Did You Know There Are Multiple Kinds of Visas for Exchange Students?

Recently, a woman approached me expressing an interest in hosting an exchange student in her family.  She had first asked the school near where she lived if they had exchange students she could host, and the school referred her to me.  She didn’t understand why I was involved; she seemed to think I worked for the school.  She mentioned that she did not want to have to drive her student miles away to another school when the local high school was nearby and her own daughter attended that school; she seemed surprised when I told her that her exchange student would be required to attend the local school.  It became clear that we were talking about two different things.  She was thinking of students who come to the U.S. on what an F-1 visa, rather than the J-1 visa that most high school exchange students coming to the U.S. have obtained.

Visa issues are not something families in the U.S. normally think about when deciding whether to host an international high school exchange student.  It may not be something students’ parents give much thought to, either, as they may be more concerned with where their child will end up living and what kind of school will they attend. It’s actually quite relevant to families on both ends of the exchange process.  Host families in the U.S. should learn that the difference in visas will affect expectations of them as a host family as well as their experience in cultural exchange; the student’s family needs to know that  the difference in visas will affect the nature of their child’s living experience as well as where their child will live and go to school. The visa a student travels on is likely to result in very different answers to these questions.  So what is the difference between the J-1 visa and the F-1 visa?

J-1 Visas

J-1 visas are the more common way to participate in a high-school exchange program.  Students must be between the ages of 15 and 18 when the program begins.  The J-1 visa exchange program is regulated and overseen by the U.S. Department of State.  Students must go through an approved exchange organization (for a list of organizations, see the this list at the website of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel); in other words, a student cannot just submit an application to the government for a J-1 visa and go live with a relative or friend for a year.  Indeed, under the J-1 visa program students may not live with a relative at all. The student pays the organization a fee for its placement and oversight services.  J-1 students generally (but not always) attend public high schools and do not pay tuition unless they do attend a private high school. A student may study on a J-1 visa for up to one year.

Students do not choose their school under J-1 programs; they attend whichever high school any children in their host family do or would attend.  Most of the time J-1 students do not choose their host family; if a student does have a particular family he or she would like to live with (e.g., a friend of the family), the student and the host family must still comply with all relevant selection criteria (and there must also be an opening at the local school).

J-1 students may not work except for occasional odd jobs such as babysitting or yard work. They must also demonstrate that their command of English is good enough to allow them to take classes in a U.S. English-speaking high school.  Host families cannot be paid under the J-1 visa program; it’s intended to be a volunteer and cultural experience, with the intended purpose of building mutual understanding, friendship, and goodwill among nations.  However, host families can deduct up to $50/month as a charitable contribution on their U.S. tax returns.

A key feature of the J-1 programs is that the exchange organization in question is responsible for all aspects of a student’s stay in the United States.  Thus, the organization finds an appropriate host family for the student and is responsible for ensuring that host families go through the designated Department of State screening process.  The organization is responsible for ensuring that the local high school will accept the student, and for obtaining enrollment documents.  The organization is responsible for oversight, supervision, and program support during the entire exchange period, and for reporting back to a student’s parents as necessary.  If it is necessary to find a student a new host family while he/she is here in the U.S., it is the organization’s responsibility to do that.  If a student has problems or illness significant enough to make it difficult or impossible to complete the exchange year, the organization ensures that the student gets home safely and quickly.

F-1 visas

F-1 visas are primarily seen at the college level, but they are sometimes used by high-school aged exchange students.  F-1 visas are managed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security rather than the Department of State; they are educational visas, but they are not part of an overall diplomatic policy as are the J-1 visas which have a strong mission of exchange of cultural information and experience.

With an F-1 visa, a student chooses the U.S. high school he or she would like to attend, and must apply to – and be accepted by – the school.  The school must be certified through the Student and Exchange Visitor Program and be part of the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which requires a fee.  Usually these schools are private schools, and the foreign student would be required to pay the specified tuition unless the school chooses to waive tuition.  In some regions of the U.S., public schools do participate in the SEVIS F-1 program.  If a student chooses to attend a public school that is part of the program, they generally must pay tuition as determined by the state where the school is located.

