How did I land up here in my gap year?

Last year in 2019, before the entire world went on pause, I had the unique opportunity to do a J1 internship for 6 months at a super cool startup in Los Angeles, California, called Giggster, as a marketing intern. This internship was a part of the gap year that I’m taking as part of studies at HEC Paris.

In this blog post, I’m going to write about how I found the internship, applied for a visa, found a place to live in Los Angeles, and some other stuff.

  1. Finding my J1 internship
  2. Applying for the J1 visa
  3. Finding a place to live in Los Angeles
  4. Obtaining an SSN as a J1 intern
  5. Banking and money matters

Finding my J1 internship

To be honest, I was not specifically looking for a J1 internship in US. The opportunity kind of fell into my lap through the HEC Paris email network.

Another HEC Paris student, who was extremely keen on doing an internship in LA, had found the CEO of Giggster, also a French HEC alumnus, on LinkedIn and reached out to him, starting a conversation which led her to get on board as an intern as the CEO’s right hand.

After they hired her, they realised that it would be cool for them to hire another intern, but in marketing. That’s when they put out a job description in the email network for a marketing internship starting June, requiring someone with a tech/startup background as well as filmmaking/production experience or strong interest.

Then there was me, a computer science major with experience working in marketing at a tech startup (shoutout to SpringRole), as well as an active YouTube channel with over 80 videos AND experience working as a freelance video producer in Manipal. It was a match made in heaven. I definitely got lucky.

Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.
This is something my boss at the ad agency in Manipal told me.

I had one interview with the marketing manager there, and they liked what they saw. A few days after the interview, I got the answer I wanted. They wanted me on the team!

Even though I got really lucky with finding this opportunity, there’s still some stuff to be learned.

  • Don’t be shy to reach out to people – my colleague at HEC did exactly that. She reached out to people on LinkedIn – specifically, HEC Alumni who were in Los Angeles – to find potential internship opportunities.
  • Luck is when opportunity meets preparation. An opportunity is nothing without being adequately prepared, and preparation won’t be of use unless you get an opportunity. I got lucky.

Applying for the J1 visa

This part was actually much easier than I thought it would be. You see, once you’ve found an internship, getting the visa is a pretty simple and straightforward process. There are only two caveats:

  1. It is expensive. The cost for a J1 visa for 6 months with mandatory insurance can go up to around $2k. Hence, it’s imperative that you find a company that is aware of this and is willing to pay for your J1 visa application.
  2. It takes time. The process takes at the minimum 3 weeks (if you/your company pays for expedited processing) and it normally takes around 5-6 weeks at the normal rate. That’s why it’s important to budget enough time for this – I’d recommend to start at least 2 months before your internship start date.

To start the application, you need to go through an agency that handles this for you – in France I went through Parenthese Paris who handled the entire process for me up until receiving my DS-2019. I’m sure there are similar agencies around the world as well. Keep in mind I’m absolutely not endorsing Parenthese, they were just who I used for my J1.

Once you get your DS-2019 and other supporting documents, you’ll need to make an appointment with your local US Embassy or Consulate for a J1 visa. This is where you submit your documents, give an interview, and have your J1 visa approved (or rejected) by the visa-issuing officer at the consulate.

While on a neighbourhood walk.

Unfortunately for me, there was a bit of a delay on the company’s side, and my visa process got delayed – I eventually got my visa literally one day before my flight from Paris to LA. I was strolling around the city anxiously waiting for and checking my phone for an email from the US Embassy, and finally, at around 2 pm I get the email that my visa is ready to be picked up. I rush over there and pick up my visa, and then back home to the HEC campus to finish my packing and prepare to leave for the airport the next morning at 5 am.

Plan in advance, at least 2 months.

The entire process can be summarised as below:

  1. Obtain your DS-2019 and supporting documents. This can involve going through an agency like Parenthese Paris, as I did.
  2. With those documents, make a visa appointment at the US Embassy or Consulate closest to you.
  3. Get the visa!

I know that this is a bit of an oversimplification, but the actual process can vary according to your personal situation and geographical location.

However, one thing remains common for everyone – make sure to plan in advance!

Finding a place to live in Los Angeles

This is where it starts to get a bit challenging, to be honest.

Before I reached LA, I had booked a backpacker hostel in Downtown Santa Monica for about 10 days to stay in while I looked for a more permanent housing situation. This gave me a comfortable, centrally-located space to settle into while I figured things out.

This spot was literally 5 minutes away by bicycle from where I lived.

During that time, I visited a number of apartments. I came to the conclusion that finding a furnished private studio (how I’m used to living affordably in Paris) is close to impossible, and it’s gonna be hard to find even a good furnished private room in the westside of LA as a J-1 intern who only stays for 6 months, and is on an internship budget.

So, either I’d have to settle for living far away and spend time commuting, or I’d have to scour Craigslist. I decided to try finding a Craigslist sublet. It was a fairly successful endeavour, and I found a room share in Downtown Santa Monica, 5 minutes from the Pier, for $750 a month. This central location was quite key to me being able to make friends quickly!

I stayed there for about 4 months before I got sick of sharing a room and moved out to another Craigslist sublet, the landlord/flatmate of which turned out to be a raging alcoholic and I had to move out again… that’s a story for another post!

In essence, to find housing in LA as a J1 intern, you must have:

  • A lot of money
  • Connections with people in big houses who let you live with them
  • Your company providing housing

Since I had none of these things, I had to rely on my backup plan:

Pure dumb luck, and a lot of courage.

Other ideas you can try are looking at university housing groups on Facebook (though your success here depends on what time of year it is – you can easily find summer sublets but finding something through the fall or winter is harder).

According to me, this was the most difficult part of the entire process. Everything else could be handled and taken care of, but housing – especially in Los Angeles – was tricky.

Obtaining an SSN as a J1 Intern

This wasn’t extremely complicated. This article here on Cultural Vistas has a really good explanation of the process, so I’m not going to repeat it here.

Banking and money matters

While I was in the US, I primarily used two bank cards – Wells Fargo and Lydia France. Let me explain.

To receive my stipend from my employer, I needed a US bank account – it was not at all hard to open one. I didn’t even need an SSN to open it, just a valid address where I could receive my card.

However, when choosing a bank, I had a requirement for finding a bank that allowed me to close my account over the phone or the Internet – since I would need to keep the bank account open to receive my tax refund and would want to close it right after that – and I wouldn’t be in LA anymore when that happened. That’s what led me to choose Wells Fargo, since they allowed me to close the account remotely, without visiting a branch.

This is the card I used for the most part, during my time in the US. It contained only the money I earned as an intern, and it was enough for me to live on, for the most part.

What I spent my money on.

Now, this next bit is my little secret that I want to share with you guys – Lydia. Again, not sponsored. Also, this applies only to those of you living in France.

With a Lydia Premium account (€2.99/mo or free if you’re under 25), you can get a physical Lydia card that can be used anywhere in the world, without any currency conversion charges, even for cash withdrawals. It was with this card that I made my purchases and payments until I received my first paycheck and I could start spending my US money. It is honestly one of the most helpful things that I have with me while travelling anywhere.

It was with both these cards that I explored Long Beach, Palos Verdes and San Pedro with my then-girlfriend.

Conclusion

While I was extremely lucky to have found this opportunity through the alumni network of HEC Paris, it was still a challenging process to orchestrate and plan a temporary move to Los Angeles, particularly finding housing and obtaining my visa on time.

I hope this article gave you a bit of a background on how I did it, and I hope that it inspires you to start your own J1 journey!

-M

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