How to Convert a J1 Visa to a Student Visa

I have been asked quite often whether an exchange student can convert their J1 visa to a student visa? Yes, they can. In fact, there are two ways to change your visa status.

Every year around 3,00,000 foreign students from 200 countries and territories are given the opportunity to experience US society and culture, and engage with Americans under the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, according to government statistics.

According to the American Immigration Council, these exchange visitors are often research scholars and professors who travel to the US to participate in programs promoting cultural exchange. These visitors are issued a J-1 visa, which is a non-immigrant visa, meant specifically for this purpose. However, there are times when an exchange visitor, admitted to an academic program, would like to stay on in the US to study. They wish to remain in the US as full-time students in the elite universities.

However, the only way they can do so is by converting their J-1 visa to an F-1 student visa first.

Two Ways to Change Visa Status

The applicant will first need to apply with the academic institution where they want to study as full-time students. If the university accepts them, only then can the student proceed further. Once accepted, the student must obtain an I-20 form from the academic institution.

There are two ways change your visa status, both of which have their own pros and cons, depending on the applicant’s situation.

Travel out of the US

In order to obtain an F-1 visa, you could first travel back to your home country. Once in your home country, apply for the F-1 visa at your local US consulate. After you obtain the change of status, you can re-enter the US under the new visa classification.

Apply within the US

Exchange students can also extend/change their non-immigrant status from J-1 to F-1 during their stay in the US. For this, they need to submit an I-539 Application to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

However, if you travel out of the US after you get the visa status changed this way, you would need to visit the US consulate to obtain the visa stamp according to the new visa classification.

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Situations Where the Visa Cannot be Applied for While in the US

There are two conditions under which an exchange visitor is not eligible to apply for a change of status while remaining in the US:

  1. The applicant’s last entry into the US was through the visa waiver program (ESTA)
  2. The applicant is (or was) a J visa holder, who is subject to a two-year home residency requirement. According to the two-year home residency requirement, those who enter the US under J-1 status cannot become permanent residents of America or change their status until they return to the country of their last permanent residence for at least two years cumulatively.

In both these cases, the J-1 visa holder may need to travel out of the US first to get their status changed. For any further questions or concerns, I would advise you to consult an immigration attorney.

All the best!

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Mani Karthik

About the Author

Mani Karthik

Ex “NRI” and Founder of the “Back to India” movement. I share my experience about immigrating to USA here.

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