The J1 visa Work and Travel Program along with the F1 visa for students is possibly responsible for bringing more foreigners to the US to live, work and study than any other US visa due to their lack of fed quotas like the H1B visa. Given that for almost all countries the maximum period of stay under the J1 Work and Travel program is 4 months, it is also often used by foreigners to come to the US multiple times usually during their long vacation break from college/university in their respective Summers.
Now many foreigners who ultimately want to work in the US on a full time bases and possibly ultimately live here permanently use the J1 visa as their initial stepping stone to do a Masters programs in the US on an F1 Visa and work on the OPT program for a period or go straight to a full working visa like the H1B visa and hopefully and eventually for many green card sponsorship.
The reason why so many people choose this route is that in many ways it is a far easier US visa to obtain. Then additionally to find a Work and Travel role under this visa is also slightly easier because employers are willing to state they want to hire a foreigner for the role and indeed in the case of the Tourism and Hospitality Industry who use foreigners to clean Hotel Rooms, work at Amusement Parks, Restaurants, etc. they would not function during the Holiday Season. The Alaskan fisheries are also huge employers of foreign nationals often working 7 days a week but earning a relatively high hourly wage which becomes even higher when converted back into their home country currency.
In the US companies like Six Flags, Disney, Large Hotel and Resort chains, McDonalds, KFC, etc. are among the major well known companies that hire large numbers foreign nationals during the US Summer and thus during the European Summer break for their college students. Foreign college students from South America, South Africa, South East Asia like Thailand, etc. often work at US Winter resort type places as that is their long vacation break being from a the southern hemisphere.
Eastern Europe and Russia is probably the largest source of J1 visa applicants but other prominent countries include Turkey, Ireland, Brazil, Argentina, Jamaica, Poland, South Africa and Thailand.
Basic J1 Visa Work & Travel Conditions:
To be eligible for the J1 visa Work and Travel program you must be currently studying at an accredited Tertiary Institution in your home country like a University or College for a degree that is a minimum of 2 years (although this can be shorter for Masters or higher level degrees). Generally ‘gap’ students are not eligible and certainly high school graduates only are not eligible for this J1 visa.
The candidate must be functional in English and this can be verified by a Certified English Teacher fill out the English Ability and Reference section of the application form and/or by submitting scores from an accredited English test like TOEFL, TOEIC, Cambridge English Exam, etc.
Other conditions around what ages are allowed and funds that need to be proved and whether a job needs to pre-arranged and approved varies by both the J1 visa sponsors like CIEE, Intrax and InterExchange and also the country that the applicant is from. Generally the regulations are far more strict for Eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners and any country that is not part of the Visa Waiver Program with the US for Tourists.
Finally an approved Health Insurance policy is required for the duration of the stay and the nature of this is explained by the Visa Sponsors.
You should note it is the visa sponsors listed above that are actually responsible for your Visa and not the company that is employing you. This where the J1 visa differs from visas like the H1B visa. The maximum duration of the working period of the J1 visa is 4 months and you can have up to 25 days of pure travel following this period before you return home. However your dates will be listed on your J1 visa stamp in your passport and are at the sole discretion of the Immigration officer at the US Consulate or Embassy interview you attend. You can of course ask for the periods during the interview but it is their decision that is final.
Also unlike the J1 visa for interns, there is never usually an approval for the J2 Dependent visa for this J1 visa given the period is so short and it usually younger college students who are the applicants. This differs from say the J1 visa Internship program.
For Australian and New Zealand applicants only there is a special 12 month J1 visa for Work and Travel allowing a longer period of travel and work in the US and does not usually require a pre-arranged job. All other conditions are the same for these applicants.
How to find a position:
Assuming you are a foreigner with few contacts in the US to utilize to help you find a role, there are ways that most people achieve this. The first being utilizing the various sponsor organizations who will actually sponsor your J1 visa like Intrax, InterExchange, CIEE, etc. These companies often have job events, also known as employer roadshows where larger companies like Hotels, Theme Parks, etc. will often accompany them to your country to fire for the various US holiday periods.
Generally if you find a role with the assistance of your sponsor organization or their representatives in your home country, the J1 visa program fee will cost more but there are ways you can find a job in the US yourself both if you have to do it from overseas if you need a pre-arranged job or after you arrive in the US. Many foreign students often get their first role from friends who have been on the J1 visa Work and Travel program before and have a relationship with an employer.
It is important to understand the US workplace and rules around pay, etc. and your sponsor organization is your best resource for this information as well as source for support while you are in the US should any problems arise both in the workplace or elsewhere
Be careful not to pay money to the many J1 visa SCAM websites and services out there that pretend to find you a role or even if they do, a role that may be illegal, unsafe or against the J1 visa policies of the US Government or your sponsor organization. If you are going to pay fees for sometime to help find you a role it may as well be the official sponsor organizations as they are appointed by the US Government.
Also note under the J1 Visa Work and Travel Program, there are many forbidden roles like the Adult Industry, Au Pair, Medical/Science positions, Air/Sea crew, Camp Counselors, Commission based sales positions and Employment via 3rd party staffing agencies.
You do have to file taxes in the US after December 31st of the year in which you worked. Generally filing your taxes under the J1 visa is easy and usually you will get money back from the US Government as you will have earned less than amounts for large tax payments. You can often do it free online and either have the US Government Tax Department, the IRS, mail you a check to your home country in US Dollars or deposit money into your US bank account. The IRS website has the list of free online services you can use to file your taxes.
The IRS is not an organization to try and avoid in anyway because if you eventually in your US Immigration get to point of applying for a green card and permanent residency in the US, one of things they will look at during your interview process is all your Tax Returns.
So as you can see there are many avenues to finding a role in the US under the J1 Work and Travel Program. You should generally plan for the application process to take 1-2 months on average with your sponsor organization. Some organizations like CIEE work via partner organizations in most countries around the world where as others deal directly to the US office for the application process. Once they have confirmed everything you can then go for your US Consulate or Embassy interview to actually get the J1 visa stamp in your passport.
Finally to note for the future, you can transfer from the J1 visas to other visas like the H1B visa but you must technically have your application officially received by the USCIS in time and then you can stay while your application is being processed. However you cannot do anything like work or study legally until you receive approval. Additionally you should note from the links in the post the strict conditions and applications periods of visas like the H1B visa and F1 visa as it differs greatly from the J1 visa.