900 Words | Approximately 5 Minutes Read | Last Modified on January 5, 2020
Disclaimer: This document was written in January 2020, motivated by inquries from postdoc candidates of my group. The contents are based on my personal experience, and should not be viewed as a source of legal advice! If you find some contents obsolete or incorrect please do point it out to me and I’ll make modifications to not mislead future readers.
International postdocs may work in the US with either J1 the exchange scholars visa or H1B the foreign workers visa. From my personal experience, J1 visa may be a better option, especially for those who have never worked in the US before the upcoming postdoc appointment. Here I explain why:
- H1B petition is tedious. Although H1B in academia is a lot easier to get approved than in industry, the petition is still a long and tedious process. First, substential paperwork is required to justify the claim that “the candidate with required skill-set cannot be found within the US”. After the paperwork is ready, the school’s International Office will have to file different forms at both the US Department of Labor and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The entire preparation process can easily last for over a month. After the petition is filed, it takes USCIS 3 months to 1 year to approve (or, with small but non-zero probability, deny!) the case. The processing time can be shortened to 15 days if ~1500 USD for premium processing is paid but you will have to negotiate with your employer if you want them to pay for it. Then if you need a visa stamp to enter the US you will need to make an appointment with the US Consulate in your country. It can take from a few days to a few months (if you end up in an Administrative Processing 221g, whose processing time depends on your local US Consulate) before you get the visa stamp.
- J1 petition is a lot easier. It takes the school 1 to 2 weeks to issue the DS-2019 form with which you can apply for the visa stamp at the US Consulate. It can still take months if you unluckily got into the 221g process. This is why Columbia starts the J1 process 3 months before the expected start date.
- Spouse of a J1 scholar gets J2 visa, which allows him/her to apply for an EAD (Employment Authorization Document, 3 to 4 months to process) with which he/she is authorized to work in the US. Compared to H1B spouses with H4 visa which does not allow for EAD application (at least as of January 2020). However both J2 and H4 visa holders can legally study in the US without an EAD.
- H1B visa only has a maximum of 6 years total, for all employers combined. If you want to maximize the time as non-immigrant in the US (before green card and citizenship) it is better to be on J1 first then switch to H1B after J1 expires.
- For some countries, eg China, there is a tax treaty for exchange scholars that waives federal tax for three years. Please definitely look into this when you file a tax refund at the end of your first year. I don’t have experience with this tax treaty because I didn’t qualify for it as an international scholar since I obtained my PhD in the US. I suggest you find some professionals, eg, HR Block, to walk through your tax filing and get it done right. Different countries might have different policies and this may also change over time.
There are two practical drawbacks with J1 (although neither of them actually bothered me):
- There is a two-year home-country physical presence requirement which requires you to return to your home country for at least 2 years after your program in the US. However this is a requirement by your home country and can easily be waived unless your stay in the US is funded by your home country institutes. For my case, it took me half a day to prepare the paperwork and about a month to wait for the decision that approved my request for this waiver. You can only apply for H1B with this waiver in place so I suggest you apply for it as soon as you decide to switch to H1B for extended stay in the US – but think twice before you do because that will void the possibility to extend your J1 visa (typically extensible to up to 5 years), during which you might be able to get a green card without ever having to switch to H1B. This waiver is still needed to apply for green card but its only relevant at a much later stage (before you file I-485) so there is no rush to void your potential J1 extension.
- Be careful with green gard application in J1 status. J1 visa is non-immigrant visa. If you apply for a green card AND want to visit other countries with an expired visa stamp then you will in principle have troubles re-entering the US. You can still initialize the green card application process with an expired J1 stamp but just make sure you only travel abroad after you switch to H1B (I didn’t even travel with my H1B for fear of getting stuck in the 221g process …).
Here are some additional information on J1 vs H1B, from National Postdoc Association.