J-1 agencies’ hidden fees and strict rules lead to student frustration
Bureaucracy exacerbated by inability to source own flights and lack of transparency
Unlike other visas, such as Canadian or Australian visas, an applicant cannot apply directly to the American embassy as they must apply through a designated agency.
Travelling to the US on a working holiday has been a rite of passage for Irish third-level students for generations but an absence of both choice and transparency when arranging the necessary visas has led many to ask if the price they pay is just too high.
Every summer up to 7,000 Irish students head off across the Atlantic with a J-1 Work and Travel visa stamped into their passports. Typically, these visas are arranged through one of a handful of designated sponsor agencies who also frequently help students with insurance, finding work and wading through the bureaucracy associated with US immigration.
But are these agencies getting the best deal possible? Students who have spoken to Pricewatch are unconvinced, and some who have travelled under the auspices of the larger J-1 visa programme organisers have painted a picture which suggests a lack of transparency when it comes to pricing, as well as what appears to be an excessive mark-up on flight costs.
Paul Sammon (22) from Mayo is one of them. “I had found flights myself going direct from Dublin to Chicago, but with USIT I had to fly from Dublin to London, spend 19 hours in London, and then fly from London to Chicago. The flights were €200 more expensive than the direct Aer Lingus flights that I had found earlier,” he says.
It got worse for Sammon when he went to change his flight home to an earlier date so he could attend his graduation. He contacted USIT and was told the change would cost $300. However, when he contacted the airline directly, he was told it would cost just $50 – but when he tried to change flights directly with Aer Lingus, his booking was blocked by USIT.
Sean O’CarrolI (21) from Sligo, went on a J-1 visa to San Francisco in 2015. “All in all, it cost me a little over €1,000 including my visa fee, flights, and embassy costs,” he says. “It wasn’t really clear at the start how much it would cost as there are a lot of hidden costs. The flights were the most expensive part as they had to be booked through USIT, and they didn’t really find the best deal,” explains O’Carroll.
At least he was able to take advantage of an “early bird” discounted offer which saved him $250 but Hannah Rice (22) from Marino was not quite so lucky when she tried to get the same deal ahead of going on the first of her two J-1s to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with USIT in 2016.
“I got the ‘early bird’ deal, that turned out not to be the early bird deal because I had to get a new passport,” says Rice. “I sent them my old passport details and when I sent them my new passport details they said that passport wasn’t valid during the ‘early bird’ period, so I had to spend another €200 or so on that.”
Rebecca Cummins (22) from Castleknock, went on her J-1 to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina in 2016, and used the agency SAYIT. She too, describes a lack of transparency regarding fees and flights in particular.
“I found the application process extremely unclear. Most of the information I gathered came from people who had previously done J-1s, who all had similar struggles. I ended up paying almost €2,000 including flights. The lack of flexibility in choosing flights meant having no choice in cheaper options.”
Unlike other visas, such as Canadian or Australian visas, an applicant cannot apply directly to the American embassy as they must apply through a designated agency. “With the American J-1 visa, you must apply through a sponsored agency,” explains Kier Bates, the director and founder of Smaller Earth Ireland. “Unless the participant holds a US passport, they cannot work in the US, without sponsorship.”
Students applying through any agency must then pay a $160 charge for an appointment at the US embassy for an interview in the weeks coming up to their trip. No agency includes this in their price advertised.
“Camp Leaders or USA Summer Jobs, allow the participant to book their own flights and get their own deal,” says Bates. “We run the programme this way so it gives the participant lots of freedom to book the most competitive flight. We are well aware that other agencies require the student to book flights through themselves.”
J1 Ireland is another visa agency, based in Roscommon. They offer two summer work and travel J-1 visa programmes, one with and one without job assistance and insurance.
J1 Ireland also allows students to book their own flights, as Matthew Rogers, director of J1 Ireland explains. “Students applying through J1 Ireland are free to source and book their own flights which are subject to approval before being permitted to travel to the US on the J-1 visa programme.” These individual components include sourcing their own flights, jobs, insurance and accommodation.
A spokesperson from the US Embassy in Dublin says the main purpose of the visa sponsors is to screen visa applicants, and to monitor them during their time in the US. “The program sponsors are responsible for screening and selecting eligible foreign nationals for participation in their designated exchange visitor program, as well as supporting and monitoring exchange visitors during their stay in the United States. The State Department does not recommend or “rate” any of the designated sponsors. Designation by the State Department indicates sponsors have complied with all applicable regulations for obtaining designation and are in good standing.”
Although the visa agencies do not provide accommodation for participants, they have partner agencies in the US who provide support for participants while abroad. The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) is the partner organisation of USIT, while InterExchange is the partner of SAYIT. Both the Irish and American branches of visa sponsors often advertise accommodation that may be suitable for students still without somewhere to live. Sammon interacted on several occasions with USIT and CIEE while he was without accommodation in Chicago.
“We were ringing them telling them that we had nowhere to live, and they kept advertising accommodation in Chicago that was very expensive,” he says adding that they did not seem to be “aware that the accommodation was already full”.
Since a new rule introduced in 2016 dictated that in order to get a J-1 visa applicants would have to have secured a job before travelling, the visa sponsor companies now host job fairs to give participants the chance to meet prospective employers and secure jobs early.
While this initiative has been widely praise, Rice did not have a positive experience at her job fair. “I remember going to a USIT fair to get a job, where they basically told me that I should take whatever job they gave me. I initially wanted to go to California that year, but they told me that I shouldn’t even bother trying, that it was just too difficult to get a job there, and I’d be lucky to take whatever I got.”
Before travelling to Chicago, two of Sammon’s friends changed their destination to New York. Sammon decided to try to find a job in New York to go with them, several months before the deadline. He found a job that had been approved for other J-1 participants. “I rang USIT to change my job and my visa from Chicago to New York and they told me they couldn’t do it. They said I’d have to stick with my original city or terminate the visa.”
He later did some research, and discovered that changing his destination should not have been an issue before the DS-2019 deadline.
Pricewatch has made multiple attempts to contact USIT and SAYIT. No response was received from SAYIT, while requests for an on-the-record statement from USIT was refused.