Maintaining Legal J-1 Student Status

According to the Department of State (DOS), the purpose of the J-1 Exchange Program is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchanges.

Students are eligible for J-1 status, if one of the following criteria is met:

  • At least 51% or higher of the total cost of your studies at Penn is paid by a scholarship, fellowship, grant, or assistantship from a non-personal/family funding source.
  • Your exchange program is carried out pursuant to a written agreement.

J-1 students should comply with the DOS regulations, which can be found on page 2 of the DS-2019.  By following those instructions and the specific information below, Penn J-1 students will maintain legal J-1 status in the US and be able to take full advantage of available J-1 benefits.  

Points to Maintaining J-1 Status

  • Maintain Full-Time Enrollment and Progress
  • Undergraduate Students
    Undergraduate students, including students enrolled in post-baccalaureate programs, must be enrolled for and complete a minimum of four course units (CUs) each semester. This does not include audits, withdrawals, or incompletes.

    Graduate Students
    Graduate students must be enrolled for and complete a full-time course load as defined by their academic program. For most programs this means a minimum of three course units (CUs); other programs may require more CUs. Graduate students must check with their school or department for any necessary clarification for the definition of a full-time student and consult an ISSS advisor if there is any discrepancy. Full-time enrollment does not include audits, withdrawals, or incompletes. Once a student has completed his/her coursework and are is working on the thesis or dissertation, he/she must maintain full-time status by enrolling for master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation registration and continuing to work on completing his/her thesis/dissertation.

    All Students
    No more than one (1) course unit (CU) or equivalent of Distance Education per semester may count toward full-time enrollment for J-1 students.  Students are also required to make normal progress towards completing the course of study. The measure of normal progress is the rate at which a full-time student in your school or department normally advances toward his or her degree or program objective. Working to complete courses designated from previous semesters is not maintaining normal progress. If any student finds him/herself in this situation, he/she should consult with an ISSS advisor immediately.

    Any student considering, for any reason, to drop a course that will cause his/her enrollment to drop below full-time must consult with an ISSS advisor before doing so. Dropping below full-time enrollment prior to obtaining written authorization from an ISSS advisor will jeopardize the student’s legal ability to remain in the US.

    Annual vacation term:  During an annual vacation term (normally in summer), a J-1 student are not required to enroll in classes as long as s/he is going to register full time in the immediately following fall semester.  If the student does not intend to enroll in the following fall semester, or no longer eligible to enroll in the fall semester, s/he must enroll full time even during summer. 

    Even students who need less than a full course load in their last semester of coursework must complete the Reduced Course Load Request procedures by the first week of classes to verify that he/she will complete the degree/program requirements in that semester.

  • Maintain Required Health Insurance
  • Federal regulations require those in J-1 status to have comprehensive medical insurance covering themselves and all their dependents. Failure to maintain the required medical insurance is a violation of J-1 status.  

    DOS required Insurance coverage must meet the following:

    • Medical insurance must cover the entire period of participation in the Exchange Visitor program.

    • Medical benefits must provide a minimum of $50,000 per accident or illness.

    • Medical evacuation must be covered in the amount of $10,000, minimum. (Medical evacuation is emergency medical transportation to the home country.)

    • Repatriation must be covered in the amount of $7,500, minimum (In the unfortunate event of death, repatriation is the transportation of remains back to the home country.)

    • The deductible must not exceed $500 per accident or illness.

    Most J-1 students will enroll themselves and their families in the University of Pennsylvania's Student Health Insurance Plan. Failure to secure or maintain adequate health insurance will result in termination of the J-1 program participation.

  • Do Not Change Your Academic Major
  • J-1 students may not change their major as J-1 exchange visitors are to maintain original program objectives.   At this time, US Department of State does not allow this provision.  J-1 students who plan to change their major will be required to leave the US and re-enter with a new DS-2019 with the new major specified on the DS-2019. Please see an advisor at ISSS before proceeding with a change of major to discuss options and timing.

