Direct Placements for Exchange Students: Should You or Shouldn’t You? 

 October 8, 2015

By  Laura Kosloff

myths and facts - featured imageWe sometimes receive emails from parents asking us how they can find a host family for their child for his or her exchange year. We also sometimes hear from people who are seeking a host family in their area for a family friend or a niece or nephew. Direct placements such as these seem to be more popular with J-1 students than in the past, although statistics are hard to come by to prove one way or the other.

There are logical reasons for trying to arrange a placement ahead of time. Parents naturally worry about sending their child to a strange country for six months or a year, and feel that their child will be safer with someone they know. The student may prefer a particular region in the host country, perhaps because they have family or friends nearby.

A student and his or her family – and the potential host family – should consider a number of factors before jumping in and saying “this is the best idea ever!” For some situations, it might be an excellent choice. For others, it might lead to difficulties for all concerned.

What are the requirements for direct placements for J-1 visa students?

498175455 (2) rules and regs
There are always rules to follow!

In the U.S., finding your own host family does not change the U.S. Department of State requirements for screening students and families. Keep in mind the following:

  • The student must be at least 15 and no more than 18½ years old when he or she starts school in the U.S.
  • Students may not be hosted by a relative, no matter how distant the family relationship.
  • English must be the primary language spoken in the host family’s home, even if they are friends of the student’s family.
  • Parents should not choose a host family based on a desire to have their child attend a particular school for athletic reasons.
  • Students may not have previously come to the U.S. on a J-1 visa; the J-1 visa is a one-year opportunity.
  • A high school in the host family’s area must agree to accept the student; for J-1 visa students, the exchange program arranges for enrollment, not the student or the host family. A school is not required to accept an exchange student. Some schools do not accept 15-year-old exchange students. Some schools may have limits on how many students they accept from a given country, and most schools have limits on how many exchange students they accept each year.
  • The host family must go through the required screening process and be approved by the exchange program. Even if the student’s family knows the host family well, the family must submit an application, provide references, agree to an interview in the home, and show that the home is clean and safe. Adults must undergo a criminal background check and all members of the host family should be in favor of hosting.

Advantages to student and family

The primary advantage of a direct placement is the knowledge early on of where a student will be placed. Waiting for placement information makes people anxious, understandably so given the physical distances and cultural differences involved. From a parent’s point of view, knowing the people your child will live with reduces worry and fear. Parents may also feel it will give them more input into their child’s development during the exchange and more knowledge about their child’s daily life.

Disadvantages to student and family

The advantages of knowing where a student is going and who the student will live with are real. We all agree, and J-1 exchange programs work hard to place students as early as possible before students arrive. Many parents feel that trusting the exchange programs to make a match for their child is a huge gamble. Finding one’s own host family, however, also carries risks.

* “Fit” in the host family: Knowing your host family is not an automatic advantage. Friends may not have similar backgrounds. An example from our own experience: a student’s mother and host father knew each other from university days. Religion was an important part of the U.S. host family’s life, but was not a key element of the German family’s life. The student was uncomfortable, but felt caught between her host family and her parents. The conflict could have had long-term negative impacts on the two families’ relationship; it certainly caused short-term distress to everyone involved. Eventually, we were able to convince the host family and the student’s parents that moving her to a new family – even one they did not know ahead of time – would ensure a better experience for the student.

* “Distancing” from family back home: Parents may feel that knowing the host family will help them to have input into their child’s life abroad. This may be true – but it is not necessarily a good result. Students do better when they are totally immersed into their host culture and community, including in the host family itself. It can be disruptive to both the student and the host family if parents back home are saying “this is how we do it.” The student’s parents may not intend to interfere, but rather may simply feel they are helping by telling the host family the rules their son or daughter is used to following. Quite often, however, the result is that the host family feels their student’s family is telling them how to manage their family’s life.

* Inability to play on a school sports team: In the U.S., many U.S. states prohibit direct placement students from playing sports on school teams. Athletics have become “big business” in the U.S.; families will move to a specific town so that their child can attend that school specifically for sports reasons. Thus, state athletic associations often place limits on the ability to play a sport on students moving into an area, including exchange students. There may be exceptions if an exchange program matches a student with a local family through the usual anonymous process. Waivers may be possible for direct placement students, but generally cannot be arranged ahead of time.

What’s the Answer?

So many directions from which to choose
So many directions from which to choose

Parents have legitimate reasons to want to know as much as possible about where their child will end up. We simply recommend that you think carefully before making a decision that the only solution is to find a host family ahead of time. Other options include carefully researching the exchange organization you choose to work with. Researching the geographic area where your child ends up also helps parents and student feel more comfortable. Finally, when you do receive notice from your exchange organization about your child’s placement, take time to reach out and start the “getting to know you” process. It is possible to become familiar with a region and with your child’s host family even if you do not know them previously.

