When you come to the United States to conduct postdoctoral research, you must enter with an appropriate visa stamp (except Canadian citizens) and with the proper immigration documents. Although there are a variety of visa options available for an assortment of purposes, the most common statuses utilized for temporary research are the J-1 and the H-1B. The J-1 and H-1B visas require institutional certification that you have the essential academic and employment backgrounds for the position, as well as the financial capability to support yourself during your research stay. Further, each institution has a set of individualized policies and procedures to secure these types of visas, as well as their own time frame to obtain the required certifications.
SPECIAL NOTE: Canadian and Mexican citizens are also eligible for the TN status. For more information regarding the TN status, please see special section entitled “For Canadian and Mexican Citizens.” There are also some additional visa options for citizens of Australia known as E-3 and citizens of Chile and Singapore under the H-1B1. Given that these visa classifications are limited to certain specified countries, this piece will not extensively discuss these non-immigrant options.
After the institutional certification process is completed and the documents received, postdocs are required to secure the visa stamp at a U.S. embassy or consulate—usually in the postdoc’s home country. (Canadians are visa exempt and instead present the Notice of Approval or DS-2019 form at the U.S. border for admission purposes.). Please keep in mind that internal policies and procedures affecting visa issuance at the U.S. consulates will differ from country to country. When securing the visa stamp, in most instances, you must have a passport that is valid for six months beyond the anticipated ending date of your postdoctoral appointment.
Upon entering the United States, you will be interviewed at the airport (or port of entry) and asked to present appropriate entry documents, which are discussed below. After the entry interview with the immigration officer, your visa status and duration of stay will appear on your “I-94 Arrival/Departure Card,” which is the document you filled out on the airplane or, if entering by land, at the border. In general, J-1 visa holders are generally admitted for “Duration of Status” (D/S), meaning until the ending date of the Form J-1 DS-2019 (see below); H-1B visa holders are generally admitted until the ending date on the H-1B approval notice. Please note: The I-94 card is no longer directly issued to an incoming foreign national at the port of entry; rather, you need to access your I-94 from the website of Customs and Border Protection. It is important that you double check your I-94 card to ensure that you have been correctly classified on admission and that you also have tangible documentation on the terms and duration of your visa status.
If you require additional time in the same type of immigration status while you are in the United States, you can request an extension of your visit while you are inside the United States. Please note that usually there is no need to travel outside the United States to obtain an extension. However, the time frame for obtaining the H-1B visa status extensions may vary from one U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) regional processing center to another, although foreign nationals already in H-1B status get up to 240 days of additional H-1B status pursuant to a timely-filed extension or until the petition is adjudicated, whichever comes first. (However, postdocs cannot reenter the United States following trips abroad unless their H-1B extension has been approved).
If you return to your home country during your research stay and desire to re-enter the United States, you will need to have a valid visa stamp. If the visa stamp is not valid, you will need to renew it at a U.S. embassy or consulate unless you are visa exempt (i.e., a Canadian citizen). Although it may not be necessary for you to apply at the location where you received your original visa stamp, applications for visas are usually more successful in your home country.
If you are a postdoc in J status, you are required to report certain activities - for example, your arrival and departure date and your U.S. residential address to the institution that provided you with the Form DS-2019. Each time you move to a new residence, your change of address must be reported within 10 days of the move.
Finally, if you have exhausted the time limits of your status but would like to continue your stay in the United States, you should first consult your institution’s international office. Further, you may eventually need to consult with an immigration attorney as to what, if any, alternatives may be available to you.
Some J-1 exchange visitors are subject to the two-year home residence obligation, which arises either if you are working in a field that falls on your home country’s skills list or if you have received funding from either the United Staets or your home country. While the existence of the two-year home residence obligation oftentimes appears on the J-1 visa and/or the DS-2019 form, mistakes oftentimes happen and you may want to consult with your international office and/or an immigration attorney to determine whether you indeed are subject to the two-year home residence obligation.
But if you are subject to this requirement, you are ineligible for an H-1B visa and permanent resident status. Therefore, your options upon completion of your J program are either to return for two years to your home country or to obtain a waiver of this obligation. In some instances, it may be possible to qualify for certain visa categories (the most common of which is an O-1 visa as an “alien of extraordinary ability”), although even here, you remain ineligible for permanent residence until you have either fulfilled your two-year obligation or obtained a waiver.