Getting your visa can be the most stressful part of your entire pre-camp experience. Without it you cannot go to camp, it involves a lot of paperwork and if you make a mistake it can result in your visa being rejected.
Try not to worry though, if you read everything properly and pay attention to what you’re doing, you will be fine! This post aims to help you understand each of the different forms you need to apply for your visa as well as the whole process of getting your J1.
J1 Cultural Exchange Visa
In order to go to camp you need to have a J1 Cultural Exchange visa. This is the only type of visa issued to international staff working at a US summer camp and for some reason it is the same visa issued to those who go to study abroad in America. In order to get this visa you will need to fill out various bits of paperwork and have an interview at the US Embassy in London (or Edinburgh or Belfast, depending on where in the UK you live) which, I promise, is nowhere near as scary as it sounds.
Your passport is an important part of your visa process so it is important to check it meets the requirements before you start your application. Firstly, make sure that it will be valid for at least 6 months from the date you plan to return home after camp. America is very strict on this and they may reject your visa or reject you at the border if your passport doesn’t meet this criteria. You should also check that your passport has at least one set of blank adjoining pages. This is because your visa sticker will be secure to one page and then the border official in America will stamp the blank page opposite it when they grant you entry.
If your passport fails to meet either/both of these requirements, you will need to get a new one before you can start applying for your visa.
Depending on your sponsorship agency, how you start applying for your visa may vary. Some agencies will mail all your visa documents to you and you will need to wait to receive these before you can start. Some may release the key information to you through email or your online portal and give you the rest of your paperwork later.
At first, the sheer volume of paperwork can seem overwhelming, particularly because it is covered in numbers and words you might not understand and in the back of your mind you know that if you mess it up, you may not be able to go to camp after all. No pressure.
SEVIS Receipt (I-901 form)
One of the first pieces of information you will need from sponsorship company is your SEVIS number. Part of the fees you have paid your sponsorship company goes to paying your SEVIS Fee. The company pays this on your behalf and a receipt is generated once they have done so which contains your SEVIS Identification Number which you will need to start your visa application.
Your SEVIS Receipt will also contain your program number which you will also need to complete your visa application.
This form will either be sent to you by your company or you will be given the details to print it yourself at home. Make sure you print it as you will need to take it with you to the embassy and when you get to the border in America.
The first thing to be aware of when it comes to visa photos is they are not the same as standard UK passport photos. Visa photos need to be less than 6 months old and 2inches x 2inches (600x600 pixels). You can get these taken professionally at any photo shop or in most photo booths for a fee. Or, if you know what you’re doing, you can take them yourself against a white background and resize them on your computer before printing them onto photo paper.
You will need to submit a digital photo (or at least attempt to submit a digital photo) with your online application form as well as taking physical copies of the photo with you to your embassy appointment.
Your DS2019 form, or Certificate of Eligibility, is an essential piece of paperwork that supports your application for a J1 visa. It will be given to you by your sponsor company, either by post or they will give it to you outside the embassy on the day of your appointment.
The form is 2 pages and you are required to sign the first page. If you do not sign this page before your interview your visa will be rejected.
It is important that you check through all the information on the form thoroughly when you receive it and let your sponsor company know immediately if there are any errors on any part of the form as this may affect your ability to obtain a visa.
Your DS160 is a form that needs to be submitted electronically to the US Embassy so don’t worry if it isn’t in the pile of paperwork you received from your agency. Your company will issue you with instructions of how to access the site that allows you to apply.
Once you start your application, you will be issued an application number. Make sure you make a note of this number as you will need it to book your embassy appointment later. For security, the website automatically times you out after 20 minutes of inactivity. If this happens, you will need your application number in order to pick up where you left off. If you don’t you will need to start again from the beginning (I learnt this the hard way). The form is pretty long so you don’t want to have to do that if you can help it.
As you work through the form, be sure to read everything carefully and answer honestly. If you are unsure about anything, ask your agency and they will be able to help you.
In order to complete your application, you will need to upload a photo that meets visa requirements. If you do not attempt to upload a photo, you cannot move on. If you don’t have a visa appropriate photo saved on your computer, that’s ok. Just upload any picture of yourself you may have. Even if it fails, you will be able to submit your application and they will remind you to bring a print copy of some photos with you to your appointment. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but that is the way the system is and we have to go along with it.
Triple check everything before you hit submit. Once you have submitted the application you will get a confirmation page. This page will have a barcode, your picture (if your upload was successful) and your application number on it. You MUST bring this page with you to your appointment, otherwise your visa will not be granted. Make sure that the barcode is complete when you print it as they will scan it at the embassy to locate your electronic application.
In addition to the forms listed above, you should take some supporting documents with you to the embassy. This proves that you have ties to the UK and a life here and that you aren’t trying to illegally emigrate to the states. The more supporting documents you can provide, the better your chances of getting your visa approved (although sometimes they don’t even ask to see your supporting documents!).
