Does the word “home residency requirement” cause an unsettling tingle down your spine, and cause you to utter a muffled curse each time you hear it?
Does it put an annoying stumbling block on your future plans and career development within the U.S.?
If you nodded to either of these questions, then you are not alone. There are numerous internet forums and websites dedicated to them with a plethora of outraged protests, despondent resignations, incoherent and frayed pleads and vague answers. I’ve wandered through and cringed at some of them (actually, a lot of them), and I ended up feeling fatigued and none the wiser.
So, I will just share my own experience with you to hopefully save you some time and give you some hope.
My first tip is to be very careful before accepting a J1 visa. Make sure you understand where your funding is coming from. Have you received any funding from the U.S. government, either directly as a grant, fellowship or scholarship, stipend etc., or indirectly? However convoluted the funding trail, find out for certain from your sponsor whether any of your funding is from the U.S. government. Even if a fraction of your funding came from the US government indirectly, then you are subject to the 2 year home residency requirement at the completion of your J1 visa.
You can’t go anywhere else to complete this residency requirement. You must return to your home country and fulfill it before you can return to the U.S. “Marriage” via Green card does not circumvent this residency requirement, in case someone smugly suggests this unsavory idea.
However, if your funding came entirely from sources other than the U.S. government, i.e. your home country government, then you would need to file a J1 visa waiver, which I will discuss later in this post.
My second tip is, if you do decide to accept a J1 visa knowing that it is funded by the US government, then you need to decide whether you want to trade the possibility of a J1 visa extension for a J1 visa home residency waiver.
Once you submit an application for a J1 visa home residency waiver, you effectively relinquish the possibility of a J1 visa extension, i.e. if your waiver application is rejected you are obliged to leave the US at the end of your J1 visa period.
However, if your waiver application is successful, then you do not have to worry about having to return home for 2 years after your J1 visa expires.
So, what is involved in a J1 visa waiver process? The most common category for scientists like us is the “No Objection”category. You will need a No Objection letter from your government to state that they do not require you to return home after your J1 visa. If your funding came from the U.S. government, then the U.S. government makes the “final decision”.
Furthermore, if your funding was specifically created to foster inter-country exchange of knowledge, such as the Fulbright scholarships, then waiver is normally never granted. However, if your funding came solely from sources other than the U.S. government, then your home country’s government can issue a No Objection letter on your behalf if your skill set is deemed not necessary to your home country’s development (check here), and the waiver process has a much higher chance of success.
In my case, my skill set is pharmacometrics and it was not deemed essential to my home country’s development, so getting the No Objection letter was the easy, if not the easiest part, of the waiver process.
However, my funding was indirectly funded by the US government, so I was subject to the 2-year home residency requirement, even though both my passport and my J1 visa page stated that I was NOT subject to the home residency requirement.
Somehow, there was a mix up and the US embassy in my home country failed to inform me that I was subject to the requirement. I was completely oblivious to the fact until it was time to apply for a change of my visa status by my new employer. Not the nicest way of finding out. Hence, my first tip of being absolutely certain about the source of the funding BEFORE accepting a J1 visa.
Applying for J1 visa waiver can be a long process (mine took 4 months, and that’s not too bad at all). You need to plan in advance for it to facilitate a change in your visa status (to H1B or other visas) to make sure your J1 visa does not expire before you can successfully gain a waiver or secure a change in visa status.
You can initiate the waiver application online via the Department of State’s (DOS) website. There is a long list of required documents, and I won’t list them all. The one thing to watch out for is the Statement of Reason. This is your chance to plead your case for a waiver in your own voice. You will need to construct a strong case in your favor. My own statement listed how I could contribute beneficially to the U.S. if I am allowed to stay after my visa expires–why it would be better for the U.S. government to grant me a waiver than require me to go back to my home country which already issued a No Objection letter on my behalf.
Although the DOS’ website states that it normally takes 6-8 weeks for a decision based on the No Objection category, don’t count on it. There is always a high volume of applications, and the counting clock does not start until ALL of the required documents are received and confirmed by the DOS’s website. I’ve heard people waiting 9 months or more for a waiver, and if your J1 visa is for 2 years, you cannot afford to doddle away your time.
My third tip is to get your foreign degrees evaluated as soon as possible by approved evaluation companies (your sponsor will have a list of them). Even though my undergraduate degree was from an English speaking country (New Zealand), I still have to get authentic copies of my transcripts (took a couple of weeks via international mail), copies of diploma to be verified by the evaluation company.
My PhD diploma (from a well-known university in the U.S.) was written in old school Latin, so I was required to pay my alma mater to translate my diploma, and that took another extra few weeks (I managed to bump into the graduation period and the academic administration office was already overwhelmed with requests from graduating students), hence my tip of allowing plenty of time for the waiver process.
Since my funding had come indirectly from the US government, DOS sent a request to my sponsor to seek their opinion on the waiver, a yay or a nay. This is where it gets a bit more interesting, I actually work at the FDA via the sponsor, so the sponsor deferred back to my supervisor at the FDA for their opinion on the waiver.
I was very fortunate that my supervisor supported my waiver application, even though I would be working for somebody else for my H1B visa. Within a couple of days of receiving the supportive opinion from my supervisor, DOS recommended a waiver and forwarded their decision to United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).
Normally USCIS concur with DOS’ recommendation unless there are exceptional circumstances (never seen or heard of one before) to contradict. It took another month before I received a hard copy of the USCIS’s final approval. However, your sponsor is permitted to continue with your visa status change with the DOS favorable recommendation.
In summary, it took approximately 5 weeks to gather all the supporting documents (No Objection letter, official transcripts, degree evaluations etc). Another 2.5 months of absolutely no updates (I had obsessively checked daily online) and a quick approval 2 days after DOS received a waiver support letter from my supervisor at the FDA.
The J1 visa waiver process can be long and frustrating–it requires patience and extra money for degree evaluations, official transcripts, waiver application and multiple documents that are required. My own experience is not typical since I was granted a waiver even though I was funded by the US government, but I was very fortunate to have a supportive supervisor to sway the DOS decision in my favor. So, I hope this offers some of you hope that it can be done, and that some of my tips for early planning will work in your favor.