We Think We Want to Host an Exchange Student: What Do We Need to Know? 

 December 1, 2014

By  Laura Kosloff

Why is hosting is a good idea?

Student educational exchanges became popular after World War II. The U.S. government encouraged exchanges to increase participants’ understanding and tolerance of other cultures, as well as improve language skills and broaden young people’s social horizons. The Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961 (more commonly called the Fulbright-Hays Act) showed that the U.S. considered international student exchange programs an important element of U.S. diplomacy. The Fulbright program continues today as one of the best known and prestigious government-supported international exchange programs.

Cultural exchanges such as hosting high school exchange students offer benefits beyond being “a good citizen.” Beyond actually learning about another culture and how things might be done differently on a daily basis, it challenges one’s assumptions about other cultures, teaches communication skills, and helps develop patience and flexibility. But believing in cultural exchange doesn’t help put it into practical terms.

What are some of the reasons people give for hosting?

Hendricks Halloween 2008 (640x480)
Seeing Halloween through the eyes of someone who has never experienced it before can give an American family new appreciation for the fun of the holiday

Reasons for choosing to host an exchange student vary.  They include a desire for exposure to foreign cultures, building long-term relationships, changing the dynamics of children’s relationships in the family, and learning how to prepare for when your own kids become teenagers. We found that hosting an exchange student was a great way to reduce sibling rivalries, and hosting and working with teens from around the world has taught us not only how to deal with teens (a practical skill that has come in handy with our own children), but also patience and a better understanding of the similarities and differences among people. Welcoming an international student into your home can spark an interest in your own children, as well in other teens at your local high school, in learning about other cultures. The exchange experience can lead to lasting friendships with people from around the world.

What do we need to provide to a student?

Host families provide room, board, and a family environment. “Room” means a bed (the State Department does not allow a futon or air mattress), storage space, and study space (not necessarily in the bedroom). You do not need to provide a separate bedroom; students can often share a room with a sibling. “Board” means food in the home: three meals/day and reasonable snacks. “Family environment” means the student should be treated like a member of your family, not a guest. They go shopping with you, they go to the farmers’ market with the family, and they go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving. If they stay out past curfew, they can be grounded like any other teen member of the family.

We don’t have teenagers; how can we be a good host family?

Xmas_four_boys_2 (640x480)
Sharing holiday traditions does not require that you have teens in your home

American families come in all shapes and sizes, and so host families also come in all shapes and sizes: parents with teens, parents with younger children, young couples with no kids, single parents with children and even single parents with no children living in the home, empty nesters, and same-sex couples. Certainly, the exchange organizations need to confirm that a family is suitable regardless of who are the family members. All host family applicants in the U.S. go through a screening process that includes an application, criminal background checks for all adults, references, an in-home interview with all family members, and a host family orientation to educate the family on the basic expectations.

Are host families paid?

The U.S. Department of State J-1 visa program does not allow payments to host families. Host families can take a tax deduction on their U.S. federal tax return of $50/month for each month the student lives in the home, as long as the family itemizes taxes. More information on the tax deduction can be found in this IRS publication.

How expensive is it to host a student?

The primary cost to a host family is the cost connected with extra food for a teenager, some utilities expenses (lights, water, heat) and gasoline associated with reasonable transportation. Host families are not responsible for the costs of buying lunch at school, any fees at school (such as sports fees or cost of a yearbook), going out with friends to dinner, movie tickets, cell phone bill, or other personal expenses. These are all the responsibility of the exchange student. Students are also required by law to have their own medical insurance and pay for any medical expenses and insurance copayments.

Do students know that host families are volunteers?

The U.S. government requires exchange organizations to ensure that students and their families back home are educated about the cultural exchange nature of the program. They’re told that U.S. law prohibits J-1 visa host families from being paid, and that families are not hosting “for the money.” Exchange students, however, are teenagers; sometimes the meaning of “volunteer” takes a little while to sink in. Around this time of year, students begin to realize how much they receive from their host families.

Do the students speak decent English?