The student’s sponsor is the school (as opposed to J-1 visa students, where the nonprofit exchange organization is the sponsor).  In exchange for getting a tuition paying student, the school is responsible for the student and for recruiting a host family. The student can also recruit his or her own host family.  There is no required element of cultural exchange, and students are often more akin to a guest or a renter than a member of the family.  Host families are sometimes paid a stipend of a few hundred dollars a month.  There is no ongoing supervision, counseling, or problem-solving unless the school itself provides such support.  Students on an F-1 visa are limited to 12 months of study at a public school; the length of study is not limited for private schools and students often attend the school for more than one year.

Deciding what is right for you

All potential participants in the international exchange process should think about what it is they wish to gain from the experience.  Many U.S. schools have in fact gone through this thought process, which is why most U.S. public schools do not admit F-1 visa students; they don’t want to pay fees to be part of a program that does not include oversight, student supervision, and host family advice.  Students’ families should give thought to the pros and cons, since the type of visa will determine the nature of the teen’s experience in the U.S.  Finally, host families would be advised to think about the visa differences and the implications for ongoing support if they are approached by a school or exchange program and asked if they are interested in hosting a student.  The family should ask what kind of advice and support there will be – for both the family and student – should there be difficulties in adjustment or problems that are too difficult to resolve.

At the end of the day, be prepared, not surprised!

14 Replies to “Did You Know There Are Multiple Kinds of Visas for Exchange Students?”

  1. It seems things are changing. I’ve seen a few comments online in the past about how some public high schools will only accept J-1 visas due the the oversight requirements. We just ran into the opposite problem. We moved to a new state and wanted to host again. The school said they would accommodate us so we worked out the exchange with our normal program and chose our student and were ready to go. Ready, that is, until the exchange program rep called the school to finalize and learned that they don’t take J-1 visas, only F-1.

    After research, it appears to me the only reason to have that policy is to limit exchanges to those who can “pay to play.” Something seems wrong about this to me as I wonder why any public school in the future will allow J-1 visas when they can get thousands of dollars more by restricting their exchanges to the more profitable F-1s. The end result of this, of course, will be that the foreign students of more modest means will be priced out, and only the wealthy (who can afford global travel anyway) will be able to do exchange. There will also be less oversight and problems with the new F-1 only programs.

    In the meantime, our family is heartbroken that we will be unable to host a student we had chosen by name and will be unable to use any J-1 program in the future. Do you know any more about this and if we have any other options (tried looking into charter schools and private, but too expensive)?

    1. Hi Steve,
      Appreciate your thoughts, and I can only imagine how frustrating that must be when you didn’t think it would be an issue! I think the F-1 / J-1 visa issue in public high schools is a bit complicated. Yes, there is an element of “who can pay,” since F-1 students pay tuition. We have found that states that consider exchange students to be like any other student (when schools get state funding for each student) tend to have fewer F-1 students. As a result, in some states you don’t see many F-1 students attending public schools — and in some states, it’s common. My own experience is that many schools prefer to have J-1 students because schools are reluctant to accept the responsibility of dealing with visa and travel documents, finding and vetting host families, addressing counseling and logistical issues, and maintaining the host family-student relationship. That could be an argument your J-1 coordinator could use, perhaps, in working with the local public high school. I know that some coordinators in our program have done that when their local school has had a history of accepting F-1 students, and some have succeeded. Add to those points the cultural exchange component, perhaps — F-1 students generally aren’t required to really participate and learn from the host culture?

      I don’t have suggestions other than that, I’m afraid. It might be a longer-term exercise…work with the school board perhaps, arrange a meeting to talk about the value of J-1 cultural exchanges? Send them some information about the benefits to not just the students but to host families and the high school itself?

