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I am doing an exchange semester at a US university this summer. I have a student visa for this however I was hoping to travel for longer than the 30 days allowed by this visa before commencing my studies. I have been told by both the university that I will be attending and by my local US Embassy that I can do this by entering the USA on a visa waiver and then before starting my study crossing into Canada and then returning on my student visa.

However I have been told by US Travel Docs the that this is incorrect and that the only way that I can switch from the visa waiver to the student visa is to return home (NZ) and then fly back which I cannot afford to do.

I've looked at changing my nonimmigrant status but the processing time is supposedly 3 months so that would not work.

I'm seeing a lot of conflicting information here so I'm not sure what to believe. The fact that I've heard one thing from my embassy and also the university (which must deal with this fairly often) but then the opposite from what seems to be the most official source makes me a bit worried.

Is it safe to assume that I'll be able to switch by travelling to Canada or is there way to be sure about this?

Edit: We managed to clarify with the people at US Travel Docs that it is in fact okay to leave on a B2 visa to Canada and then return on the student visa. The requirement to return home was only necessary if a person first enters on a visa waiver.

  • What is "US Travel Docs"? More importantly, why would you consider it a more official source than the Embassy? – phoog May 26 '15 at 22:03
  • ustraveldocs.com appears to be the main source for information and assistance with US Visas. – ChrisW May 27 '15 at 3:32
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    The site does a pretty poor job of looking official, given that its copyright notice is "CGI Group, Inc." On the other hand, I do see evidence on the internet that US government officials have referred people to that site. Still, I would recommend starting with travel.state.gov and/or usembassy.gov. – phoog May 27 '15 at 5:20
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I'm currently on a J-1 visitor visa in the US, and we have similar rules. When I travelled from Canada, we were told to make sure that we got in on the J-1 and that the border agent didn't admit us on a tourist visa. With regards, to entering early or if you got admitted on the wrong visa, we were told that we would normally have to exit the country and enter again..

Alternatively, you may be able to schedule an appointment at the US Customs and Border Protection Deferred Inspection office and get your visa changed there, thereby entering on a tourist visa at first and then getting it changed to an exchange visa when possible. You should be able to schedule an appointment on this website. This is important to do since they will update your I-94 form.

This should apply to the J-1 type visa but its best to make sure about this from a more concrete source as well. If in doubt, I'd go with what the US officials say.

  • That sounds promising. So you were never told that you had to return to your country of residence before you could change your visa? – ChrisW May 24 '15 at 4:10
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    My country of residence is Canada. But, I have friends who were international students and they weren't told they're an exception. So I would assume that the condition was to re-enter the country rather than go back to your home country. – chromozonex May 24 '15 at 4:12
  • That's good to hear. I'll leave the question open for a bit longer just in case anyone can provide some sort of official source otherwise I'll accept this – ChrisW May 24 '15 at 4:19
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Yes, visa waiver and then going to Canada to change to Exchange visitor should be possible. Another, and more official, way (but with much more red tape) is for you to apply for a tourist visa. Declare your intention, and make sure the consulate puts an annotation on the visa (I think they usually use "prospective student"). Then once you arrive in the USA, apply for a change of status (with the help of the university). There is a big pitfall here because the change of status can take months to process, and you would not be allowed to start your exchange program until that is approved.

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