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Living in the U.S. as a J-1 Exchange Visitor

Before you come to the U.S. as a J-1 exchange visitor, you should adequately prepare for life in the U.S. Please carefully review the information in this section.

Exchange Visitors' rights in the U.S.

Financial support

Health insurance requirements




Exchange Visitors' rights in the U.S. [top]

While you are in the U.S. as an exchange visitor, you are entitled to certain rights and protections under U.S. law. You can read about these rights in an informational pamphlet published by the U.S. Department of State.


Financial support [top]

Food, housing, and other basic necessities are more expensive in Hawaii than in many other U.S. mainland areas or other countries. Therefore, you must plan a budget before coming to UH to ensure you are able to support yourself and your dependents.

In Honolulu, the cost of rent and utilities for a one-bedroom apartment is approximately $900-$1,800 per month; a two-bedroom apartment averages $1,800-2,500 per month. The cost of food and personal expenses varies per individual.

You must show evidence of sufficient funds to support yourself and your dependents before FSIS can issue Form DS-2019. The following are the minimum amounts you must have for basic living expenses, including housing, health insurance, food, and local transportation. You should also set aside sufficient funds for international travel and personal miscellaneous expenses.

  • Exchange Visitor: $2,000 per month
  • Spouse: Additional $700 per month
  • Child: Additional $500 per month per child

UH payment delays

If you will receive payments from UH, be advised that there are often substantial delays before you can get your first payment. Therefore, you should bring sufficient funds (at least 3 months’ worth) to support yourself and any dependents in case there are delays or an emergency. It would be best to bring these funds in the form of certified or cashier’s checks or traveler’s checks. Delays in receiving your first UH payment are most commonly caused by the following factors:

  • No Social Security Number (SSN): Before you can begin receiving payments from UH, you must apply for an SSN in person at the nearest Social Security Administration (SSA) office in the U.S. Before you can apply for an SSN, you must register with FSIS so your SEVIS record can be validated. The SSA recommends that you apply for an SSN at least 10 business days after entering the U.S. to allow sufficient time for immigration data collected at the port of entry to be available to the SSA. It can take as long as 3-4 weeks after the application is verified to process and receive your SSN card in the mail. In addition to the waiting time for the SSN, you must plan on additional wait time while UH processes your employment paperwork. Altogether, you should be prepared for a possible 2-3 month delay in receiving your first payment if you do not already have an SSN.
  • Delay in Processing of Immigration Papers: UH cannot pay a nonimmigrant employee unless he/she has a visa status allowing employment or he/she has U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) work authorization. Despite the best planning efforts, substantial delays in processing your immigration papers can occur not only when initially obtaining a visa, but also later in your stay if extensions or changes of visa status become necessary.


For safety reasons, you should not carry a lot of cash with you. In the U.S., people commonly use credit cards or personal checks to make purchases. When you arrive, you should open a checking account at a local bank to establish credit and to provide an easy method of paying for purchases. We recommend that you use traveler’s checks until you are able to open a bank account.
There are several commercial banks near the various UH campuses that offer checking or savings accounts. You will be eligible to join the University of Hawaii Federal Credit Union which provides full banking services to its members.

Health insurance requirements [top]

Before FSIS can issue you an initial DS-2019, you will need to sign and submit to your UH sponsoring unit a Health Insurance Requirements Acknowledgment Form which states that you must carry health insurance coverage meeting the U.S. Department of State’s (DOS) minimum requirements for yourself and your dependents for the full duration of your J-1 program. U.S. government regulations require UH to terminate your program and report the termination to the DOS if you willfully fail to maintain the minimum insurance coverage for yourself and your dependents.

The DOS minimum health insurance coverage requirements for J-1 and J-2 visitors are:

  • The insurance policy/plan must provide “medical benefits of at least $50,000 per accident or illness.” Since insurance companies cover no more than the policyholder’s expenses (minus a deductible and, under co-insurance, a percentage), and never provide a minimum amount for each accident or illness, this presumably means that an acceptable plan cannot set a maximum lower than $50,000 in benefits for each accident or illness.
  • A deductible amount not to exceed $500 per accident or illness. Most insurance plans require you to pay for part of your health expenses (your part is called the deductible) before the company will pay any amount. The regulations limit the deductible to $500 per accident or illness, but many policies offer lower deductibles.
  • The policy must pay at least 75% of covered medical expenses (co-insurance). Even after you pay the deductible, an insurance policy usually will cover only a percentage of your medical expenses. For example, if the policy pays 80%, you would need to pay the remaining 20%.
  • If you should die in the U.S., the policy must provide at least $7500 in repatriation benefits to send your remains to your home country for burial.
  • If, due to a serious illness or injury, you must be sent home on the advice of a doctor, the policy must provide up to $10,000 in medical evacuation coverage for the expenses of your travel.
  • The policy may establish a reasonable waiting period before it covers pre-existing conditions (health problems you had before you bought the insurance). “Reasonable” is defined by current insurance industry standards.
  • The policy cannot unreasonably exclude coverage for perils inherent to the activities of the exchange program in which you participate.
  • The policy must be (1) backed by the full faith and credit of your home country government; or (2) the insurance company must meet minimum rating requirements established by USIA (an A.M. Best rating of "A-" or above, an Insurance Solvency International, Ltd. (ISI) rating of "A-i" or above, a Standard & Poor’s Claims-paying Ability rating of "A-" or above, or a Weiss Research, Inc. rating of B+ or above); or (3) be part of a health benefits program offered on a group basis to employees or enrolled students by a designated sponsor; or (4) be offered through or underwritten by a federally qualified Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) or eligible Competitive Medical Plan (CMP).

