USA: A Guide To Work and Travel USA

Work and Travel USA Malaysia Application Guide | A Beautiful Distraction by Ruo Ling Lu

so… I’m back from the Work and Travel USA summer season program after spending three months working in a water park in Virginia and one month travelling to places like New York City and San Francisco.

I’m just gonna cut through the chase and write what I know about the Work and Travel USA program. but before you read on, please know that this is based solely on my experience. you can still ask me about my opinions on simple things but for any important pieces of advice like things regarding money or safety, please consult an agent. also, if there’s anything that I got it wrong here, let me know! :)

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Introduction

What is Work and Travel USA

basically, if you’re eligible, you can get a J1 Visa allowing you to work for the summer or winter season in places like theme parks, restaurants, hotels or retails in USA and then another 30 days to explore.

Who can participate?

  • Full-time university student or recently graduated

  • Between the age of 18 and 30

  • Able to stay in the United States for the duration of your program

  • Able to work and live in an English-speaking environment

  • Have approximately 800 USD to support yourself in the first few weeks

  • Capable of performing the tasks in your job description

How long was the program?

including training, I worked for 13 weeks. usually the requirement by employers is to work at least 10 weeks. naturally, the longer period you work, the more money you’ll make.

after your working period, you’re allowed to stay in the United States for another 30 days. some of my peers continued on with their travels to other countries after that 30 days. so, you could be away from home for as long as 5 months. I mean… if you want to escape from your evil witch mother or something… you could consider that. XD

Process

How was the process?

you can sign up yourself without an agent but I reckon it’ll be troublesome. I signed up through Out Of The Box which my friend did too the previous year so I felt that they’re reliable.

as far as I know, there are three agencies in Malaysia, which are:

my experience with Out Of The Box was good. they’re helpful with my concerns, communication with them was clear, and Yeen never forgot to look out for us when we were in the US.

I had an initial interview with OOTB via Skype basically to see how prepared I am to leave home, financially as well as mentally and if my family is well aware of the details.

then, when I’ve signed up with, I’m provided with a list of employers and their details such as hourly wage, location, job description, etc. I was allowed to pick three, just in case I couldn’t make it for the first on my list.

after that, there’s another face-to-face interview with my employer Busch Gardens Williamsburg / Water Country USA.

after I got my job offer, there was the visa interview and an orientation session by OOTB before we headed off.

What documents did I prepare?

  • Proof of study / graduate

  • Passport

  • Bank statement

  • Visa application photo

  • Simple resume

the process was quite hassle-free to me. basically, OOTB would let me know what to prepare and my job was just to get it and then hand it to them. if you’ve passed the interview, you’ll get your DS-2019 form, which is one of the most important documents that will allow you to enter the United States.

What was I asked during the job interview?

it was a simple face-to-face group interview with 5 others. the questions were pretty basic like self-introduction, reason for participating in the program, previous work or co-curricular activity experience. the interview was mainly to see our attitude and English speaking level. all of us passed it.

What was I asked during the visa interview?

it was also a group interview. we were asked about our employer and our rights. I got asked who is funding me and if I was going to consider getting a job there as I’m already done with school.

other questions to expect are questions such as your wages, employer, where are you staying, etc. we weren’t asked to present any documents but it’s always wise to bring them along.

Money

How much did I spend?

I spent roughly a total of RM14,600 upfront. here’s the breakdown of the expenditures:

I paid a total of RM5,450 to OOTB, some of which are subjected to currency rate, which includes:

  • Initial fees: RM420

  • Programme fees: RM4,250

  • SEVIS Fees: RM140 (35 USD)

  • Visa Fee: RM640

I paid RM3,150 for my round-trip air tickets for KUL > NRT > NEW > RIC and then LAX > SIN > KUL.

it was RM2,700+ from United Airline’s promotion but because there were three of us who wanted to fly together, we paid a little extra and let a travel agency to handle that.

I couldn’t remember the currency rate and also I exchanged a number of times but it’s roughly RM6,000 (1,500 USD) for my pocket money. it is actually almost double of what is required (800 USD).

How much did I make from my work?

I earned a total of 4,200 USD after tax. my pay for the first couple of weeks was 9.30 USD and then I got a raise to 9.55 USD after I attended alcohol training, which was provided by my employer. the total hours I worked per week ranged from 30 to 50 hours, depending on the weather, because it’s a water park. I don’t get OT pay because it is a seasonal business.

Did I recover the upfront payment?

I’m just gonna be truthful and say: no.

before you feel disheartened by the news, here’s what you should note:

  • I wasn’t hardworking enough to look for a second job

  • there wasn’t OT pay

  • the rental for my entire period of stay was about 1,000 USD

  • I didn’t travel in a, uhm, budget friendly way

for the one month of travel, I spent about 3,500 USD, which explains why I couldn’t recover the upfront money. the rest of the money went to my living expenses and some shopping. the premium outlet near where I stayed wasn’t helping me much in saving money. :P

I could’ve spent the same amount of money to just travel and not work, so why did I work?

I thought of this too before I went. does Work and Travel USA make a difference? yes.

making money apart, the other thing that I made within those three months are friends and memories. I remember many people crying during my last few weeks there as we parted ways. that’s the kind of one of a lifetime experience you’re gonna have.

the other reason is exposure. I know myself pretty damn well enough to know that I wouldn’t work in a theme park in Malaysia or move out of my house without any strong reason. so it’s a time for me to learn to manage my own money and be independent. it’s also an opportunity for me to improve my interpersonal skills.

that three months were also for me to familiarize myself with the US. with the amount of American media we’re exposed to, there wouldn’t be any huge culture shock lah but there are still those little things like tips, pedestrian crossing, cashless payment, stuffs like that that I’m sure would pretty much make me info overload if I just bam, landed in America and started travelling. and oh, jetlag. it solves the problem.

besides, I wouldn’t make it for my one month of travel if I hadn’t spent the previous 3 months standing at least 8 hours a day and walking so much. the working beat my body up so hard that it can take walking 15,000 steps a day while carrying my camera gears like a breeze.

lastly, the bonus work perk is that I got to enter both the theme park and water park whenever I want, which was quite fun and pretty much what we usually did on our days off. kinda missing the rides now. ;___;

Work

Where did I work and what’s my job scope?

