The (Somewhat) Meticulous US Intern’s Guide

(COVID Edition)

This is a non-extensive(!!) checklist potentially helpful brain dump of things to get done when relocating to the US for the first time on a co-op term behind CECA’s back.

Acknowledgements to Anthony Zhang’s Meticulous US Intern Guide, which was an incredibly detailed starting point. Additional thanks to Waleed for the feedback.

As always, feedback appreciated and DMs open!


who this is for

If you’re trying to move to the bay area (or literally going out of the country for co-op) the first time in a global pandemic without CECA’s support, this may be the checklist for you. (bonus points if you’re also solo-travelling for the first time as well)

^ This is mostly going to be an SF-focused, Ontario-centric guide.

Quick warnings:

  1. I don’t have cookies for this site, so the checkboxes are not persistent :(

  2. This is not advice!! Please don’t come fight me if something was different in your case, or if I’ve accidentally missed something; things may have changed since then, and this is just a ramble of my experience.



Checklist Pre-requisites:

You have a co-op / internship opportunity lined up
Your employer will be sponsoring your J-1 visa (via Intrax)
You’re not physically restricted from travelling across international borders
You’ll be travelling via AirCanada



pre-departure ( >2 weeks )

IDs:


Background Check:
This is usually just an identity and criminal record check, but occasionally, they also go through all your work experiences as well.

In a spreadsheet:


Work Visa:
I’ve only ever been sponsored on J-1 by Intrax, so if you’re on Cultural Visas or company-specific sponsors, the process/timeline may not be accurate.

In 2020, if you got matched with your employer through WaterlooWorks and you’re obtaining your visa through Waterloo / CECA , you had to submit your own J-1 Application through Intrax (regardless of whether your employer had their own immigration lawyers). Your employer may also go through the process of sponsoring your J-1 through their own immigration lawyers.

Process of obtaining a J-1 cultural exchange visa (not through Waterloo):

  1. Your recruiter notifies the law firm in charge of your immigration sponsorship case. You should hear back from the law firm regarding their specific process, but otherwise it should be generally as follows.

  2. Fill out your personal information for the J-1 DS-7002 (TIPP) application (and any other information requested from your immigration lawyer)

  3. Submit copies of your documents to your lawyer:
    • Passport
    • Proof of Enrollment
    • Transcript
    • Resume

  4. Wait for your immigration lawyer to collaborate with your employer with a DS-7002 training plan for your J-1 application.
    • This may take 1-3 months, and your lawyer may not even get started on your case until 1 month before your work term start date
    • Reach out to your case assistant (and CC the attorney in charge of your visa application) if you’re leaving significantly earlier than your start date
    • Note: usually, for J-1 visas, you cannot have a departure date >30 of your work start date
  5. Your immigration lawyer submits your J-1 application to Intrax

  6. Intrax makes you a MyIntrax account on intraxinc.secure.force.com and collects your information and signatures to issue your DS-7002 (TIPP)
    • Submit your health info
    • Sign the Terms and Conditions
    • Completing Intrax’ Orientation
    • Sign your DS-7002 Training plan
    • Recommendation: go read and save all the documents on the MyIntrax portal — they’re somewhat helpful

  7. (For non-Canadian citizens) Intrax (or your attorney) will schedule a validation call with you and the U.S. Consulate/Embassy prior to issuing your DS-7002.
  8. Intrax notifies your immigration case and mails you your DS-2019 (usually FedEx priority) once your DS-7002 is issued

  9. Intrax pays for your visa sponsorship costs (SEVIS). Print out your SEVIS payment receipt!
    • Keep track of your SEVIS number (N0000000000) and Exchange Program number (X-0-00000)
    • Have your receipt on hand when going through customs
  10. Submit your travel information to Intrax:
    • Flight number and departure date
    • Final destination and mode of transport

^ This is not an extensive list: there might be more steps if you’re NOT a Canadian citizen.

About the J-1:

When leaving Canada, your DS-2019 form will become a J-1 at your Port-of-Entry (arrival airport’s Customs).

Note that the J-1 is a cultural visa, so it’s generally discouraged to say things like “I’ll be working for 4 months” or something to the US Customs people. Its intent is to “promote the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills in the fields of education, arts, sciences, and technology”. See more info on Waterloo’s J-1 page.

If your J-1 is approved at the border, you’ll get a stamp on your passport, which unfortunately may or may not even specify J-1. It should be fine, but make sure you enter your information here to check your I-94 record, which is the most reliable way to double check your visa status.

Tips:

Timeline:

My own timeline for reference (where T is my flight’s departure date):

Previous timeline with another immigration law firm in 2019: J-1 application submitted to Intrax around ~40 days before my start date as well.

Don’t worry, the timelines are usually not this stressful/last-minute when Intrax worked with Waterloo when co-op credits were granted.


WaterlooWorks / Co-op Credit / CECA:
TL;DR: potential co-op credit depending on current travel restriction state. Likely not approved, ask your CECA advisor for UO status if you don’t need the co-op credit. Go anyways with precautions depending on personal risk tolerance.