  • Obtain Proper Employment Authorization before Beginning Any Work
  • DHS considers working without proper authorization as one of the most serious violations of a nonimmigrant’s status.   It is illegal to begin any work before obtaining written permission first, even for on-campus employment at Penn. Refer to J-1 Student Employment Options on the ISSS website for detailed information on on-campus employment, the types of off-campus work authorization available, and procedures necessary to obtain approval. Pay special attention to deadlines and processing times! When in doubt, consult an ISSS advisor before accepting an offer of employment or beginning any work.  Read More.

  • Update Address, Legal Name, or Major within 10 Days of a Change
  • Federal regulations require J-1 students to report any change of US address and legal name to their sponsoring institutions within 10 days of the change. At Penn, J-1 students are only required to enter the current address where physically residing in the US through Penn InTouch.

    Should your Penn InTouch not work, send your address change to ISSS at

    If a student or J-2 dependent changes his/her legal name, consult an ISSS advisor to make the changes.

  • Check for Valid ISSS Signature and Proper Documentation before Traveling outside the US
  • ISSS strongly recommends you to meet with an ISSS advisor prior to traveling outside the US.  If you will travel outside the US, you must have a valid J-1 visa (stamp) and a valid travel signature on DS-2019. Each signature is valid for one year (365 days) while you are a full-time student.  Signatures can only be obtained by an ISSS official. See the Travel Information on the ISSS website for instructions.

  • Transfer J-1 SEVIS Administration when Changing Schools
  • In order to transfer from Penn to another school in the US, a J-1 student must meet with an ISSS advisor to discuss his/her plans. At the student’s written request, ISSS must confirm that the student is maintaining valid J-1 status, check the original program objectives, and release the student’s SEVIS record before he/she can attend another school. The student must then complete the J-1 transfer procedures with an Alternate Responsible Officer (ARO) at the new school. Read More

  • Obtain Program Extension to Continue Study beyond End Date on DS-2019
  • In order to remain in the US to complete your program of study beyond the date authorized on the DS-2019, a J-1 student must request a program extension through ISSS.  Apply at least 30 days before the expected completion date noted on your DS-2019. There must be a valid academic reason for extending the time necessary to complete the program. A student who fails to have his/her DS-2019 extended prior to the expiration date of the document is considered out of status and may need to apply for reinstatement to regain student status.

  • Obtain a New DS-2019 from ISSS to Begin a New Degree Program
  • To continue at Penn in a different academic level (e.g., bachelors to masters or masters to doctorate) or, in some cases, when a J-1 student changes to a new degree program at the same level after completing a degree, the student must apply for a change of program, which will extend his/her J-1 study at Penn. The student must verify admission to a new program and his/her ability to finance the program by completing an F-1/J-1 Student Program Extension Request form. ISSS will issue a new DS-2019 indicating your new program.

  • Making Good Academic Progress
  • In order to maintain valid J-1 status, a J-1 student must be in good academic standing, making normal progress.  Failure to maintain good academic standing may lead to immigration problems depending on the nature of the academic problem.

  • Do Not Stay in the US beyond the J-1 30-day Grace Period
  • A J-1 student is allowed a 30-day grace period to stay in the US after the completion date of his/her studies or post-completion Academic Training.  During this time, the J-1 student may not work. Do not remain in the US beyond the grace period without taking appropriate steps to maintain some kind of legal status in the US.

  • Maintain a valid Passport and I-94
  • If a student’s passport will expire within 6-12 months, or to replace a lost or stolen passport, he/she should contact his/her embassy or consulate in the US for instructions on obtaining an extension or new passport. Federal regulations require you to maintain a valid passport at all times.

    A J-1 student will receive either an electronic or paper  I-94 (depending on when, where and how they enter the US - see   indicating  “J-1” as the immigration status, and “D/S” as the immigration status end date.  Should the I-94 not contain “J-1” and “D/S,” please meet with an ISSS advisor as soon as possible.

  • Read E-Mails from ISSS
  • ISSS usually sends at least one email message per semester to international students.  Some are simply announcements about upcoming events, but others contain important immigration information to help you avoid serious immigration problems.  Students who do not receive regular messages should notify ISSS.

NOTE: this is a brief overview only.  Because of the complexity of immigration regulations, always consult an advisor at International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) in advance.

The Academic Resource Guide for International Students is currently under construction and will be available again soon.