Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) regarding Training Opportunities for Foreign Scientists at the NIH


1. Where can I learn more about the various types of visas available to visit or study or work in the United States?

The NIH Division of International Services (DIS) Website provides a wealth of specific information about participation in the NIH Visiting Program, including visa information:

If you have been offered an appointment at NIH and need clarification on your visa situation, please contact ISB by e-mail at:

2. I recently received my doctoral degree. Am I eligible for an NIH postdoctoral fellowship?

The usual eligibility for an NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship is 5 years or less of relevant postdoctoral research experience after receipt of the professional (e.g. M.D., MBBS) or research (e.g. Ph.D., dr.phil.) doctorate. For foreign scientists, the NIH appointment is called a Postdoctoral Visiting Fellowship.

3. I have been in the U.S. on an F-1 Student Visa. Am I able to come to the NIH on that visa, or must I change to another visa type?

The F-1 Student visa permits one year of "Optional Practical Training" after completion of the educational course (e.g. following receipt of a Ph.D. degree). Beyond that period, one would have to switch to a different type of visa, such as the J-1 visa or H-1B visa. However, H-1B visas are not available for Postdoctoral Visiting Fellows.

4. I am accepted to come to the NIH as a Visiting Fellow on the J-1 Visa. Can my spouse be appointed also? Can he/she work elsewhere in the U.S.?

Yes. However, unless your spouse enters the U.S. on his/her own J-1 visa, they must enter the US as a J-2, dependent of the J-1 Exchange Visitor. Once in the US the J-2 dependent can apply to the Department of Homeland Security--Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). The EAD must be obtained before work can begin, e.g. appointment as a Visiting Fellow at the NIH. EAD processing times vary but generally take less than 120 days. A J-2 EAD is issued for the purpose of supporting the dependent only. It should not be viewed as training work permit, since it is dependent on the J-1's maintenance of status in the US. J-2 dependents are subject to the 2-year home residency requirement, if the J-1 is subject.

5. What are the differences between a Visiting Fellow, an IRTA/CRTA, and a Research Fellow?

The Visiting Fellow (for foreign) and Intramural Research Training Award/Cancer Research Training Award (IRTA/CRTA, for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, i.e. on a Green Card) are Postdoctoral Fellowships, usually utilized during the first five years of training at the NIH. The Research Fellow is normally a more advanced appointment as a temporary U.S. Government employee. It requires that the employing entity have an FTE (full-time-equivalent) position. A Research Fellow may be appointed on the H-1B (temporary worker) visa.

6. I would like to be appointed on the H-1B temporary worker visa. Why can't I simply be appointed as a Research Fellow on the H-1B visa at the outset?

Although this is possible, it is not the usual mechanism available at the NIH, owing to the extreme limitations in the number of FTE positions available. Thus, the usual route to a Research Fellow appointment is following 3 - 5 years of experience as a Postdoctoral Fellow (e.g. Visiting Fellow, on the J-1 visa).

7. How long can I remain in training status at the NIH? What is the 5 year/ 8 year rule?

The maximum duration of a Postdoctoral Fellowship at NIH is 5 years, after which an individual in training is expected to leave. However, an extension as a temporary NIH "employee" (requires an FTE position) is possible for up to an additional 3 years as a Research Fellow, if the sponsor has the interest and the necessary resources (this would constitute the 5th to 8th year segment of the "5 year/ 8 year rule").

8. If I leave the NIH after my Postdoctoral Fellowship, am I able to convert to the H-1B visa to work elsewhere?

Yes. Under current NIH policy, the NIH will "not object" to a NOS (no-objection-statement) Waiver request by a J-1 visa holder, if the individual is offered, and accepts, a position outside of the NIH. NOS waivers are not possible for foreign physicians who have received residency training in the U.S. under ECFMG J-1 visa sponsorship.

9. Is it possible for me to remain at the NIH longer than the 8 years permitted under the 5 year/ 8 year rule?

Yes, but you would have to compete successfully for a position with the IPD (Intramural Professional Designation) of Tenure-track "Investigator", Tenured "Senior Investigator" or "Staff Scientist/Staff Clinician". The former two categories require an advertised national search process, and approval by the Deputy Director for Intramural Research (DDIR).

