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 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 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 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!