Widespread confusion about the new J visas for Irish and American students has led to a very low take-up on both sides of the Atlantic.

In September 2008, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin, announced the agreement with the U.S. government that would enable Irish citizens to work and t ravel in the U.S. for up to 12 months.

The U.S. government agreed to make available up to 20,000 visas for Irish citizens each year, which will allow them to work and travel in the U.S. for 12 months, after which time they must return home. Reciprocally, the Irish government will allow up to 5,000 U.S. citizens to work and travel in Ireland also for a year.

However, the rules governing the visas are said to be very confusing. According to USIT, a leading Irish travel agent specializing in student, youth and independent travel which is one of the main processing agencies for the new visas, over 3,000 Irish people inquired about the visa that would have allowed them to live and work in the U.S. for a year. However, very few of the applicants were eligible.

The Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C. has issued only 18 visas to American citizens but are in the process of approving another 18 more.

The State Department told IrishCentral that 2,530 J visas have been issued to Irish nationals worldwide since November.  However, this figure totals all the various types of J visas issued, including summer student visas and 18-month internship visas. They do not have the exact number of new one-year J visas.

Dearbhla O'Brien, commercial director of USIT in Dublin, told the Irish Voice on Monday that there was a “huge interest initially” in the visa because the “Irish authorities promoted the new visa as being similar to the Australian 12 month working holiday model.”

This, said O’Brien, was a mistake.  “It is not at all like the Australian visa,” she said.

Australia's working holiday program allows people aged between 18 and 30 to holiday in Australia and to supplement their travel funds through short-term employment for one year. The visa allows a stay of up to 12 months in Australia, regardless of whether the holder spends the whole time in Australia.  There is an optional 12-month extension available for individuals who have completed three months specified work in designated rural areas of Australia.

The difference, explains O’Brien, is that applicants for the new one year J visa must have graduated from a college program in the last 12 months and must work in their field of study when they arrive in the U.S., unlike the Australia visa which allows visa holders to work in whatever area they chose.

“This really confused people,” said O’Brien.

Irish citizens called USIT wanting to apply for the new J visas assuming the same rules applied.

O’Brien says that the new J visa was “not in fact anything new to the internship program (the 18 month J-1 visa program) already in existence.”

Although O’Brien would not disclose how many actual applications they approved for a J interview – “this is a competitive market here in Ireland and such information is considered competitively sensitive  – she did say the numbers were very low.

When asked if she expects there to be an upsurge in applications as soon as students graduate, she said no because, “the visa already existed for many years for students/graduates.”

The only difference between the existing J-1 visas and the new one-year J visa, said O’Brien, is  “change in the application process.”

“Irish students and graduates have always been eligible to participate on internship in the U.S. so I can't see how the demand will suddenly change,” she said.

The Boston Irish Immigration Center, also one of the agencies processing the new J visas for Irish citizens, has to date processed 34 applications.  So far 17 of those processed have received visas.

“As of last Friday we received about 150 inquiries and 56 applications for the forms,” said Peggy Comfrey, adding that only 34 of those who applied were eligible for the visa.

“The other 17 or so are just waiting to be called for their interview,” she said. The interviews take place in the American Embassy in Dublin.

Most of the applications came from Irish citizens who just finished college in Ireland and who now live in New York, California, Boston and Chicago. Comfrey said that only one young woman was refused a visa because she was only a part time student when she applied for the visa.

Comfrey said she expects there to be a lot more applications coming her way as soon as the students graduate college in the coming weeks in Ireland.

Each visa holder will be free to secure employment upon arriving in the country. It will not be necessary to acquire a job prior to arrival in either country.

To qualify for the visa program, each participant must hold an Irish or U.S. passport. Each applicant must be in either post-secondary education which includes current enrollment in a third level institution, or in a course that could allow a student to go on obtain a degree, or have graduated within the preceding 12 months.

For more information on the J visas, log onto the Irish Department of Affairs website at www.dfa.ie or contact Comfrey on pcomfrey@iicenter.org