Credit Approval:

US co-op opportunities may conditionally be approved if the Global Affairs’ Canada’s (GAC) travel advisory for the US is neither “Avoid all travels” (level 4) or “Avoid non-essential travels” (level 3). See risk levels here.

As of August 2021, we’re currently on United States - Take normal security precautions, thus your co-op may potentially be approved as things re-open, if you are a US-citizen. Non-US citizen co-op opportunities are not approved.


Paperwork:

CECA will pester you about your employment status / AOJ form if your submitted intent was “Arranging My Own Job”. The correct status should be “Unemployed: On Own Self-Imposed” (UO) if you know that your position is definitely not going to be approved (so that CECA stops looping back, and you’re no longer in the school’s employment stats).

I accidentally ended up telling them I’ll be out of the country (and my advisor was nice enough to pretend she’s never seen the message – but I’m p sure that’s a liability on their side). EDIT: Apparently, the procedure is to submit your AOJ and wait for potential approval – so that there’s no liability on UW’s side.

After you submit your AOJ, don’t forget to also submit your Risk form under “International” on WaterlooWorks.

Basically, travel at your own risk :’)


Finding Housing:
(Note: If you’d like to avoid the hassle, try to get corporate housing if available. They do get taxed a lot more heavily compared to housing stipends though, since they use the value of real estate as opposed to some reasonable rent amount.)

Four-month sublets especially on AirBnB are ridiculously pricey, even during the rental housing crash caused by COVID. I ended up finding really reasonable place on Furnished Finder (which I heard from Reddit xd).

Just send out a mass-request on that site about how yourself (i.e. you’re a clean and respectful student looking for 4-month housing, willing to provide with references and proof-of-income, and adhere to COVID precautions) — this worked really well for the Bay Area, and still reasonably well for Seattle.

Sources that I recommend:


Remember to:

I unfortunately did not have the foresight to sign an “official” lease initially — which is useful in SF to prove residency for opening up bank accounts, and toapply for a public library card (which also get you access to all the free-for-resident tourist spots).


Paying your housing deposit:

BTW, paying for your security/housing deposit without a US bank account is absolute suffering. It seems like a great deal of landlords on Furnished Finder use Zelle or Venmo, which are only available in the US. My landlady unfortunately did not use PayPal.

^ Requesting alternative solutions to this!! (would prefer to not keep two numbers alive and double paying for too long)


Booking Flights:

When to book your flights: I’ve always booked my flights through Google Flights ~1.5-2 months in advance. This was before I received confirmation that my J-1 application was submitted (mild delays and lack of communication from the law firm), so it was really a leap of faith that my visa would get sorted out eventually.

Worth the slightly cheaper flights though, if you’re also the type to trade your peace of mind for a couple hundred bucks…

Making sure you have enough layover time: Note that your visa will be issued at the preclearance airport right before the flight entering the US.

For example, if your travel itinerary is Ottawa (YOW) - Toronto(YYZ) - San Francisco(SFO), then make sure your layover time at YYZ is long enough to go through Customs and Border Protection(CBP).

Usually, if you miss your flight because of immigration issues, the airline is not responsible for rebooking your flights.


Insurance:
Intrax covers a small amount of insurance through Envisage at a small cost (premium), usually financially sponsored by your employer. I was invited to enroll via email as soon as my J-1 status was activated.

EDIT: the following section may be incorrect for Fall interns.

Make sure you have Waterloo’s student health insurance (StudentCare under SunLife) for the cheap international coverage as well.

Note that annual coverage generally starts in September and ends August 31 (but note that the deductible limits are applied by calendar year in Jan). If your co-op term is in the fall term, you’re not automatically enrolled into school another year of insurance coverage, and will have to manually enroll yourself during the Change-of-Coverage period.



pre-departure (<2 weeks)

Getting a COVID Test for Travel Restrictions:
As the traveller, you’re responsible for:


TL;DR: As of August 2021, the US accept negative viral tests (i.e. NAAT) done within 72h (3 calendar days) of your departure time (of the last flight of your itinerary). A proof of vaccine does not replace a negative COVID test result. An airline agent will check your test results and receive your attestation form.


Where to find information about travel restrictions:

Air Canada maintains a useful Entry Requirements page, which I didn’t find until later.

Otherwise, the first source of these information are from respective country governments and embassies. All other sources (i.e. news pages, blogs, family doctor information pages) usually parrot the official advisories; although the official sources are sometimes worded in a convoluted way.

These pages will usually link to their national public health agencies, such as the CDC Travel Guidelines, and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), which are also trustworthy sources.

Keep an eye out on guidelines and travel advisories.


Which types of COVID tests are accepted:

As far as I understand, there are 3 types of COVID tests:

Depending on the destination, some only accept PCR tests, while others accept all molecular diagnostic tests.

As of August 2021:


Where to get a COVID test:

LifeLabs at Shoppers Drug Mart is the one I used, since they were partnered with AirCanada, for minimal hassle.

You can find additional testing locations for your location here.

For Air Canada to scan COVID test QR codes, you would have to get a test from an accredited location. You could also get airport agents to manually validate — then any travel clinic offering the appropriate test during your test time window would be valid.

