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I am an undergraduate who wants to do some research opportunity during this summer vacation. Thing went quite well and "the Laboratory" offered me a Student Assistant position. In case that's relevant, this is a paid position.

After accepting the offer, I started working on the visa stuff. My prospective research leader suggested me to get a J-1 visa, so I contact the relevant clerk at the Laboratory to request a DS-2019 form. To my surprise, they just told me

Thank you for your information. However, please note the Laboratory does not sponsor for J-1 visa status for visitors who do not have an undergraduate degree. As such, we ask you to get in touch with the 3rd party agency, https://www.culturalvistas.org/ to initiate your J-1 visa sponsorship. Please keep me posted once you have received the visa and ready to enter the US for the appointment.

As far as I know, universities/laboratories would issue a DS-2019 form to me directly in most cases, and undergraduates are usually not paid for doing research during their vacation. I asked some people around me about if this is normal, and they told me that the salary I'm receiving can make the visa application process much more complicated. If my position was unpaid, I can get a DS-2019 from the Laboratory easily.

I need to arrive at the beginning of July 2019, but I have just started applying for a DS-2019, so the schedule is quite tight now, and I really appreciate this opportunity. Would thing become easier if I contact the Laboratory and ask them not to give me any salary?

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    Your best bet is probably to forward the clerk's response to your prospective boss and see if they can do anything to clear up things internally. – Henning Makholm Apr 6 at 16:43
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    Close voters: this is travel for a summer training program... is that really long-term enough to be off topic here? – krubo Apr 17 at 20:15
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I'm not sure how to define "normal" here, but the situation you describe certainly can happen at legitimate US institutions. It may not have anything to do with the salary. (Of course you can ask just in case.)

J-1 covers a lot of different categories, and each J-1 program is only designated to sponsor certain categories. What they wrote is not unusual---some J-1 programs only sponsor research scholars who have an undergraduate degree.

Unless you have a specific concern, it probably makes sense to follow their advice and work with the specific agency they recommend. You should also make sure with the agency whether it's fine to get the salary. Of course you should also keep your prospective supervisor informed right away, since it sounds like your prospective supervisor wasn't expecting a 3rd party agency to be involved.

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This is normal. Becoming a J-1 sponsor is a difficult and expensive process, so a lot of organisations use third party agencies. I had a J-1 issued through Cultural Vistas (for a paid internship) and everything worked out fine.

Regarding the timescale, getting the DS-2019 didn't take too long once I'd given Cultural Vistas all the documentation. What proved more difficult was getting an appointment for the interview at the embassy, in order to get the visa itself. (If you happen to be Canadian, you can skip this step and enter with just the DS-2019).

If you ask the laboratory to not give you any salary, some sources suggest you're OK to do this as a visitor on B1/B2 (visitor visa) or VWP (if it's less than 90 days) status, but others disagree. It's worth double-checking this though, and note that if you're not eligible for the VWP you'll still need to get yourself a visa.

This question about volunteering under the VWP and this one about unpaid internships might be useful.

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