university students)

  • 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.

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.

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.

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

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 12 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.

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
  • 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.

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.

J-1 Exchange Visitors and Program Sponsors

Key features of the J-1 High School visa

  • Regulated by the State Department as cultural/educational exchanges under the Fulbright-Hays Act.
  • Designated non-profit 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 18-1/2 at the start of the program or not have graduated from high school.

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.

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 - 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 an 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 March 19, 1993, 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 18-1/2 (as of the beginning of the program) or who have not completed more than 11 years of primary and secondary education (exclusive of kindergarten)
  • to ensure adequate orientation to participants and their host families
  • 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 (an earlier requirement that no more than two from the same country has been dropped from the regulations)
  • to ensure that no J-1 student is placed more than 150 miles from an authorized program representative
  • to maintain regular contact with student, host family, and host school
  • 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
  • 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 with 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 or the U.S. embassy or consular section in your country. You may also fax questions regarding visas to the Department of State at 202-401-9809.