10. I am a medical resident who has been sponsored for the J-1 Visa by the ECFMG. Am I allowed to come to the NIH for further clinical or research training?

a. If the particular NIH clinical training program has been accredited by the ACGME, the ECFMG is permitted to sponsor your standard clinical training at the NIH under its J-1 visa authorization (this J-1 visa is not an NIH-sponsored J-1 visa). Unfortunately, a number of the NIH subspecialty fellowships are non-standard clinical training programs, which means they are not accredited by the ACGME. Therefore, it may be difficult, or impossible, to effect the required visa arrangements.

b. However, you may be eligible for J-1 sponsorship if your program is within a specialty or subspecialty where the appropriate Specialty Board of ABMS offers a Certificate.

c. If your program is neither ACGME-accredited nor leads to a certificate from an appropriate ABMS board, then sponsorship may also be obtained if your program is within a subspecialty "recognized" by an appropriate Board of ABMS as evidenced by a letter from the CEO of that Board.

In regard to the third pathway, a protocol has been established which enables the Graduate Medical Education Committee (GMEC) to review and approve your program's description (which would include educational objectives, the curriculum, nature of supervision, evaluation methods, and program duration). Gaining the GMEC's approval allows you to pursue ECFMG sponsorship; it does not however guarantee that you will succeed. The GMEC will only review program descriptions for non-accredited training programs that wish to sponsor a J-1 visa holder and that are affiliated with NIH-sponsored ACGME-accredited programs. Obtaining sponsorship from an ACGME-accredited program can occur in several ways, and if assistance is needed, the Graduate Medical Education staff in the Office of Clinical Research Training and Medical Education, CC, will help your program director identify potential programs with which a sponsorship would be likely. To make this process run smoothly, it is requested that you contact the Office of Clinical Research Training and Medical Education, CC, at 301-496-2636 as early as possible.

Please consult the Office of Clinical Research Training and Medical Education, CC, website for information about NIH ACGME-accredited, jointly sponsored, and other GME programs:

11. Is it possible to earn a Ph.D. in conjunction with an NIH research experience?

The Graduate Partnerships Program (GPP) administers a program that allows graduate students to perform their Ph.D. thesis research in NIH laboratories. There are both formal agreements (with specific departments in particular U.S. and foreign universities), and informal individual arrangements (where a graduate student can come from any accredited university). Typically, if NIH stipend support is involved, the students are appointed as Predoctoral Visiting Fellows under the J-1 visa.

Please consult the Graduate Partnerships Program (GPP) website:
or e-mail: Dr. Sharon Milgram at

12. Is there any advantage to obtaining an O-1 visa over the H-1B visa? Would I qualify?

The O-1 visa, for an individual of "extraordinary ability," allows the holder to work for as long as the visa is renewed by the sponsoring institution. Unlike the H-1B temporary worker visa, an O-1 may be obtained without a waiver of the two-year home residency requirement. In addition, the sponsoring institution is not bound to the prevailing wage issues that often arise in an H-1B application.

However, stringent criteria must be met, demonstrating that the individual is truly "extraordinary" as a research scientist who commands respect, has a national/international reputation and is considered an authority in his/her field of endeavor. Extensive documentation must be provided to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) in an O-1 visa petition. The ISB works with the sponsoring NIH organizational component to prepare the necessary documentation for NIH foreign staff who have been approved for an O-1 visa petition.

13. Can I come to the NIH for dissertation research on an F-1 Visa before my Ph.D. degree is awarded?

There are two types of practical training available for F-1 students, Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT). OPT can be authorized for before or after completion of a program of study. CPT is authorized by your Designated School Official (DSO) before completion of a program of study. CPT represents an integral part of your curriculum. Generally, CPT can be authorized for as long as the DSO deems necessary. If the student is given Full-Time CPT for 12 months or more, no Optional Practical Training (OPT) is possible after completion of a program of studies. F-1 students can conduct research at NIH for their Ph.D. dissertation under the "curricular practical training" authorization as allowed by their school.

14. Does the practical training come into effect before the Ph.D. if the university designates the NIH as an off campus training site?

If the university designates the NIH as an off-campus training site, there are two possibilities to be authorized to be at NIH. One is through CPT (discussed above); the other is through "extended on-campus" work permission. The extended on-campus may be used if there is a contractual obligation between the student's supervisor and NIH. In this case, the student would be conducting research based on a contract or award the supervisor obtained, but the work is or must be conducted at NIH. See your school international student adviser for guidance.


Updated: August 10, 2010