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Context: I am a researcher from an ESTA eligible country. I have a planned research stay coming up in 2019 (April - July), where I would work on a project under a J-1 Visa (with US funding).

Now my home university (my current employer) has suggested to send me to the same place on their funds "to facilitate and explore research collaborations" from January to March. Basically I would travel to the US (reimbursed and paid by my home university) before the actual visit - from January to mid-March, return for about 2 weeks and then start my J-1 visa in April.

As January is coming up quickly, I would like to do the first part on ESTA, as it is basically a business trip without US funding (?!?). But is that allowed, or would it jeopardize my J-1 to do this almost back-to-back? Would I need to get another J-1 visum?

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This really sounds a lot like doing J-1 activities as a Visa Waiver Program visitor, which could pose a problem. See, for instance:

UC Berkeley guidelines require all international visitors participating in research activities for 30 days or more to come as J-1 Exchange Visitors. While U.S. immigration inspectors have wide discretion in granting entry to the U.S., they do not view the Visa Waiver Program as appropriate for someone coming to a University to conduct any research especially if it is full-time for an extended period. In addition, many embassies and consulates now require the J-1 visa be used for such purposes. It is recommended that prospective researchers consult with the academic department at UC Berkeley in conjunction with Berkeley International Office to determine the most appropriate status for the proposed visit.

Specifically, it is permissible under the Visa Waiver Program to "conduct independent research (university related research in B status is not allowed)." It sounds like you'd have a hard case arguing that your research is not university-related if you're returning a short time later to do university-related research with your J-1 visa.

It might be allowed for you to make a short visit in January for business and non-research purposes (e.g. meet your collaborators, do some planning, give a talk, etc...), but if you're coming for three months to essentially start your research early, that's more problematic.

Your host institution in the US will have an international scholars & students office that handles immigration matters. I'd consult with them to get their policies and recommendations on how best to handle this.

  • Oh, this is really crucial information, thanks, I'll email the host university immediately. – mirrormere Oct 26 '18 at 9:50

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