To book or order for pre-travel asymptomatic testing, you’ll need your passport number (i.e. AA123456) and departure flight number (i.e. AC737) at the time of booking your COVID test.


Getting your COVID test:

Go to your appointment. Print and bring your Travel Requisition form. Bring your passport.

For PCR tests, this is a shallow swap (not a jab into your brain), don’t worry.

They’ll keep your form and email you the results within 48h of your test.


What to do with your COVID test results:

Hopefully you’ve failed your COVID-positive test!

You need to:

You can also upload your results, which may be done at the same time as your online flight check-in. Make sure to bring your COVID test result documents! If you forget the Attestation form, there may be copies at the airport that you can fill out on the spot before you enter the US.


Air Travel:
For entry in Canada, download the ArriveCAN app. As far as I’m aware, there is no equivalent for the US.


Banking:
Withdraw some USD just to have some on hand. You could have this in cash form, or as a bank draft if it’s not too pricey with your Canadian bank. TD bank drafts unfortunately charge a $50 service fee.

As well, this makes it easier to maintain a checking account minimum balance to void service fees. For context, Wells Fargo requires a $500 daily minimum, and Chase requires $1500, as of August 2021.


Packing:

Starred documents are mandatory, everything else is unlikely to be checked, but may come in handy in the off-chance that your CBP officer is in a less-than-ideal mood.

Documents to print:

Other documents to bring:

IDs:

Carry on:

Checked luggage:

^ Not an extensive list.


Advice on Security:

The 100ml liquid limit is mostly common knowledge, but the limit on the total size (including containers) may be less well-known.

If you’re storing your skincare products and whatnot in a large ziplock back, you’ll likely be stopped by security while entering the US (this was not a problem entering Canadian airports) and have all your products transferred in the 1L ziplock as shown below (products for scale only):

You may go through security multiple times depending on your travel itinerary. If you’ve filled out a refillable water bottle, and it contains water filled from a previous airport, you may be turned away to re-queue in security (or toss the entire bottle away).



the actual travelling part

Online Check-in:

Check-in with Air Canada within 24h of your departure here.


Going through customs:
When going through Customs, a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer will look at your DS-2019, ask a couple of questions, and approve of your J-1.

This means giving you a I-94 (either paper or electronic format).

If your I-94 is in paper format, make sure it’s properly marked as J-1; <duration of status> before you leave the Customs booth. Else, you can print a copy of your I-94 here: https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/.

Keep these documents safe — your immigration lawyer will likely ask for a copy of your I-94 and DS-2019 sometime after you land.



upon landing ( <2 weeks )

Notifying Intrax:
Once you arrive to the US, you have to report to your visa program sponsor (Intrax) with your I-94 as evidence of your J-1 status. It’s recommended that you check-in as soon as you’re able to, since applying for your SSN and activating your health insurance depends on this action.


Printing out paperwork:

To apply for various things, it’s helpful to have the following documents printed on hand:

You can print things at your local shipping office (such as FedEx) if you don’t have access to a printer.


Applying for your SSN:

If this is your first time working in the US (on US payroll), you’ll need a SSN for tax filing purposes, so you should apply for one as soon as you’re eligible. Don’t worry, you should still be able to be paid (i.e. via cheques) as long as you have work authorization (your J-1), but make sure you let HR/payroll know, and update them on your SSN when you receive it.

When to apply:

min (
    Intrax J-1 visa approval status  +  >2 business days, 
    10 days after landing
)

If you apply any earlier, your SEVIS status may not have been updated in government systems, which may delay your SSN application.

Where to apply:
As of March 2021, US Social Security Administration (SSA) offices are no longer providing in-person drop-in services. However, applying for your SSN cannot be done online.

To schedule for an in-person appointment, find your local US SSA office, and call their office number to schedule an appointment as soon as possible. As of August 2021, the appointment wait times are about 3-4 weeks away. Your call may be put on hold for a while.

What to bring to your SSN application appointment:

You’ll need:

Timeline:
Apparently, your SSN application should be processed in around 2 weeks, but may take up to 6 weeks.

If your employer doesn’t have your SSN before the W-2 tax forms are due (Jan 31), they can submit an addendum correction W-2c when you do receive your SSN.


Banking (Checking Account):

For checking accounts, it’s good to have a physical branch nearby, i.e. Chase or Wells Fargo. Bring two IDs, money to deposit, and potentially your proof-of-residency or visa documents.

They may issue you a physical debit card on the spot, or it may have to be mailed to you (~5-7 days).

With a bank account, you can now have your paycheques direct-deposit-ed, and open up a Venmo/Zelle account for easy money transfers between friends.


Banking (Credit Cards):

Prerequisite: obtainig your SSN.

Since you’ll likely not have any credit history, this limits our credit card options. As a starting point, consider applying online to:

Do your own research and look around to see if there are any other options!




concluding thoughts

Figuring this out for the first time by myself was kind of a huge hassle, so hopefully this was helpful. :)


As a side note, I guess my take on these “life” tasks is that:

Something something what doesn’t kill you brings you a lot of stress???


Questions? Suggestions?? Please let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed (my contact information is in the footer).