The process of searching for an internship in the United States is the same for both domestic and foreign students. Businesses all over the country post internship opportunities on electronic job boards and on their own websites, so that’s where you should start looking.
Domestic students are encouraged to apply for eight to 10 internships; international students should apply to around 20. Why? Competition for the best internships can be intense. Add to that the fact that some businesses (especially smaller ones) won’t want to deal with the extra hassle involved with hiring an international intern, and your barriers to internship multiply.
Once you have an internship offer, the fun of international paperwork begins. How you proceed depends on your current situation.
If you’re already a college student under an F-1 visa
If you’re currently studying in the United States under an F-1 visa, you’ve already done the lion’s share of the paperwork. If your internship will fall within your study program duration, you should apply for Curricular Practical Training at your school’s international student office. CPT is authorized by the educational institution, not through some U.S. government bureaucracy, so the process can be fairly simple and quick. Authorization allows you to work as an intern for up to 20 hours a week during the school year and up to 40 hours a week during breaks.
If you’re at the end of your program, you can extend your F-1 visa by applying for Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT allows you to extend your stay in the United States for up to 12 months (17 months for certain industries) for an internship in your field of study. The OPT process begins with a recommendation from your school and continues through the Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS). Your school’s international student office can guide you through the process.
For those living abroad: The J-1 visa
If you’re studying or recently graduated from a school outside the United States, the process for interning in the United States is longer and rougher: you need an Exchange Visitor J-1 visa. As before, you should find and land an internship in an American company first. Give yourself a good four months before you start work; acquiring a visa takes time.
Once you have an internship offer, you need a sponsor to help you get to the United States. The website for the U.S. Department of State has a list of sponsors for you to check out. Any of these sponsors can place you in an internship anywhere in the United States, regardless of their physical location.
Take some time choosing a sponsor that fits you well; you will rely on them for a lot of help and information while you’re in the United States. Aside from sponsoring you to work in the United States, your sponsor will:
- Guide you through the application process
- Provide an orientation before you come to the United States
- Monitor your progress and welfare
- Provide 24-hour emergency help
Obtaining your J-1 visa
Your sponsor will help you deal with the intricacies of obtaining a J-1 visa for you and, if needed, a J-2 visa for your spouse and/or children under 21 years old to join you. You will need to gather a number of documents to begin the visa process:
- A DS-2019, Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status, which you will receive from your sponsor
- A training/internship placement plan
- Form DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Electronic Application
- A passport valid for travel to the United States
- A 2”x2” photo of yourself
In addition to paperwork, you must demonstrate to a U.S. consular officer that you have binding ties to a residence in a foreign country, which you have no intention of abandoning, and that you are traveling to the United States for a temporary period. It is impossible to specify the exact form the evidence should take since applicants’ circumstances vary greatly.
You must meet basic insurance requirements — HCCMIS offers a free ebook to guide you through the maze of international insurance.
Finally, you must satisfy English language proficiency. (If you’ve had little trouble reading this post in English, you’re probably proficient enough.)
You apply for a visa at your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. In addition to the paperwork, you need to be interviewed by a consular officer. Please understand that visas are authorized at the behest of the United States and not by your local or national government.
Limitations of the J-1 visa
Under a J-1 visa, you’re limited in which areas you may work. Interns cannot work in unskilled or casual labor positions, in positions that require or involve childcare or elder care, in any kind of position that involves medical patient care or contact, or in positions that require more than 20 percent clerical or office support work.
The Exchange Visitor Program, of which the J-1 visa is a part, is intended to help spread knowledge around the world. When you agree to participate in an Exchange Visitor Program, you may have to commit to returning to your home country and maintaining a residence (and, presumably, using your new skills) there for two years. The two-year foreign residence requirement is based on your course of work study. Find your country on the State Department’s Exchange Visitor Skills List to find out if your subject area falls under this requirement.
Interning in the United States can involve a lot of hassle and frustration, but the time and effort you put in today can really pay off in your future, wherever it may take you.