Some ideas of supporting documents include:
Return flight details
Your contract or offer of employment from camp
Confirmation of University place/ course dates for the following year
Student Loans statement
A bank statement
Rental agreement for the following academic year
Job offer letter for when you return
Booking Your Appointment
Once you have submitted your DS160 you will need to schedule your appointment at the embassy. The embassy runs specific ‘J-Days’ for summer camp applicants and there are usually a couple a month beginning around March time. You cannot make an appointment to get a J1 visa unless it is on one of these days.
Appointments must be booked online and your agency will give you instructions on how to do so once you have confirmed with them that you have completed your DS160.
You will need to set up an account on the website by clicking the ‘Apply’ button. You will then need to tick the box that says “I have completed the DS160 visa application form and I need to apply for a visa”. Once you have created an account you will need to set yourself up as a “New Applicant”.
Make sure that all the information you put in matches the information in your passport exactly. Your DS160 number is the application number you were given that begins with AA.
When you get back to applicant summary page, click continue and it will take you to the courier details page. You will have to select the depot closest to you in order to schedule your appointment but you will have the opportunity to select home delivery if you wish at a later stage.
You will need to pay the $160 appointment fee at this stage directly to the embassy, not to your sponsorship agency. Without paying it you cannot book an appointment. Once you have done this you can finally schedule your appointment on one of the J-Days.
In my experience I find getting early morning appointments to be far better than those later in the day. The embassy can get backed up easily with lots of applicants trying to get visas so the earlier you choose to go, the less chance the embassy has to get backed up and you can be in and out much quicker.
Once you have booked your appointment you will be given the option to have your passport delivered back to you at home or work instead of having to go and collect it from the depot you selected earlier in the process. There is an additional fee for this service but I definitely think it is worth it!
Once everything is complete, you will need to print the 2 pages titled “Application Instructions”. The front page will contain 2 barcodes that will be scanned at the embassy to ensure that you get the right passport back with the right visa in it. Make sure these barcodes are clearly printed and remember to take this with you to the embassy appointment.
Finally, be sure to let your agency know when your interview is booked for. This is especially important if your company does not post your DS2019 form to you as they will need to meet you outside the embassy before your appointment to give it to you to sign before you go in. Make sure you are telling them the right time and date otherwise you could end up not getting your visa!
Your Embassy Interview
Your interview is not as scary as it seems, I promise! As long as you have done everything properly, take the right documents with you and arrive on time, you will be fine!
Try not to take too much stuff with you to the embassy. You will have to go through a metal detector and your stuff will have to go through an x-ray machine in a similar way to when you are at the airport. The embassy doesn’t allow large items and electronics into the building and there isn’t anywhere secure to store your belongings if they turn them away so the less you take, the better in this instance. I usually just take a small bag with my paperwork, passport, phone, keys, purse and a pen. You really don’t need much else.
I would recommend getting to the embassy around half an hour before your scheduled appointment time. Most of the sponsorship companies send their staff to the embassy on J-Days to help check your paperwork and point you in the right direction so it is a good idea to get there early so they can look over your documents and make sure everything is in order.
Once they have checked you have everything and given you your DS2019 if you don’t have it already, they will direct you towards the gate where there is usually a line forming. A security guard will check your ID when you get to the front and will send you to the back of another smaller line. Small groups of around 4-5 people will be taken to security at a time where you and your stuff gets x-rayed. If all is ok they will direct you round to the side of the building, up the steps and through the door.
Once you get inside you will have to check in at the reception desk. The person behind the counter will probably ask you a couple of simple questions and may ask to see your documents before they issue you a slip of paper with your name on and a number. You will then go up another set of steps and through a door into a large room with a lot of chairs. This is where you wait for your number to be called.
When your number is called, it will show up on one of the many television screens around the room along with another number. This new number is the window you need to go to. Generally there are 1 or 2 people ahead of you when you get to the window but just be patient, it doesn’t take too long.
When you get to the window, the person behind the glass will ask to see a couple of pieces of paperwork and may ask you some questions. They will also check your photo. I always make sure I have at least £7 in pound coins when I go to the embassy in case the person behind the desk says my photos aren’t suitable and makes me get new ones – it hasn’t happened to me yet but a friend of mine had this happen last year and had to beg for money off people to be able to afford to get new ones done on the spot. The embassy does have a photo booth luckily!
If everything looks in order they will take all of your fingerprints (make sure you don’t have any cuts or scars on your fingers for your appointment as this may affect your visa being granted) and will put your papers in a plastic envelope and send you around the corner where you will join another line.
This one can take a little longer but remember everyone is here for the same reason you are; they are just trying to get to have the best summer ever. You will be directed towards another window and once you get to the front the person behind the glass will want to see all your paperwork and will ask you some questions about what you plan to do in the States, where you will be going etc. It can be a little nerve-wracking but just be honest, remember you haven’t done anything wrong!
When they are happy they will let you know that your visa has been granted and you are free to go. They will hold onto your passport and some parts of your paperwork which will be sent back to you with your visa. They say it can take up to 2 weeks to get your visa back but I have never had to wait more than a few days. The earlier in the season you have your interview, the quicker they can process your visa and get it back to you.
That’s it! Congratulations! You are now officially going to America for the summer!