What do you need to do for an International Internship in the United States?

Napomena: Ovaj tekst je originalno objavljen na Tumblr nalogu Marka Sršana, našeg prijatelja i blogera iz Zagreba,  i u cjelosti ga prenosimo uz dozvolu autora.

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Firstly, let me be absolutely clear – I don’t want to be misunderstood in any way and I surely don’t want to underestimate the *other* parts of the startup world, but the fact of the matter is this – most successful technology companies, startups and other parts of the startup ecosystem (accelerators, VCs etc) come from the United States. And that’s a fact. Yes, there are outliers all over the world (Skype and Spotify for example), but mostly they come from the States.

Consequently, the demand for the (summer) internships is high – every student wants to go there, gain some real experience from the epicenter, they don’t mind getting their hands dirty and sleep in a sleeping bag just to get the opportunity to be involved. Just like I don’t. On the other side, companies update their “jobs” and “careers” sites, spread the word through their employees, social media and other channels and get their application forms filled much faster than they initially thought they would.

Not only do the local wanna-be-interns have a greater chance of getting picked (they can always come to the company for a real-life interview while making a good first impression), the international interns have another obstacle to pass – getting through the process of acquiring the much needed visa. It would be (relatively) OK if the interns went through the process themselves, but the company (employer) has to go through the process as well.

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So, since I applied for a number of summer internships, I did my homework –  I Googled, Quoraed, talked to a couple of local ex-interns from Google and Facebook and went to my local USA embassy to talk to the officials to find out about the legal requirements and the procedure for the internship regarding the visa eligibility. Here’s what I found out.

Since most of the international interns are students, the “internship” visa they would be applying for is a “J-1 Visa” – that is a nonimmigrant visa and is part of an Exchange visitor program. You can find out more about it here.

In the process, there are three subjects – internemployer (company, startup you want to do an internship with) and a “dedicated visa sponsor”. While the roles of intern and employer are pretty much straightforward, a dedicated visa sponsor is an organization that works in close collaboration with the employer and the international intern while ensuring compliance with visa regulations (in accordance with the U.S. State Department). Basically, it is the middle man in the process, an extension of the U.S. State Department, making sure that the visa application is fully synchronized with the official and legal requirements and regulations. The list of the “dedicated visa sponsors” can be found here.

Even though the process lasts from 4 to 8 weeks, it’s pretty basic and simple and here are a couple of steps that would need to be taken:

1. Intern and/or the employer find a “dedicated visa sponsor” they want to work with. 

  • As I discussed with the ex-interns, for its international-intern-needs Google uses Cultural Vistas (link), while Facebook uses CDS (link) (that was acquired by Cultural Vistas).
  • Obviously, there are a couple of others like International Exchange Center (link), American Immigration Council (link) or Council on International Educational Exchange (link).
  • I assume they aren’t that different, but from the talks I had with the ex-interns, I gather the Cultural Vistas are the way to go because they understand the “startup world” and its needs more and could be more efficient in the process.

2. Filling out the forms and issuing a DS-2019 form.

  • After getting in touch with the “dedicated visa sponsor”, the sponsor will send both the employer and the intern a set of forms to fill out.
  • The employer will go through a screening process (how old is the company, does it have regular funding/revenues, what does it do, etc.) including a site visit from the sponsor, while the intern will have a phone interview with the sponsor organization.
  • After all the documents required (like the company details, internship details, beginning and end dates, the intern’s training program – a month-by-month schedule and plan) are submitted to the sponsor, the sponsor will review them (in accordance with the rules and regulations).
  • Before the review phase, sponsor will help in filling in the paperwork and guide both employer and intern towards a successful application.
  • Once approved, the sponsor will send the J-1 visa eligibility form (DS-2019 form) to the intern.
  • In this step, administrative fees have to be paid.

3. Interview at the local USA Embassy and getting the visa.

  • The intern fills out and presents the form as part of the J-1 visa application at the local USA Embassy.
  • That is usually done in a two, three day period but can vary from the Embassy to the Embassy.
  • Once the visa is granted by the US Consulate/Embassy, the intern may enter the United States in J-1 status to start the internship with the employer.

Let me just share a couple of more resources I found that could be useful:

  • “How to hire an international intern”, a blog post from Internmatch (link)
  • Official FAQ from the U.S. State Department regarding the J-1 visa (link)
  • A very good and useful FAQ site from one German sponsor (link)

As I mentioned above, there’s a sum of administrative fees (visa fee + administrative fee for the sponsor) as well. The sum ranges from $1000 to $2000. Who pays for them? It varies – both Google and Facebook reimburse those expenses to the interns, but I’m sure that some companies (startups for example) don’t and can’t. Personally, compared with the potential experience gained and the benefits of the internship, the sum is surely not a deal breaker. But, it’s there nevertheless.

As I said, the process isn’t that complicated but it’s demanding – many US companies simply don’t have the resources to deal with the procedure. You can imagine what kind of resources an early stage startup has and what’s in its primary focus (product, product, product!) and how can he afford to spend a week (in total) on this procedure to get an international intern to his team when he has an equally (or slightly less) qualified local intern “right next door”. Even “bigger” companies that don’t have a proper HR department cannot cope with the procedure.

Well, I’m not here to judge, I won’t make any conclusions, it is not my place to say whether or not this procedure for a 3-6 month internship is *really* necessary. But, since the startup world is flexible, fast, constantly changing and evolving, meant to bring communities closer together, share and exchange knowledge and experiences over the globe, I will say that I hope the procedure will change for the better. And if it doesn’t, I hope that this tutorial will help other international interns in their visa quest.

DISCLAIMER – I am fully aware that there are quite a number of *other* visa types (link), but the procedure described above covers my situation – a temporary stay by a student that would return to his home country after the internship ends to continue his studies.

Author: Marko Sršan

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