What about you? Are you a host parent who hosted a student who was a friend of the family, or you knew the older brother or sister who had done an exchange? Are you a parent who is nervous about sending your child on an exchange unless you know the host family? Are you a student whose exchange experience was with someone you knew? Tell us your experiences!

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  • I understand that one of the requirements is that the students may not be hosted by a relative, no matter how distant the family relationship.
    Does this still apply if you are a distant relative but have never met the student?
    We are interested in hosting a student who is my grandmother’s great niece. Even though, we are related on paper my husband, my kids and I have never met this student or her mother. I have only met her father a couple of times when I was a teenager about 30 years ago. Can this be an exception??

    • Hi Yasmine,
      The Department of State regulations say only that an exchange student may not be placed “with his or her relatives.” It’s my understanding that most of the exchange organizations interpret that as any relative, no matter how distant; I know that’s been the general guideline for the organization I work for. You might want to contact a few exchange organizations that operate in your area.

      • Thank you for your response Laura. Do you know of any organizations in the coastal Virginia that you can refer me to?

        • Not off the top of my head, I’m afraid. If you want me to direct you to a representative of the program I work with (EF High School Exchange Year), let me know. I’m pretty sure we follow the general guideline of any relative no matter how distant, but you could certainly work with someone to see if something could be worked out.

  • Thanks for this interesting bit of information. I am curious what exactly it means that “Students may not be hosted by a relative, no matter how distant the family relationship.” Obviously, if it really doesn’t matter how distant, then everyone is related to everyone. Specifically: does my ex-husbands nephew still qualify as a distant relative? (I would argue no, because the family relationship ended when the marriage was dissolved. So it’s just friends of the family.)

    • I don’t know how that relationship would be interpreted. Certainly, any relation is going to be a direct relation of one spouse and not the other. What is a relative after a divorce though … I think that’s an interesting question. Best advice I can offer is to ask the exchange program you’re interested in working with. I’m guessing in some cases they can ask the Dept of State for an opinion and your situation might be such a case, or else something like it may have come up in the past.

  • How do you go about doing this? We would like to host the daughter of a family friend so that she can attend a school that challenges her academically and without being subject to government propaganda.

    • I know I responded to you by email since I was on the road and not able to easily access the website, but I think your comment is a good one to have here. My comment here is in regards to the U.S., just to be clear to people. To go about a direct placement, the student and the family each need to apply to the same exchange program. Best is for the student and his/her family to contact programs and find out who operates in the area where the desired host family lives. The student should put right into the application the name of the family, and the program can then contact the family directly. One does need to keep in mind that it’s not automatic — there are many reasons why a family might not be able to host the child of a family friend. These include the school not being able to take more exchange students, for example, or perhaps the family who wants to host speak the student’s native language in their home. But the only way to find out if it’s possible is to talk to the program and get more information.

      • Hi!

        Why do they need to go through an exchange program at all? If the school says yes, the host family says yes, and the student can get a visa- is an exchange program really necessary?


        • It’s a good question, and I’m often asked this question by people wanting to host someone they know. Actually had a telephone conversation about this with someone yesterday, as a matter of fact! There are many reasons why a program of some kind is needed. For one thing, it’s required by the U.S. government, and in many other countries as well. Students simply cannot get a visa unless they follow government regulations. There are legitimate reasons for these requirements. For example:

          • Safety of the student: we screen all host families to make sure they have the right motivation, an understanding of what’s involved in having a teen from another culture, that they have the finances to feed and transport a student, and that they don’t have a criminal background.
          • Security and peace of mind for host families: students are screened for motivation, maturity, standing in school, and English proficiency.
          • Counseling and advising: we stay in touch on an ongoing basis with students and host families. Even if a student knows their host family, there are issues that come up in which it can be incredibly helpful to have someone who understands what students go through.
          • All of the above for the schools: if there were no screening, no applications, and no oversight during the exchange, schools would be in a difficult position. They would have no way of knowing if the student was mature enough, for example, to handle the stress of living in another country, or if the student’s English was sufficient. They would have no way of knowing if the host family and the host family home was a safe place. To force schools to conduct screenings and oversight would be a real burden. (Indeed, this is a bit of the situation for schools that accept students on F-1 visas, and many schools choose not to accept F-1 students precisely because of the burden.)

          Yes, I have had direct placements in which things went seamlessly all through the year for both the student and the host family. That’s wonderful for everyone involved. But most of the time, even these placements need counseling and advice – and sometimes I have had to move a student out of the host family they had specifically requested. Without oversight, those students would have no way of getting help.

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