Not everyone with a J-1 visa will be eligible to apply for a green card in the United States. The J-1 visa has certain restrictions that can impact your ability to apply for a green card. These restrictions include the two-year foreign residence requirement that applies to some J-1 holders under Section 212(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.), and the issue of immigrant intent.
Certain J-1 visa holders must, under I.N.A. Section 212(e), return home and be physically present in their home country for two years before they can apply for a green card in the United States. You might be subject to the two-year foreign residence requirement if any of the following circumstances apply to you:
When you applied for your J-1 visa at the U.S. consulate in your home country, a determination would have been made about whether or not you were subject to the two-year foreign residence requirement. You can check your form DS-2019, which includes an endorsement from the consular officer indicating whether or not this restriction applies to you.
Your visa stamp will also include a statement about this restriction. If you are unsure about whether or not you are subject to Section 212(e), you have the option to request an Advisory Opinion from the U.S. Department of State (DOS). Be aware that if you were subject to Section 212(e) and changed your status before satisfying the requirement, you are still subject.
If you are subject to Section 212(e), you can apply for a waiver of the two-year foreign residence requirement.
The other primary restriction of the J-1 visa is that it does not allow the visa holder to have immigrant intent. What this means is that when you apply for the J-1 visa, you have to prove that you have the intent to return to your home country at the end of your program.
If you are otherwise eligible to apply for a green card in the United States, be prepared to demonstrate that you did not have immigrant intent when you applied for J-1 status and that unexpected circumstances occurred to change this -- for example, you met and married a U.S. citizen, and are applying for a green card as his or her immediate relative spouse.
If an employer is willing to sponsor you for a green card, you should consider changing your status to H-1B (specialty technical worker) first. H-1B visa holders are allowed to have immigrant intent.
Consular processing of your green card is always an option if you are concerned about immigrant intent. That means that you would leave the U.S. at the end of your H-1B stay and apply from your home country, without having to face dual intent issues. See Overview of the H-1B Visa Application Process for more.
An immigration attorney will be able to review your case and advise you of your rights as a J-1 visa holder. If you are subject to Section 212(e), an immigration attorney can assist you with the waiver process. If you are concerned about immigrant intent, an immigration attorney can advise you on the best strategy for applying for a green card based on your individual circumstances.