Why health insurance is necessary

It is extremely risky to be in the U.S. without adequate health insurance. In the U.S., individuals, and not the government, are responsible for their own health care costs. Even one day of medical treatment can cost thousands of dollars, so many hospitals and doctors refuse to treat uninsured patients except in life-threatening emergencies. Insurance will therefore give you access to better health care and it provides the only protection against the significant costs of health care in the U.S.

How health insurance works

When you purchase health insurance coverage, the money you pay (your premium) the insurance company/provider is combined with the premiums of others to form a pool of money. That money is then used to pay the medical bills of those participants who need health care. Your coverage remains valid only as long as you continue to pay your premiums.

How to choose an insurance policy/plan

When you work with an insurance agent/representative, ask questions and take the time to learn about several choices before you make a decision. If you are uncertain or confused, do not sign anything until you understand your options. You may want to consult a knowledgeable friend or your J-1 faculty sponsor for help.

  • If you do not purchase the UH student plan OR if you purchase a plan that is NOT on the list of pre-screened alternative plans, choose very carefully. You will be required to have your health insurance company complete a Health Insurance Provider Certification Form to confirm that the plan you purchased meets the minimum requirements. After the company returns the form to you, you must submit it to FSIS. If you purchase a plan that does not meet the DOS minimum requirements, you will have to purchase a different plan that does meet the requirements. Some additional health insurance companies are listed by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

  • The UH employee health insurance plans (EUTF HMA, HMSA, or Kaiser) are only available to exchange visitors who are UH employees receiving benefits. The EUTF plans meet most of the minimum insurance requirements. However, in addition to the EUTF plan, you must purchase separate repatriation and medical evacuation insurance coverage (e.g. the Harbour Group Medical Evacuation & Repatriation Benefit Plan or the International SOS Visitor USA plan).

Health insurance card

Once you purchase a policy, the company will give you an insurance card for you to use as proof of your coverage when you are seeking health care from a hospital or doctor. The company will also provide written instructions for reporting and documenting medical expenses (filing a claim). The company will evaluate any claim you file and pay the appropriate amount of coverage under your particular policy. In some cases, the company pays the hospital or doctor directly; in others, the company reimburses the policyholder after he/she has paid the bills.

Submit evidence of health insurance to FSIS

As a condition of maintaining J-1 status, you and your J-2 dependents must maintain the minimum insurance coverage for your entire stay as a UH exchange visitor. After you purchase qualifying insurance, you must submit a signed Health Insurance Requirements Compliance Form AND the proper type of evidence of insurance coverage to FSIS:

  • If you purchased the UH Student Health Insurance plan: FSIS will confirm your enrollment in the UH Student plan through the UH Student Health Insurance Coordinator. you do not need to submit evidence of enrollment to FSIS unless you are asked for it.
  • If you purchased a pre-screened alternative plan: Submit an enrollment confirmation email/letter from your insurance company showing the following information:
    • Insurance company's name
    • J-1's name
    • Each J-2 dependent's name (if applicable)
    • Plan type
    • Expiration date of coverage
  • If you have a UH employee health insurance plan (EUTF HMSA, HMA, or Kaiser): FSIS will confirm your enrollment in EUTF with your administrative/ personnel officer. You must submit proof of enrollment in a separate repatriation/medical evacuation plan (e.g. the Harbour Group Medical Evacuation & Repatriation Benefit Plan or the International SOS Visitor USA plan). Evidence of enrollment must show the following:
    • Insurance company's name
    • J-1's name
    • Each J-2 dependent's name (if applicable)
    • Dollar amounts of coverage (at least $7500 USD or repatriation and at least $10,000 USD for medical evacuation)
    • Expiration date of coverage
  • If you purchased a plan that is NOT mentioned above: Submit a Health Insurance Provider Certification Form that has been completed by your health insurance provider/company. Alternatively, the insurance company may write its own letter (on company letterhead) that includes the following:
    • Statement certifying that your plan meets the Exchange Visitor Program requirements (see the Provider Certification Form)
    • J-1's name
    • Each J-2 dependent's name (if applciable)
    • Plan type
    • Expiration date of coverage

Each time you renew/extend your health insurance plan, you must submit evidence of the new period of insurance coverage to FSIS.


