I spent summer 2014 in San Francisco (SF) on a J1 visa. I fell head over heels in love with SF. The weather was perfect, the people were great and there was so much to do. However, when I came to booking it, I couldn’t find very little information out there on people who had done it before and any tips for first timers. Luckily I had a friend at work who had been on a J1 before and she got tortured with all my millions of questions! It’s a scary idea; spending a summer in a different country but 100% worth it!!! So I thought, I would put together my own guide for anyone doing it this year (I swear I am not jealous at all).
There is a lot of forms to fill in and file, I mean A LOT! If this is your first J1 I would strongly advise using an agency. I booked with USIT, who often do some discounts on their programme fee around this time of year.
Some of the admin things you can expect to do: initially fill in your details online on the USIT site, complete paper forms which your agency will send to you (there is loads), arrange an interview with the US Consulate, complete an online orientation on what is expected of you while in the US, register with Sevis, apply for a national security number (the last two things you do when in the US).
It is really expensive!!! I paid almost €1500 (£1150) just to be allowed to leave the country. Although that is your flights, agency fee and insurance included. (Doing it without an agency will make it a few hundred cheaper but you really don’t want to miss any paper work.) So make sure you are saving like crazy before you go. Set yourself a target and make sure you’ll meet it by breaking it down into months.
US Consulate Interview
You will be required to book an interview with the US Consulate in order for your J1 application to be considered. (This costs £100.) I was petrified! I’d never been to anything like it before and there’s a really high level of security. I did find there was nothing to be fearful of though (well after my visa was approved). You will queue outside the main entrance until you are called in (so make sure and dress for all weather types, but do dress smart.) Next you go through a little security hut, here you’ll leave your keys, phone and any other personal belongings (so bring something to read with you). There will be about 15 other applicants with you and you go through the security hut 2 at a time. Then you are through to the main room in a separate building, you will give in the relevant forms to the person at the counter when you are called and she will take your finger prints. After some more waiting you will be called into the interview room. I was a little bewildered because it wasn’t a traditional let’s sit down together interview. The interviewer will be behind a glass counter and you stand on the other side. You’ll be asked questions on what you want to gain by going to the US and what cultural activities will you be doing (USIT will give you questions and suggested answers to consider. I think my answer mentioned seeing a baseball game and visiting Golden Gate Park). They will want you to be able to provide some evidence that you intend to come home after your visa expires so ask your uni for a letter to say how long you have left on your course or a job offer letter for when you come home. You will find out there and then if you have been granted your visa or not. Remember to be polite and know that you are going to the states for a summer of new and exciting experiences. Also book your consulate interview as soon as USIT tell you that you are able to, the waiting list is quite a few weeks long.
Book yourself and your friends into a hostel for a few nights for when you first arrive. If you are going on your own, hostels are a great way to meet people to house share with. Also there are tons of Facebook groups, just search J1 and your chosen place or try this USIT group J1 Accommodation. Look for people to share with on there. For San Francisco most Irish either stayed in the Sunset area of SF or Berkeley; a university town outside of SF. For finding rentals Craigslist is your go to place. Be careful though; make sure you are living with people who won’t cost you your deposit or worse get you evicted.
Before you go, you can get a US Sim Card from USIT. Personally, I waited until I got there. Make sure your phone is unlocked before you go. The phone plans are really cheap and you just pay in advance. Pop into any phone network shop and they will sort it out for you. I went with an unlimited data plan for $80 a month. (We had no wi-fi so it was the best option for me.) You can add international calls to any plan for about $20 I think.
When I went out to San Francisco we didn’t have to have a job already found and approved. However, beginning this Summer you will have to have a job found before you leave Ireland. If you have any contacts; use them! Otherwise get on to Craigslist and do plenty of searching. Don’t rely on bar work or waitressing. Often businesses don’t want to take on someone who is only in the country for a few months. The best places to try are the tourist area/companies which are much busier in the summer and will need temporary staff. We worked in the gift shop of the San Francisco Zoo. You could also try theme parks, water parks, tour bus companies etc. I personally got really lucky finding my job but the others went through a lot of applications and interviews, so don’t get disheartened if you don’t find a job straight away. Also remember that America uses Resumes rather than CVs so make sure you reformat your CV.
When You Get There
You’ll have to register with Sevis and apply for your social security number when you arrive. The first requires a simple telephone call and the second will require a visit to the social security office. USIT will let you know what documents you need to take with you so don’t worry about that. The social security offices can be very busy, which means a long wait, so either go with friends or take something to read/do while you wait. They post the social security numbers out, so if you haven’t got accommodation yet, find out if there is an Irish Immigration centre that will let you post it there (Irish Immigration Pastoral Center, San Francisco)
- Don’t over pack, much easier said than done, I know, but you want to have room to take home a summer’s worth of shopping. Take key pieces that you can mix and match.
- Be prepared for your flight by making a list of essentials to take on board. Need some ideas? Then check out my essentials for surviving a long haul flight post.
- Bring a potato masher. (If you are not Irish then this might not matter as much to you). Otherwise, nothing can compare to making yourself some good mashed potatoes.
- Make sure you get a phone contract with a decent amount of data because Google Maps will be your best friend.
- Chances are there will be an Irish Shop or two in the area you decide to visit. These are great when you are feeling a little homesick but be aware they are very expensive.
- Most importantly, keep a folder with all your documents and make backup copies of them.
I hope this was helpful if you are thinking about heading off on a J1 this Summer. If you’ve any questions please feel free to ask me, I am more than happy to answer them. Also, if you were previously on a J1 and have any extra tips please do share them in the comments below.