The U.S. government has a minimum standard of proficiency in English that exchange students must meet in order to be eligible for a semester or academic year program. Many exchange organizations have set a higher standard to help ensure student success in a U.S. high school. The exchange organizations do their best to make sure that students are enrolled in schools and communities for which their English is sufficient and which can support students’ efforts to improve their English.  Students do have different speaking and comprehension capabilities, however.  If the student’s English comprehension becomes an issue during the school year, steps can be taken (e.g., require a tutor at the student’s expense).

How are students prepared for life in an American home?

Before traveling to the United States, students must attend an orientation to learn about some cultural aspects of American life as well as practical tips (e.g., about travel, cell phones, clothing). They are educated about program rules and U.S. government regulations and expectations regarding school attendance and living in a host family. Their exchange organization will give them information on American customs and traditions, including background on the state and region where they will live. Although the U.S. government provides guidance on what is to be included in these orientations, each exchange organization prepares their students differently. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Jorge at work (480x640)
Jorge doing yard work, 2007.  Students should expect a reasonable amount of chores.

The second level of preparation before arrival is direct communication between the host family and the student, and often between the local coordinator and the student. Once the host family has completed the screening process and the school has signed the required confirmation for enrollment, host families and students can contact one another. As local coordinators, we will contact the students in our group each year as well, and will often answer some preliminary questions before students even arrive, which hopefully will ease their transition.

Finally, all students attend another orientation after they arrive in the U.S. Some programs do an initial orientation and retreat as soon as students arrive, providing an initial bonding and “get over your jet lag” time. Within a month or two after students arrive, local orientations are also held.

How long is the typical exchange experience?

The Department of State J-1 educational visa program offers students the opportunity to experience an academic semester or a full high school year. Most full-year students come in August and leave in May or June (depending on when school ends); students from countries such as South Korea, where the school year begins in January, may come for a calendar year. U.S. high schools on a trimester system generally cannot accommodate a half-year student due to school schedules.

Short-term programs are available as well. Short-term programs of 3-4 weeks can be a good way for a young teen to begin to experience another culture, begin to realize that language immersion has benefits, and begin to learn how to adjust to a different world away from home. Host families see the experience as a way to “try out” the exchange idea before committing to a semester or academic year exchange program. Short-term programs, however, do differ from longer term academic programs in fundamental ways; the students have different goals, motivations, and skill levels than those in longer programs. (For more thoughts on short-term programs, see my blog post on this issue here.)

I’m nervous about having someone I don’t know in my home for 9-10 months. There’s no way to know if the student will “fit” into our life! What if it doesn’t work out?

The U.S. Department of State requires all approved exchange organizations in the U.S. to have a support program.  Students and host families all have a local contact (sometimes called a local coordinator or local liaison). By law, the local contact will call or see you and your student at least once every month, if not more often depending on location, events going on, and issues needing to be addressed. If problems arise between the host family and student, the local coordinator can (and should) provide support. Support can include advice on ordinary teen issues, cultural information regarding the student’s home country and culture, suggestions for homesickness or difficulties in adjustment, and disciplinary measures for poor academics or behavioral issues. Support also covers logistical, travel, medical, and “daily life” issues (can a host parent sign a school permission slip? Can my student go skiing/snowboarding/join an archery club? Can our student come to Canada with us? Am I allowed to ground my student for the weekend if he refuses to come home before curfew?)

Visiting Sven in Berlin October 2014, seven years after his year in Oregon.

Lots of questions and challenges can come up during an exchange. Most questions can be answered and challenges can be resolved with help. But some cannot. If differences cannot be resolved, or if something unforeseen should happen in your life that makes it impossible to continue to host your student, your exchange organization will find a new home for the student.

For host families, it’s important to be informed about expectations, rules, and guidelines.  Students should think through their motivations and goals. Parents should participate in their child’s application and in the preparation process, as they also need to know what to expect.  The reality is that while many families are nervous about committing to an exchange student, and many families worry about sending their child off for studying in a foreign country, with help and communication, it usually works out just fine — or, hopefully, better than fine.

This blog post is linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com.  Check it out to find interesting blogs on international study and travel!


  • Great overview! I’m so grateful to every family around the world who opens their home to an international student. I hope more families will see what a wonderful opportunity it can be!

    Thanks for participating in the #MyGlobalLife Link-Up!

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