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Re-entering the US from Canada as a J-1 student

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Hi all,

I've noticed that there are many Canadian citizens studying in the US that frequent this board and are quite helpful.  This question is mostly directed at them.

Anyway, I'm a Canadian who just entered the States on a J-1 visa last week to begin taking my PhD at UChicago.  My question concerns the process for visiting Canada and re-entering the US and I'm hoping some people here have had some experience with that.  Specifically, my wife's brother is getting married in London, Ontario in about 10 days and we obviously hope to attend this wedding.  There's a spot on our DS-2019s (my wife is J-2) where it asks for travel to be authorized by a "responsible officer."  Normally this signature would be easy to acquire on campus, however I'm currently sponsored by Fulbright and my responsible officer is in NYC.  Apparently it can take up to four weeks to obtain this authorization and this would obviously cause us to miss the wedding.  Now, there is also a spot on the back of the DS-2019 that seems to make an exception for travel to "contiguous territories," which would most likely include Canada.  So, would I be able to return to Canada for a few days without obtaining this signature?  I certainly don't want to risk not being allowed re-entry, so does anyone have any experience with this?

The other part of my question then concerns the re-entry process itself.  It's my understanding that they remove the I-94 from your passport upon return to Canada.  Does this then mean that my wife and I have to go through the entire 45 minute process we went through last week again or is it more streamlined for re-entry?  We need to return on the bus and obviously don't want to hold the bus up (or risk being left behind) if we need to have all of our documentation reviewed once more in the process of having yet another I-94 issued.  This seems like it would be too cumbersome a process, so I hope it's not the case but did want to be sure.  If anyone could describe their experience of the re-entry process, it would be most appreciated.

Anyway, I truly appreciate any help anyone can provide.  Thanks!

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Hi there!

I am a Canadian on J-1 and my wife and I have left the United States and returned on multiple occasions now over the last 3 years. I'll answer your questions in order. However, note that I am not an expert and I'm passing on information that my own school's international program / my experience have taught me. My own program always says that the only person responsible for maintaining legal status is yourself, so please take these as suggestions on how you want to interpret the laws.

1. Your DS-2019 should already have been signed by your responsible officer. My school tells us that the first signature is also a "travel signature" and is valid for 1 year. The whole purpose of the "travel signature" is that someone responsible for your SEVIS record attests that, within the past year, you are still in good standing. You entered the US for the first time with just that original signature!

2. Although in theory, travel to Canada or Mexico for less than 30 days usually is allowed without issuing a new I-94 etc., this is rarely put into practice. I also think that this only applies to nationals of countries other than Canada or Mexico. As a Canadian, you will definitely want to properly document that you left the US for those days and returned. Keep good track of the exact dates you enter and exit the US from now on because you will need them for certain things later (e.g. filing US taxes). 

3. Even if you don't have a valid travel signature, it is possible to re-enter the US without a valid travel signature. Of course, this is not the recommend route, but again, since DS-2019s for PhD students are issued with a long validity period, the only purpose of this signature is to show that this potentially old document is up to date. Even if you meet all of the requirements, it is always at the discretion of the border agent whether or not to admit you to the United States. This is what my school has to say about traveling without a valid travel signature:

Travel Signatures:  If you were unable to obtain a travel signature before your departure, please know that you will still be allowed to return to the United States, providing you have a valid passport, a valid and appropriate visa, and that the end date has not passed on your I-20 or DS-2019.  If you do not have a valid travel signature, the immigration official may ask you to go through "secondary inspection" and/or may give you Form I-515 to be completed and returned to the appropriate immigration office.  Please consult your international advisor if you are given an I-515.  While this is an inconvenience, it is not a disaster.  You may miss your connecting flight, but you will still be permitted to enter the United States.

Alternatively, if you did not obtain a signature before you left the United States and if you will be outside the country for a period of time, we may be able to re-print your I-20 or DS-2019, sign it, and send you the new document. 

4. I'm surprised that you still got a paper I-94 stapled into your passport when you entered the US this year. It sounded like you entered via a land crossing which might have not yet switched to electronic I-94s. I got a paper one back in 2012 when I first entered but ever since 2013, I've only got electronic I-94s. With an electronic I-94, whenever you leave the country with your passport, they will know and record it for you. You can download a copy of your I-94 after you re-enter the US. As I said above, sometimes airlines or border agents do not remove your I-94 when you enter Canada for less than 30 days. However, when you re-enter the US, yes, you will have to go through the whole process again. There is no difference between the first entry or a re-entry as a F-1 or J-1 (and F-2/J-2). You might get fewer questions since in theory, the first person would have already verified all of your documents, but this is hard to gauge since every border agent is different and the amount of questions you get seems to be both random and dependent on the mood of your border agent. The process did not take 45 minutes for me though, for the entry and all re-entries, my interaction with the border agent lasted about 5 minutes (however, waiting in line certainly took awhile, but that depends on how busy the crossing was). One thing that would be faster though, is that if you had all of your things with you the first time, customs should be a lot faster with a lot fewer things to declare!

Finally, just a note: I have never crossed the border on J-1 status on a bus before. If you have another form of transportation (e.g. a car), I would highly recommend that over the bus. They will have to review your DS-2019 again and stamp another stamp into your passport, so it's not just a matter of quickly checking everyone's passports on the bus and waving them through. I'm not sure what the bus company's policies are on how long they are willing to wait for you (I'm assuming that the bus company expects some people to need extra screening!)

Anyways, hope that is helpful! 

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Thank you so much.  That was incredibly helpful.  It makes me feel more comfortable with what I thought was the case.  Have you ever actually crossed without that box being signed?  Knowing even anecdotally that someone had done this would give me peace of mind at the crossing.  Either way, I think you're right that it should go ok, especially since I've only just entered and my visa is still fresh (my program not having technically even begun).

Thanks again for such a thorough reply!

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I just dug out my DS-2019 to see when my first travel signature was. It was April 2013 and I remember that my first re-entry was June 2013. So, unfortunately, I did have the signature for that trip so I have never crossed with only the initial signature! Sorry!

But it should still work out....you will likely have to fill out that Form I-515 mentioned above to verify to US Immigration that everything is above board.

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