Coming to the U.S. as an Exchange Visitor or as a Trainee: the J-1, the Q-1 and the H-3 visas

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Certain foreign nationals can come to the United States as trainees or as exchange visitors to gain exposure to U.S. culture or to receive training in U.S. business practices in certain fields. The three most common visa options for these foreign nationals are the J, the Q and the H-3 visas. All three are nonimmigrant visas, meaning that they only allow a temporary stay in the U.S.


The J-1 Visa for Exchange Visitors

The J-1 visa for Exchange Visitors is a nonimmigrant visa designed to allow different categories of foreign nationals to come to the U.S. to improve or learn certain skills, share their culture, engage broadly with Americans, and strengthen their English language abilities. The primary goal of the J-1 visa is to promote the interchange of persons, knowledge and skills in certain fields through the use of approved exchange programs. Therefore, to apply for a J-1 visa, the foreign national must first be accepted into an exchange visitor program through a designated sponsoring organization. There are many approved exchange programs and many sponsors throughout the U.S. Generally speaking, the J classification is authorized for the following activities: teaching, instructing or lecturing, studying, observing, conducting research, consulting, demonstrating special skills, or receiving a certain type of training. Therefore, examples of exchange visitors under the J program include:

  • professors or scholars,
  • research assistants,
  • students,
  • trainees and interns,
  • teachers,
  • specialists,
  • nannies and Au Pairs,
  • camp counselors,
  • government and international visitors, and
  • physicians.

Each category comes with different eligibility requirements and is subject to different terms. For example, some – perhaps most – J categories allow the foreign national to work in the U.S., while some do not. Employment, however, is only authorized under the specific terms of the exchange program. Furthermore, the duration of the permitted stay in the U.S. is different for each category. Also, some categories allow extensions of stay or repeated participation to the exchange program while others do not. Even more so, some J-1 visas may come with a two-year home residency requirement after the expiration (when applicable, the home residency requirement can only be bypassed with a waiver). This chart from the U.S. Department of State provides a clear overview and comparison between the different J categories. Generally, the spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age of a J-1 visa holder are entitled to J-2 classification, regardless of their nationality. In most cases, the spouse and children can apply for work authorization (though their income may not be used to support the J-1 visa holder). There is no cap on the total number of J visas that can be issued each year.


The Q-1 visa for Cultural Exchanges

The Q-1 visa for International Cultural Exchange programs is designed for the purpose of providing practical training and to share the history, culture, and traditions of one’s home country with the U.S. To be eligible for a Q-1 visa, the foreign national must:

1) be at least 18 years old;

2) be able to communicate effectively about the cultural attributes of his or her country of nationality;

3) be qualified to perform the service or labor, or to give the practical training required by the specific cultural exchange program;

4) have resided and been physically present outside of the United States for the immediate prior year, if already previously admitted in the U.S. as a Q-1 nonimmigrant; and

5) be seeking to participate in an international cultural exchange program to engage in training or employment, and an essential part of the duties is sharing the culture of his or her country of nationality.

The Q program is an employment-oriented program, but the duties of the foreign national must be of “cultural” nature. Indeed, only employers who administer cultural exchange programs are allowed to petition for Q nonimmigrants. For this reason, the activities under the program usually take place in schools, museums, businesses or other establishments where the public is exposed to aspects of a foreign culture as part of a structured program. Finally, the Q-1 visa does not have a provision for a spouse or children to automatically obtain a visa as dependents. Therefore, any spouse or children must independently qualify for a visa classification to come to the U.S.


The H-3 Visa for Trainees or Special Education Exchange Visitors

The H-3 nonimmigrant visa category is designed for foreign nationals who seek to come temporarily to the U.S. for either one of these two purposes:

  • as trainees, at the invitation of an organization or person to receive training in any field of endeavor, other than graduate medical education or training, or
  • as special education exchange visitors, seeking to participate in a structured special education exchange program that provides for practical training and experience in the education of children with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities.

This classification is not intended for productive employment. Rather, it’s designed to provide the foreign national with job-related training that will benefit his or her career outside of the United States. The foreign national, however, can receive remuneration, which may come from any source, domestic or international. An H-3 nonimmigrant’s spouse and unmarried minor children may accompany the H-3 nonimmigrant to the U.S. with an H-4 visa. However, they will not be permitted to work.

The H-3 visa for trainees

H-3 trainees are foreign nationals who have been invited to participate in a training program in the United States by a person, a business, or an organization. The training sought must be unavailable in the foreign national’s home country and can be in any field (except as a physician), including:

  • A purely industrial establishment
  • Agriculture
  • Commerce
  • Communications
  • Finance
  • Government
  • Transportation
  • Other professions (including nurses and externs)

The person, business, or organization petitioning for an H-3 trainee must demonstrate that:

1) the training is unavailable in the foreign national’s home country;

2) the trainee will not be placed in a position that is in the normal operation of the business and in which United States citizen and resident workers are regularly employed;

3) the trainee will not engage in productive employment unless it is incidental and necessary to the training; and

4) the training will benefit the trainee in pursuing a career outside the United States.

Nonetheless, a training program for a trainee may not be approved if it:

  • Deals in generalities with no fixed schedule, objectives, or means of evaluation;
  • ​Is incompatible with the nature of the petitioner’s business or enterprise;
  • Is on behalf of a trainee who already possesses substantial training and expertise in the proposed field of training;
  • Is in a field in which it is unlikely that the knowledge or skills will be used outside the U.S.;
  • Will result in productive employment beyond that which is incidental and necessary to the training;
  • Is designed to recruit and train nonimmigrants for the ultimate staffing of domestic operations in the United States;
  • Does not establish that the petitioner has the physical plant and sufficiently trained workforce to provide the training specified; or
  • Is designed to extend the total allowable period of practical training previously authorized a nonimmigrant student

There is no numerical limitation on the number of H-3 trainee visas that can be granted each year.

H-3 visa for special education exchange visitors

H-3 special education exchange visitors are participants in a structured special program that provides for practical training and experience in the education of physically, mentally, or emotionally disabled children.

Some requirements for H-3 special education exchange visitors visas are different from H-3 trainees visas. For example, in an H-3 special education exchange visitors petition, the petitioner can only be a facility with professionally trained staff and which has a structured program for providing education to children with disabilities as well as training and hands-on experience to participants in the program. Furthermore, the foreign nationals seeking classification as H-3 special education exchange visitors must:

1) be nearing the completion of a baccalaureate or higher degree program in special education;

2) have already earned a baccalaureate or higher degree in special education; or

3) have extensive prior training and experience teaching children with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. 

This H-3 category is limited to an 18-month period of stay and to 50 visas per fiscal year.

About the Author

Alessandro Giordano

Alessandro Giordano is a multilingual and multicultural immigration attorney. Practicing out of Tampa, FL, he serves clients nationally and worldwide.

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