International students, scholars land in Berkeley on various visas

Tina Pai /Senior Staff

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Coming to research or study at UC Berkeley can offer a worthwhile educational experience for many, but for international scholars, the process to begin studies is often different from that for domestic students and researchers.

For all nonimmigrant international scholars and visitors — those who have no intention of staying in the United States permanently — a visa stamp is the first hurdle they must overcome before they can enter the United States.

Visas are considered an entry document only, meaning they can be obtained only outside the United States. To do so, the students must visit a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad.

International scholars who come to UC Berkeley can choose a type of visa that best matches their purpose of visit. According to the Berkeley International Office, there are a few types of student visas: an F-1 or J-1, as well as a B-2 tourist visa.

In the international office, international student and scholar adviser Erin Skelly knows the complexities behind each visa.

The F-1 visa, Skelly said, is the more generic student visa that is used by degree-seeking and visiting summer-session students.

“The F-1 visa is no strings attached, just (for students) here to study,” Skelly said.

Unlike the F-1 visa, the J-1 visa has 13 categories, and only a few of them are student-type categories, according to Skelly. There are other categories that are not sponsored, Skelly said, such as the Au Pair program, where participants reside legally in the United States for 12 months while caring for children in a program-approved host family, or work-study visas, where visitors — such as postdoctoral researchers — come to research at a university.

The J-1 visa’s rules are a bit more complex, Skelly said. The visa has some factors that could be beneficial to students with families because their dependents may have an option to apply for employment authorization.

“The J-1 visa also comes with a set of rules that are really different,” Skelly said. “It’s not as generally used.”

While the international office does not deal with U.S. students wishing to study or research abroad, Skelly said, the UC Education Abroad Program, or UCEAP, coordinates with other institutions around the world in order for students to participate in exchange or study-abroad programs. The majority of exchange students who go through UCEAP use J-1 visas, Skelly said.

There are work visas, but individuals would have to meet criteria to qualify for those, she said. The J-1 category has summer work-study, but if someone is working offsite, the international office does not sponsor those visitors because they typically go through a third party, which is not something that is advised.

To obtain the visa, degree-seeking students first have to be admitted; they can then request an I-20 and a DS-2019 — certificates of eligibility — essentially giving UC Berkeley information through an online system. With the gathered information, the international visitors can go to an embassy or consulate abroad, where they can get an actual visa stamp in their passport.

While Lin Larson, senior international specialist at the campus Office of Undergraduate Admissions, said international students go through the same application process and must meet the same rigorous admissions standards, there are a few exceptions they must deal with. The students must prove English proficiency via standardized TOEFL or IELTS exams and meet universitywide minimum scores for admissions.

Students must keep their visa valid during their studies, Larson said. After going through immigration to receive their visa stamp, she said, the students go to the international office, where they complete additional “checking in.”

“Until they graduate, we also have to make sure that students remain academically successful,” Larson explained. “They are just like any other student.”


While visas have expiration dates, many factors can change the length of an individual’s stay. Those who come to the United States with an F-1 or J-1 visa are normally allowed to complete the entirety of their respective academic program.

For F-1 visa holder and campus sophomore Hyungguk Kim, being away from home is nothing new. Kim, who attended boarding school for six years, is accustomed to being abroad.

Living and studying in Berkeley, however, is a different cultural experience, he said. For example, the legal drinking age is 19 in South Korea, and the cities there are “alive for 24 hours” — while in the United States, many stores close early, and there is not much he can do, causing him to become bored, Kim said.

“I love the weather here, and I really appreciate all the different kinds of people I have met and will meet in the near future,” Kim said.

Before Kim came to the United States, he had to visit the American Embassy with his I-20, which allowed him to receive his visa easily. After arriving at UC Berkeley, Kim met many international students from South Korea and became friends with students from China, India and England.

Coming from Ireland, postdoctoral scholar Dermot Donnelly required a J-1 visa to work in the United States.

Donnelly, who is doing science education research in the campus’s Graduate School of Education, said that obtaining a visa was relatively straightforward with the support of the campus.

It isn’t difficult to maintain, ifthe rules are complied with, he said. While Donnelly is allowed to work at UC Berkeley, his visa does not make him eligible to hold other jobs.

Here at UC Berkeley, Donnelly is the president of the Berkeley Postdoctoral Association and is actively involved in Cal’s hurling club. He said he knows many researchers with the same type of visa as his.

Before arriving at UC Berkeley for work, Donnelly spent 10 months in New Zealand for a research fellowship. In the fall, he will be starting a new job as an assistant professor at another U.S. institution.

“I also had to visit the US Embassy in Dublin, Ireland, for a visa interview,” Donnelly said in an email. “I remember the Consular Officer was a Stanford alum so the first words out of his mouth were ‘Berkeley! Why are you going there?’.  It was my first introduction to the Cal-Stanford rivalry.”

Robert Tooke is a news editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @robertono_t.