How to apply for a J-1 intern / trainee visa

Are you currently located outside of the United States? Do you dream of working in Silicon Valley?

If you’re a not an engineer, investment banker, consultant, mathematician, did not study at a top US college nor interned in US before, and has minimal work experience, it will be extremely hard to get a full-time H1B work sponsorship while you are located overseas.

Most foreign professionals in the US are on the H1B visa. To put things in perspective, every year, there are 65,000 regular H1B visas available. For the 2015 cycle, 172,500 applications were received within a week. Essentially, you have a 1 in 3 chance of getting the visa.

However fret not, because there is still a J-1 visa, which is offered to exchange visitors to do internships or traineeships in US. There are no income requirements, no employer sponsorship requirements, and no strict education requirements. In short, it is a visa that will allow you to be located in the US, learn as much as you can, and figure out your next career moves.

1) Requirements 
An internship and a traineeship are essentially the same thing. The main difference between the 2 is the duration the applicant had graduated from college.

Internship: For applicants still in college, OR less than 1 year after graduation date (this is the date on your academic transcript)

Traineeship: More than 1 year after graduation

1 year is calculated from the day you begin your internship/traineeship, not the day you submit your J-1 application. I.e. it is okay to apply for a traineeship 10 months after graduation, for a traineeship that will begin 1 year after your graduation.

2) Find an “employer”

Finding an “employer”, or legally speaking, a host company is definitely the hardest aspect of getting a J-1 visa. This in itself requires another post. Long story short, I sent out 53 resumes, got 7 interviews and 2 offers. I’ll be writing about my job search system in a later post, look out for it!

3) Find a sponsor 
It is important to know the difference between ‘host’ and ‘sponsor’. Your host is the company that hires you. Your sponsor is the US agency that you’ll pay to apply for the visa on your behalf. Repeat: Your internship company is not your sponsor. You need to find another agency from a pre-approved list to do that for you.

Fortunately, finding a sponsor is much easier than finding a host company. Two large sponsor companies that you can find are CIEE and Cultural Vista. These companies’ main business is to act as sponsors. As such, they have local agencies representing them around the world. These local agencies will link you to these US sponsor companies.

Since I used CIEE as my agent, I will write more about my experience with them here.

I contacted CIEE through CIEE’s Singapore agent — Speedwing. All correspondence with CIEE are done through Speedwing. Speedwing does not like to give advice over phone calls. Therefore, your best bet to get any useful information from them is via email. Also note that their main function is a “mail-forwarding service”. Hence do not expect to get much useful information from them. Use the internet as your research tool, then go to them to settle administrative matters.

4) Complete the documentation

i. Background form from CIEE

CIEE’s local agent will email this background form to you. The 14-page form asked for simple bio data, work experience, and educational background. Simple stuff. The part that requires more thinking is the personal statement section. Questions asked are: Why do you want to join this program? What do you hope to learn from the program? What cultural activities will you participate in? How do you expect to apply what you have learnt to your career in your home country?

If you pay attention to the last question, the emphasis is on ‘home country’. The purpose of the J-1 visa program is to facilitate academic and cultural exchange between international participants and Americans. I.e. It is not a platform for foreigners to find permanent work in US. Hence it is not wise to say “I intend to intern in US so that I can gain some employable skills. These skills will help me obtain a job that will put me in the 40% tax rate income bracket. My skills will contribute to the US economy and expand its tax base.” All in all, very noble. BUT it is not going to get you the J-1 visa.

Here’s an example of an ideal candidate ‘My home country is expanding its technology sector. I hope to learn the best virtual wallet encryption practices from fast-growing startups so that I can apply these knowledge to develop the bitcoin industry in my home country.’ To put it short, this visa is for Visitors. I.e. you cannot show intention to stay in US. The visa officer will not appreciate your lofty dreams of living permanently in the land of the free.

ii. DS-7002 — 
This form asks for basic information about your host company. This form seeks to verify that the company is legit, and can afford to pay you for the duration of your internship/ training. One of the most burdensome part of the form is the training plan.

If you’re an intern, you can get away with a one-stage training plan- that is, you just have to submit a one-page training plan.

If you’re a trainee, you need to have a multi-stage training program — that is, you need to submit at least a two-pager for the training plan.

iii. Embassy Visit
Once you’ve got your DS-7002, you are now ready to schedule your visa interview at the US embassy. It is generally a casual chat, questions that I got were about my motivations for going to the company, the business of the host company, reason why they chose to hire me.

The only guideline for answering these interview questions is KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid. Don’t go in circles, over-explain your motivations and worse, raise suspicions about your intent of visit. The embassy officer only has 2–3 minutes to speak to each applicant. So, remember, KISS.

4) Most importantly, don’t forget about….
Costs. If you have already started work, halting your career to go for a traineeship is no easy choice. It takes certain courage, and a sizable wallet to achieve that. The program fees that you have to pay to your sponsor will cost at least $3000USD for a one-year program. A huge chunk of the fees goes towards insurance. However, the insurance does not cover much, so its best if you can procure workplace insurance from your host company.

Fig. 1 : Internship costs. Source: Speedwing brochure

Fig 2: Trainee costs

5) Finally, fly to the US!

Well, you’ve found a “job”, fought through the paperwork and forked out a ton of money for your J-1. Now you’re ready to conquer the world. BUT. Just not yet.

Upon arrival, or even before flying to the US , you will need to address the following speedbumps:

Daily life
-Bank accounts and credit cards
-Mobile phone

-Workplace culture
-Reliable friends
-Party friends
-Network. Network. Network. You never know, the quiet guy at the party may be the co-founder of a $30M startup looking to hire a growth ninja.

-Learn SQL
-Learn growth marketing hacks
-Learn Python
-If you’re non-technical, and in Bay area, you need to know some programming to gain street cred.

6) Be open to all possibilities

I hope I didn’t scare you off with the huge amount of prep work needed to get here. If you’ve just graduated from college, working in such a hyperbolic environment like the bay area will shape your career choices.

If you have started work for a while, and is starting to get bored of your current job, why not take the plunge and try something crazy? Quit your job and move to the US for a traineeship. Never be afraid to take calculated risks. Your experiences here may just change your career choices.

Upcoming post: How to find a startup internship when you’re not based in US

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