      1. Thanks for your response. You are probably the best source of info we’ve found on this complicated issue. We spoke with the district superintendent and he was pretty inflexible about it. Only F-1 visas will be accepted here. His overall guiding philosophy is that no student will attend school in his district without paying full tuition. When I pointed out that the current district written policy is to allow three exchange students and that it specifically pointed out that they were not to pay tuition, he was surprised and indicated he and the board would go about changing that as soon as possible. We kept the meeting cordial but I believe we will not be allowed to ever host in this county unless we go through an F-1 visa program. I hope that this line of thinking doesn’t catch on and eventually choke out the traditional J-1 programs, limiting exchange only to those families with enough money to afford the expensive tuition and program costs of an F-1 program.

        1. Appreciate the positive feedback! But sorry to hear about the lack of success. One would hope that the superintendent would be able to see the larger picture….I would urge you not to give up. Maybe it’s not going to work for the coming year, but perhaps you can start a process of educating the school and the district for the future? (Maybe it’s not possible, but I don’t like think negative, I prefer to think that people can learn and can come to see another point of view…)

  2. Hello Laura,
    We are currently living in Thailand and have had a young man from one of the “hill tribes” living with us for the past two years. We are due to transition back to the U.S. and his parents want him to move with us and attend high school in Georgia. They would be willing to sign over guardianship to us. What type of attorney do we use for advice on how to complete the this process? I would appreciate any advice you can give me.
    Thanks!

    1. David,
      I sent you an email but thought I would post your comment on the blog in case other readers have something to add. I wish you luck!

  3. Laura, I hope you can help me , we had an exchange student and her parents want to give up rights and have her come back to the USA…can we use another exchange program? any help would be appreciated..Thankyou

    1. Hi Laurie,
      A student can’t return just using another exchange organization. If your student was here on a J-1 visa, it’s a one year opportunity. Sometimes students who have been in the U.S. for a year on a J-1 visa can come back on an F-1 visa. But there are quite a few factors that affect whether that can happen, including whether the local school accepts F-1 students and whether the student’s family is prepared to pay tuition (even if it is a public school). If you assume legal guardianship of a student (which may be what you are thinking about), then the student can go to your local school as a resident. You wouldn’t need to involve any exchange organization, because the student would not be considered an exchange student. There are legal implications, though, of assuming guardianship, and I would suggest talking to an attorney before taking that step.

      1. I have a student here on a J-1 visa from China. To save his parents money is it possible for him to switch to an F-1 visa and so his parents would only have to pay tuition for the school. Trying to save them several several several thousands of dollars.

        1. That’s a worthy goal, but students can’t just switch visas, I’m afraid. The J-1 and F-1 visa programs are managed by different government agencies (J-1 is run by the Dept. of State and F-1 is managed by the Dept. of Homeland Security) and visas are issued before a student enters the US. Your student would need to go home and re-apply, but he might not be able to come back until next year. Also, I’m sure his parents have already paid the J-1 fees to your exchange organization; I doubt that would be refundable. If you have additional questions about the differences in the visas or what the rules and regulations are, you might want to try asking your J-1 coordinator?

    1. Glad to hear that, good to know it’s useful! If you have any experiences with either, would love to hear from you.

  4. My daughter age 16 wants to be an exchange student in Brazil where she will stay with friends if the family. What visa is needed to travel out if the US and not go through a program?

    1. Hello Amy,
      I generally recommend going through a program; it can be difficult to find a school and make sure the student has the correct visa and other immigration documentation on one’s own. Also, the ongoing support from a program can be crucial, even if your daughter is staying with friends. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that Brazil does not allow exchange students to come unless they go through a program.

      To find out what visa is needed, you would need to contact Brazilian authorities — it’s not a U.S. issue, it’s a Brazilian issue. It would probably be easier to go through a program that operates in Brazil and which has offices or a partner in the U.S. For students coming to the U.S., a direct placement with family friends is generally possible, as long as the family meets the minimum requirements for a host family. I would assume an exchange program operating in Brazil can tell you whether a direct placement like that is possible in Brazil.

      Good luck,
      Laura

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