Firstly, let me be absolutely clear - I don’t want to be misunderstood in any way and I surely don’t want to underestimate the other parts of the startup world, but the fact of the matter is this - most successful technology companies, startups and other parts of the startup ecosystem (accelerators, VCs etc) come from the United States. And that’s a fact. Yes, there are outliers all over the world (Skype and Spotify for example), but mostly they come from the States. Consequently, the demand for the (summer) internships is high - every student wants to go there, gain some real experience from the epicenter, they don’t mind getting their hands dirty and sleep in a sleeping bag just to get the opportunity to be involved. Just like I don’t. On the other side, companies update their “jobs” and “careers” sites, spread the word through their employees, social media and other channels and get their application forms filled much faster than they initially thought they would. Not only do the local wanna-be-interns have a greater chance of getting picked (they can always come to the company for a real-life interview while making a good first impression), the international interns have another obstacle to pass - getting through the process of acquiring the much needed visa. It would be (relatively) ok if the interns went through the process themselves, but the company (employer) has to go through the process as well. So, since I applied for a number of summer internships, I did my homework - I Googled, Quoraed, talked to a couple of local ex-interns from Google and Facebook and went to my local USA embassy to talk to the officials to find out about the legal requirements and the procedure for the internship regarding the visa eligibility. Here’s what I found out.
Since most of the international interns are students, the “internship” visa they would be applying for is a “J-1 Visa” - that is a nonimmigrant visa and is part of an Exchange visitor program. You can find out more about it here. In the process, there are three subjects - intern, employer (company, startup you want to do an internship with) and a “dedicated visa sponsor”. While the roles of intern and employer are pretty much straightforward, a dedicated visa sponsor is an organization that works in close collaboration with the employer and the international intern while ensuring compliance with visa regulations (in accordance with the U.S. State Department). Basically, it is the middle man in the process, an extension of the U.S. State Department, making sure that the visa application is fully synchronized with the official and legal requirements and regulations. The list of the “dedicated visa sponsors” can be found here. Even though the process lasts from 4 to 8 weeks, it’s pretty basic and simple and here are a couple of steps that would need to be taken:
Intern and/or the employer find a “dedicated visa sponsor” they want to work with.
Filling out the forms and issuing a DS-2019 form.
Interview at the local USA Embassy and getting the visa.
Let me just share a couple of more resources I found that could be useful:
As I mentioned above, there’s a sum of administrative fees (visa fee + administrative fee for the sponsor) as well. The sum ranges from $1000 to $2000. Who pays for them? It varies - both Google and Facebook reimburse those expenses to the interns, but I’m sure that some companies (startups for example) don’t and can’t. Personally, compared with the potential experience gained and the benefits of the internship, the sum is surely not a deal breaker. But, it’s there nevertheless.
As I said, the process isn’t that complicated but it’s demanding - many US companies simply don’t have the resources to deal with the procedure. You can imagine what kind of resources an early stage startup has and what’s in its primary focus (product, product, product!) and how can he afford to spend a week (in total) on this procedure to get an international intern to his team when he has an equally (or slightly less) qualified local intern “right next door”. Even “bigger” companies that don’t have a proper HR department cannot cope with the procedure. Well, I’m not here to judge, I won’t make any conclusions, it is not my place to say whether or not this procedure for a 3-6 month internship is really necessary. But, since the startup world is flexible, fast, constantly changing and evolving, meant to bring communities closer together, share and exchange knowledge and experiences over the globe, I will say that I hope the procedure will change for the better. And if it doesn’t, I hope that this tutorial will help other international interns in their visa quest. DISCLAIMER - I am fully aware that there are quite a number of other visa types, but the procedure described above covers my situation - a temporary stay by a student that would return to his home country after the internship ends to continue his studies.
–Written on July 9th, 2013 by Marko Srsan