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I have been accepted to an summer exchange program in the US and I began my J-1 Visa application. However, I received a much better offer by a major institution in another country (I thought my application failed, but it seems they were just delayed in the selection process).

I would prefer to take the second option, but I don't want to mess my inmigrant records because maybe, in the future, I would try to enter the US as a master or PhD student. So, is there a penalty if I withdraw the J-1 Visa?

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Not at all. In fact, this was asked a while back over on travel.SE, and I answered it by contacting IEP who I used for my J1 Visa. They deal with thousands of J1 visas a year, and confirmed that:

Hi, no it wouldn’t be considered refused if they cancelled it.

Given they have students and others applying and changing degrees and getting jobs and more, I guarantee that they've dealt with it before (I used them 14 years ago), so they're a good authority on the matter.

Also, as it's not a refusal, you won't need to declare it in any future applications, unless SPECIFICALLY asked about, obviously - don't lie if a border agent asks if you've ever applied for one in the past.

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