Visa Options for Internships and Training Programs in the US

by Elizabeth Brettschneider & Carolyn Szaiff Alvarez


For foreign students who want to boost their resume with real-world experience, or young professionals starting out their career who want to sharpen their skills, or even seasoned professionals who want to round out their global industry knowledge, internships and training programs in the US might be excellent opportunities. When foreign nationals secure internships/training programs in the US, there are three nonimmigrant visa types in particular that may be most appropriate: the J-1, H-3, or B-1. In this post, we explain the basics of each visa type and also include a chart that breaks down in more detail their differences. As always, foreign nationals should consult with an experienced immigration attorney when deciding what the best visa option is for their particular circumstances.

J-1

J-1s are meant for foreign nationals coming to the US for either an internship or a training program. The difference between the two is more about how the foreign national qualifies and the length of the program rather than any difference in the substance of what they are coming to do in the US. The internship option is for foreign nationals either currently enrolled in or within twelve months after graduation from a foreign university. The training option is for those with a foreign bachelor’s degree in a related field to the training and at least one year of experience abroad in their field. (There is also an option to qualify as a trainee with no degree and five years of experience in the field.) J-1 interns are permitted a maximum internship duration of twelve months, while J-1 trainees have a maximum duration of eighteen months. There are no extensions beyond that time. 

J-1s are “hosted” by a US company that is charged with providing the training to the foreign national. The “sponsor” of J visas is actually one of the numerous State Department licensed private companies.

Both training and internship J-1s are focused on providing the beneficiary with skills that they can take back to their home country to implement. While all J-1s must intend to leave the US after their training is complete, certain J-1 beneficiaries are actually subject to a mandatory two-year foreign residency requirement which makes them ineligible to apply to change status within the US to any other status, apply outside the US for a visa in the categories of L-1, H-1B, or K-1, or apply for a Green Card until they’ve spent a full two years in their home country. Those subject to this requirement are generally foreign nationals whose program was financed by a government agency (either the US or a foreign government), those coming to receive graduate medical education or training, or those whose field of training is listed on the Department of State’s “skills list.”

While this post focuses on internships and training programs, the J-1 is also available to a wide range of foreign nationals including professors or research scholars, short-term scholars, doctors, camp counselors, au pairs and students in work/travel programs in the US.

H-3

H-3s allow US companies to provide training not available in the foreign national’s home country. The US company must ensure that foreign nationals won’t be placed in a position where, in the normal operation of the business, US workers would normally fill the role. They must also ensure that no productive employment is performed—except that incidental to the training. The application is reviewed to make sure the beneficiary does not already possess substantial training in the proposed area of training, that the beneficiary could not find the same training in their home country or any other country, that the training will prepare the beneficiary for work outside the US, and that the petitioner has the physical space and ability to train the foreign national. 

H-3s are admitted to the US for the length of their program but no longer than two years. Similar to a J-1, the H-3 beneficiary must always have the intent to leave the US after the training but in some instances there is an absolute requirement that they do so. If the full two years is spent in the US on the H-3, the beneficiary will not be allowed to change status to another visa category from within the US nor be readmitted to the US as an H or an L until after they have spent a full six months outside the US. 

Unlike the J-1 where the sponsor is the government-licensed agency, for H-3s the US company providing the training is the “sponsor/petitioner” and must file an application with US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) on behalf of the foreign national trainee. 

B-1

The B-1 can be used by a foreign national coming to the US to merely and exclusively observe the conduct of business or other professional or vocational activity. Foreign nationals must pay for their own expenses in this scenario. The B-1 is aimed at facilitating the ease of international travel for brief periods of stay under particular circumstances.

If the time needed for training in the US is ninety days or less and the foreign national is from a visa waiver country, an actual “visa” stamp does not need to be obtained. The foreign national can make a visa waiver entry utilizing ESTA. If the intended stay is over ninety days, a visa can be obtained directly from the US Embassy/Consulate in the foreign national’s home country.

There are also B-1s in lieu of H-3s where all the above H-3 rules apply but the foreign national will receive a salary from a foreign employer, not from a US source. At first glance, the differences between the three visa types might appear subtle—all three visa types permit foreign nationals to enter the US for a temporary period in order to participate in internships/training programs, allowing them to implement and share their new knowledge in their home country upon completion of the program. This chart, however, breaks down the differences of these visa types. (Please click on image below to open full chart in PDF.)

Internships are ingrained in American culture. Many years ago, we ourselves were interns (i.e., law clerks) for the summers between semesters of law school. Internships in the US are often an excellent way to open doors to new opportunities either in the US or abroad. For foreign nationals, they also allow a person to explore the intricacies of US company protocol and culture (such as mastering the art of water cooler gossip) and the greater US culture (such as the latest fine art exhibit at a local museum or the US National Parks). Sometimes this cultural experience can be just as valuable to an intern as the more work-specific skills learned in the office. Speaking of which, happy hour, anyone? Wings are half off!