Some adventures are best left unplanned: spontaneous, flexible and ready to begin at a moments’ notice. Working abroad in the United States is not one of those adventures.
After months of planning, re-arranging and refreshing email chains, my internship in the US will start on January 14th, which is two weeks later than I intended. The various stages of obtaining a U.S. work visa are full of uncertainty—more than anything, it’s been an exercise in patience.
Unlike other work visas for placements overseas, the United States requires an offer of employment before entering the country, which has to be in one’s field of study. The requirements to for Canadians to intern abroad in the USA can be found here.
Luckily I met the requirements, but my work abroad adventure began long before I knew anything about J-1 visas. In October 2018, I applied for an internship at Charleston Magazine, located in my longtime favourite city, Charleston, South Carolina. The application process itself took a couple weeks: after submitting a cover letter explaining my situation as an international applicant and my interest in an internship with the magazine, I received a phone interview. After the interview, the magazine gave me an editing test in order to judge my capabilities as a writer and editor.
When I heard that I was offered the position, I was thrilled. But as I accepted the job placement, I made sure to mention to my employers that I would need some assistance from the company in order to obtain a work visa. Thankfully, they were on board, and I reached out to SWAP (Student Work Abroad Program).
Obtaining a J-1 Visa
What is a J-1 visa? It’s basically a program allowing educational and cultural exchanges between other countries and the United States. SWAP is a Canadian non-profit that helps Canadians work, study and volunteer abroad. SWAP provides expert advice throughout the complicated process of receiving a J-1 visa. After checking out the eligibility requirements on their website, I completed the registration form, outlining my work opportunity in the U.S., and sent it to the SWAP Internship USA coordinator.
Once I was in contact with SWAP, the coordinator provided me with the link to the Participant Application Portal with the CIEE (Council on International Education Exchange), based in the United States. In order to obtain a J-1 visa, one has to be accepted by this U.S. student and exchange visitor program.
The online application portal required a great deal of information from me, including a copy of my passport, graduation certificate, previous work experience, health information and more. The application also required a statement from my bank, ensuring I would have the funds to support myself during this unpaid internship.
Communicating with the employer
Completing this application form took time and planning on my part; however, my employers at Charleston Magazine also had an important role to play.
The CIEE application portal required the magazine to provide a comprehensive training plan, describing everything from the initial training period, to the tasks I would be assigned, to the skills I would gain during my experience. A responsible and accommodating employer is a huge help to the visa process, and my employers at the magazine were very cooperative with the demands of my application.
The training plan took time, however, and I waited anxiously for their portion of the application to be complete. I sent friendly reminders to my future boss about the importance of this portion of the application. I am lucky my employer came through each step of the way—but it was difficult having something so important to me out of my control.
Dealing with uncertainty
I had initially submitted my side of the application on November 29th. A few weeks later, on December 21st, I heard that a missing form from the training plan had delayed my application further. Then I learned the CIEE would be closed for the duration of the Christmas holidays; losing that week of work meant my application approval was delayed even longer.
To add a bit more stress to the mix, I had to be in Canada to receive my J-1 visa before entering the States. This meant that while I spent New Year's in Toronto, expecting to pick up my visa at any moment, I was in limbo. I couldn’t book a flight until I knew my visa had arrived, since I was required to present my documents to the U.S. immigration agent at the airport.
Finally, my application was approved! My expected start date of January 2nd came and went, and instead, I started on January 14th.
Staying the course
As with most travel plans, it is important to expect the unexpected—to be able to adapt, re-focus, and stay positive when things go awry. As I went through customs at Pearson Airport, visa in hand, I knew I had cleared all the hurdles and crossed the finish line.
I am finally here in Charleston, ready to work, and hopeful that all the stress will have been worth it.Add this article to your reading list