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I am an international student studying in Canada, and have an EU citizenship, which makes me eligible to enter the US via the visa waiver program (VWP). In the fall I will be a research fellow in an American institute, to which end I will apply for a J-1 exchange visitor visa.

Prior to that, I am planning to attend a conference in the US, after which I will return back to Canada before entering the US again as an exchange visitor.

Will I be able to enter the US on the visa waiver program after starting the J-1 application process but prior to my program start date?

Regarding the J-1 visa, it is clearly stated on official websites that one is not allowed to enter the US more than 30 days prior to the program start date. However, my conference is more than two months prior to that date.

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

This is how the rule is stated on the J-1 website:

How long before my J-1 program starts can I arrive in the United States? How long can I remain after my program ends? You may not arrive more than 30 days before the program start date shown on your DS-2019. Upon completion of your exchange program, you have a grace period of 30 days to depart the United States.

I believe that this rule applies specifically for entering the United States using the J-1 visa. But to my understanding this does not preclude you from entering the US under the VWP in advance of using the J-1 as long as (and I think this applies to any visa anywhere) you have sufficient proof that you will be leaving the country to return to Canada. A ticket, tenancy agreement for where you are living, and so forth are the standard things to be carrying.

I had a J-1 visa to do a summer camp in the US, but did some travelling in the US prior to that under the Visa Waiver Program. I then went through Canada and back into the US about a month later, entering on my J-1 visa.

For a concrete answer, I would email your closest US embassy.

UPDATE:

So, on the travel.state.gov website, it does say the following:

If you want an earlier entry in the U.S. (more than 30 days prior to the course start date), you must qualify for, and obtain a visitor visa, as explained below; however, this is strongly discouraged.

BUT, it then goes on to explain that this is because switching visa status within the US is a lengthy process and you are not allowed to start your J-1 program until it is complete. Since you won't be doing this, I think it is a non-issue.

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