Housing [top]

On-campus dormitories (“dorms”)

The East-West Center, which is next to the UH Manoa campus, accepts requests from UH-sponsored faculty, staff or students who are interested in living in an international graduate residence hall. For more information, see  the East-West Center’s website or contact the EWC Housing Office, 1711 East-West Rd., Honolulu, HI 96848-1711, USA; phone: (808) 944-7805, fax: (808) 944-7790, email:

Faculty housing

A limited amount of faculty housing in Honolulu may be available to exchange visitors. It is assigned on a priority basis for a maximum of 3 years. For more information, see the UH Faculty Housing website or contact the Faculty Housing Office, 1951 East-West Rd., Honolulu, HI 96822, USA; phone: (808) 956-8449, fax: (808) 956-9968, email:

Off-campus housing

Due to the limited availability of UH housing, most exchange visitors live off-campus. You should consult a map of the area so you can avoid places that are too far from your campus. In Honolulu, the areas closest to UH Manoa are Manoa, Moiliili, McCully, Punahou, Makiki, Kaimuki, Kapahulu and Palolo Valley.

You can begin your off-campus housing search by checking the UH Off-Campus Housing Referral Program’s website. Also check the Exchange Housing and Rentals website, which lists rentals on Oahu that are updated monthly by the Women’s Campus Club.

Another excellent source of rental listings is local newspapers. On Oahu, you can consult the Honolulu Star Advertiser. The Sunday edition of The Star Advertiser usually contains more listings than any other day of the week. On the neighbor islands, such newspapers as the Hawai'i Tribune-Herald, The Maui News, and The Garden Island (Kauai) can also provide rental listings. Finally, some landlords advertise rooms for rent with a sign on the building or in a window which might say "For Rent," "Room Available," “Vacancy,” etc.

You must contact landlords individually to make arrangements to see the apartments or rooms and decide whether it is suitable. If you see an advertisement for a room that looks promising, you should call the landlord right away, since desirable rentals are usually taken quite quickly.

Types of listings:

  • Shared Room: An apartment or house is shared with others. There may be all males, all females, or males and females sharing the rental unit. A visit with those sharing the unit is important to make sure the individuals understand and respect each other.
  • Studio Apartment: Refers to one large room with a kitchen. There is no separate bedroom.  Accommodates one person or a couple.
  • One Bedroom Apartment: Has a separate room for sleeping. Usually accommodates 1-3 people.
  • Partly Furnished: Includes basic kitchen appliances such as a stove, refrigerator, and water heater, but comes with no furniture.
  • Furnished: Includes basic kitchen appliances as well as beds and some furniture.
  • Unfurnished: Apartment does not come with either appliances or furniture.

Deposit and rental agreements

When renting an apartment or room, you should be aware that a security deposit is usually required at the time you pay the first month's rent. The security deposit is normally equal to (but cannot be more than) the amount of one month's rent. The purpose of the security deposit is to protect the owner in case of damage to the property or failure to pay the rent when due. This deposit (or part of it) is returned at the time you move out if the landlord determines that the apartment is left in satisfactory condition.

The lease

A written lease (also sometimes called a rental agreement) is usually signed by the landlord and tenant. This document outlines the responsibilities that the landlord and tenant have with respect to the rental property. Written lease agreements are recommended.

It is advised that you read and discuss the terms of the rental agreement with the landlord or rental agent to be sure that there will be no misunderstandings as to the responsibilities of each person. An inventory list of furniture and appliances should be reviewed and checked before you move in. Any discrepancies and/or damages should be noted so that you are not blamed for any damage that you did not cause. Any written inventory should be carefully read before being signed and a copy kept for future reference at the time of vacating the unit.

A lease with a specific time period is called a "fixed term lease."  Six months to one year is the usual length of a lease and can be re-negotiated when it expires. Another type of lease has a "month-to month tenancy." This means that the lease does not have a specific time limit. The unit will be rented as long as the tenant and landlord both agree, and the rent is paid on a monthly basis. If a fixed term ends and a landlord keeps accepting money, the fixed term becomes a month-to month lease. The advantage of a month-to-month lease is that renters can vacate the apartment at any time with a 28-day written notice to the landlord.  On the other hand, the landlord can raise the rent or ask tenants to leave by giving 45 days written notice.

Setting up your residence

If you are interested in furniture or other items for your rental unit, you might want to browse thrift shops and discount stores for inexpensive items. The classified section of the newspaper, the used furniture store section of the "Yellow Pages" in the telephone book, or campus bulletin boards are also good sources. Compare prices and check the quality of the item to make sure you are getting a good deal.

Transportation [top]

The City and County of Honolulu operates a public bus system (called "TheBus") throughout the island of Oahu. The neighbor islands have limited public transportation. 

If you wish to drive a car, motorcycle or moped, you must have a valid driver’s permit and accident and liability insurance. The automobile must be registered and have a current safety inspection sticker. To drive legally in Hawaii, you must have one of the following:

  • A valid State of Hawaii driver’s license; or
  • Be at least 18 years of age and have a valid driver’s license issued by any U.S. state or U.S. territory; or
  • A valid foreign driver’s license AND an International Driving Permit.