There are two nonimmigrant visa options available to foreign nationals who wish to come to the United States to participate in an exchange visitor program. These are the J-1 exchange visitor visa and the Q-1 international cultural exchange visitor visa.
In order to determine what visa is appropriate for you, the first thing you need to do is look at the exchange program that you are interested in. Each of these visa types is intended for a very specific type of exchange program. This makes it easy for you to know in advance which one you need to apply for once you have been accepted.
The J-1 visa is for educational and cultural exchange programs that have been designated by the U.S. Department of State (DOS). There are over a dozen exchange program categories that each have their own requirements and restrictions. The DOS has also designated a number of organizations to act as sponsors to carry out these program objectives. These organizations are required to be certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).
With these designations in place, it is very unlikely that you will not know at the time of application that you require the J-1 visa. When you are accepted to the program, you will work with an Alternate Responsible Officer (ARO), who will issue you a DS-2019 form that can only be used to apply for a J-1 visa.
The Q-1 visa is for international cultural exchange programs that provide practical training and employment to foreign participants. A fundamental component of the employment is that one of your job duties will be to share the history, culture, and traditions of your home country with the United States.
Program sponsors are employers who are able to demonstrate to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that they maintain an established international cultural exchange program. Unlike the J-1 visa, program sponsors are not predesignated and they are not required to be SEVP-certified.
If you are undecided about what kind of exchange program you want to participate in, you may want to consider the following restrictions and limitations of each visa type:
Both the J-1 and Q-1 visas provide you with a 30-day period at the end of your program to settle your affairs and plan your travel home.