How to Get a Bank Account for J1 Visa Workers

Adam Rust

Banks will give accounts to J-1 Visa holders, but employers need to have practical expectations for how well their new workers can do on their own to find an account. A foreign person with no familiarity in the US banking system may have trouble navigating the process of getting an account. Employers should plan to provide some guidance on the process.  

Employers who hire these workers and who prefer to pay them by direct deposit will want a way to streamline the enrollment of those individuals in bank accounts.

All of the workers will arrive with the same issue – they do not have a bank account. In some instances, the J-1s may come from countries where having a bank account is the exception to the rule. More likely, because so many J-1 workers are very young, their US bank account will be their first foray into banking.

The obvious solution for an employer with an unbanked workforce is to sign a contract to use a payroll card program. Payroll cards are very convenient. Employers receive a book of temporary debit cards along with a corresponding list of account numbers.

Unfortunately, many payroll card companies have no interest in using a payroll card. That is particularly true when the employer has seasonal workers or if the employer is only going to pay a handful of people.

The answer is to use a service that allows a company to enroll lots of workers in accounts in a short period.

A traditional bank may not fit that need. I would say “no” - sending college students into town to find a bank account seems implausible. Will those workers bring the right documentation? Will they feel comfortable walking into a branch to get an account? Will they know to ask for the routing and account number associated with their account? If they do, will they bring that information back to their boss promptly?

I would rather have a means of overseeing the enrollment process.

We’ve created WiseWage. WiseWage answers the unique challenges of finding accounts for foreign students because it can enroll people via smartphones. Thus, an employer of J-1 Visa holders can supervise the sign-up process in person. As the students navigate through enrollment, the employer can answer questions. In the end, the employer can gather the needed routing and account numbers for the newly-attained accounts to set up direct deposit.

Choices Worth Choosing
Picture of card
Picture of card
Young person traveling who needs a US bank account

Background on the J-1 Exchange Visitor VISA Program

Every year, approximately 300,000 individuals come from countries across the world to study or work under the J-1 Exchange Visitor VISA Program.

A J-1 VISA allows a foreign national to work, train, or travel inside the United States. It can be a legal means for people to enter the country for many different purposes. It is safe to say that there is no typical J-1 worker.

Some common use cases for a J-1 VISA:

• Doctors or individuals receiving graduate medical training

• Au pairs and summer camp counselors

• Visiting professors

• College students

• A foreign worker of a corporation coming to the US to receive training

• Short-term scholar

• Secondary school teacher

• Intern

J-1 visitors may apply for and receive a US bank account. While they must provide documentation, J-1 workers should have no trouble putting together the right information. To get an account, they will need:

• A passport

• Their J-1

• The DS-201x form (2019, 2020, et al.)

• Their Social Security card – if they have already received it. If the applicant has an SSN, he or she must provide it. The bank’s verification process will flag the account if it believes that the applicant has made an effort to conceal a known SSN.

• A picture ID. This could be a student ID card, government-issued identification from the applicant’s home country, or the passport.

• Your name, address, phone number, and the name of where the person is working or attending school.

Employers who want to streamline the process of paying J1 workers will need to understand that a traditional payroll card may not be an option. Generally speaking, payroll card companies prefer to avoid seasonal workers. Likewise, payroll card companies will not be interested in providing cards to a business that only needs a handful of cards. If your company will most likely not need more than fifteen cards, then most payroll card companies will turn you away.

A caveat - employers need to be careful to make sure that their J-1 workers are not paying high bank fees. Sending a worker to the wrong bank could be a mistake. If the bank provides the worker with an account that leads to a lot of fees, then the employer could be at some liability. A problem could develop if the cost of banking makes the overall hourly pay of the worker fall below federal minimum wage laws.

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Adam Rust has worked to defend consumers against harmful financial practices since 2005. He has written extensively about overdraft fees, payday lending, credit insurance, student loans, prepaid debit cards, high-cost installment loans, and subprime mortgage lending. The New York Times interviewed him when it reported on the CFPB's rulemaking on prepaid debit cards; subsequently, his research paper framed the debate on consumer protections.

He serves on the Board of the US Faster Payments Council. He is Director of Research at Reinvestment Partners in Durham, North Carolina. He is the author of BankTalk. He is the author of "This is My Home: Challenges and Opportunities of Manufactured Housing" and has testified to Congress on how to redress some of the problems with manufactured housing. See more on his LinkedIn profile.