I worked under culinary operations at Water Country USA, a water park under the SeaWorld family in Williamsburg, Virginia. at the beginning we were everywhere in the park but after things settled down, I mainly worked as a cashier selling food. sometimes I sell Dippin’ Dots and sometimes I made food like pretzels, churros and corn dogs. pretty easy stuff - just let the oven handle it. some of my friends ended up serving burgers or frying funnel cakes. it really depends on where each one of us ended up. apart from that, other internationals also worked as lifeguards, area hosts or ride operators at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

Why did I choose Busch Gardens Williamsburg?

mainly because I signed up alone so it’s better to look for an employer that provides lodging. my first choice was actually to work in a hotel at Salt Lake City where no lodging is provided. so OOTB had to hook me up with other participants, if there were any to begin with and we had to do our own research and da da da there’s just too much trouble.

another reason would be me not being able to live three months in the nature like national parks. HAHA. Williamsburg is a historical town where there’re chain restaurants, banks and department stores that are easily accessible with public transport, Uber or Lyft. it’s usually about 1 USD - 2 USD each trip if four of us shared a car. we even have a club!

other than that, Busch Gardens Williamsburg hires more than a hundred internationals every year so it’s a great opportunity to make new friends.

generally, the thing I looked out for were things like lodging, location, transportation and weather. the biggest concern to me was being alone.

Insurance and Bank

Was I covered by any insurance?

yes. the type of insurance you’ll get varies from sponsor to sponsor and I didn’t need to pay any extra for mine. I was sponsored by GeoVisions and was covered from when I left Malaysia, including my travel period. as far as I know, the same batch of participants with me who were sponsored by CIEE was covered only during their work period. however, you can always obtain extra insurance on your own or seek advice from your agent.

Which bank did I use?

I opened a BB&T account which is available at my area, but not nationwide. it’s a student checking account that I did not have to close so hopefully there wouldn’t be any problem for my tax refunds. fingers crossed.

before I left Williamsburg, I wanted to have another bank account where the ATMs are pretty much anywhere because ATM charges for withdrawing from a different bank is 3 USD. pretty expensive compared to our RM1 huh. so, I opened a Wells Fargo account, for when I travel but I actually didn’t really need it. it’s more of a just-in-case thing. I had to close the account before leaving the United States because they would start charging me after 90 days upon opening the account.

I don’t know much about other bank services - like if you have to close them or not before leaving, or if there’s any monthly charges, etc. but if you’re looking for one that’s available almost anywhere there’s Bank of America and Chase Bank. I saw Chase everywhere I go but it was until my very last days in the US that I realized they’re not a car company, but a bank. LOL.

another thing I was warned to watch out for is bank overdraft. my friend got into trouble with overdrafts and the bank almost charged him. I almost got into trouble too even though I’ve made sure that my checking account doesn’t allow me to do so. but problem solved, whew.

Travel

Where did I go after the work part ended?

I’ll write a more detailed post about this later so here’s a quick list of places I’ve visited during my 26 days travel:

  • Washington, DC

  • New York City, New York

  • Niagara Falls, New York

  • Chicago, Illinois

  • San Francisco, California

  • Las Vegas, Nevada

  • Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

  • Antelope Canyon, Arizona

  • Horseshoe Bend, Arizonaa

  • Zion National Park, Utah

  • Death Valley National Park, California

  • San Diego, California

  • Los Angeles, California

Suggestions:

  • Orlando, Florida

  • Miami, Florida

  • Seattle, Washington

  • Portland, Oregon

  • Boston, Massachusetts

  • Yosemite National Park

  • Glacier National Park

  • Yellowstone National Park

  • Arches National Park

some of my international friends even went to Canada and Mexico during their work period. I’m not sure how our Malaysian passport can allow us to do so but it’s a great opportunity. start saving places of interest to your Google Maps or Pinterest! it helps when you’re planning for your travels.

Miscellaneous

What did I regret bringing? What did I regret not bringing?

I regretted bringing too many contact lens solution. haha! I ended up carrying two extra travelling bottles back. apart from all that Malaysian food, whatever that you can get in Tesco / Jusco here, you can get from Walmart / Target there. we also get some things for dirt cheap price at secondhand store like Goodwill and Dollar Tree.

as for anything I regretted not bringing… I think I’m pretty well-packed. XD but if you’re a shutterbug like me, don’t forget your lens hood like I did. :(

What useful apps did I use when I was there?

  • U by BB&T - banking

  • Wells Fargo - banking

  • Venmo - money transfer

  • Splitwise - splitting money with friends

  • Yelp - food recommendations

  • 7- Eleven - convenient store

  • Target - department store

  • Walmart - department store

  • Food Lion - department store

  • Amazon - online shopping

  • Uber - e-hailing

  • Lyft - e-hailing

I’ll put together another list for apps I used for travel purpose in the coming post.

How did I survive there?

well… “survive” would be too strong a word. but the number one tip is: don’t be stupid. if you know there’s a risk in doing something, do some calculations beforehand. if you feel like something is wrong, always follow your intuition. there are also all the general travelling safety tips like keep a copy of all of your documents, let your friends and family know your current status, keep in mind who to go to if you’re in trouble, etc.

also, make friends! there’s a Chinese saying that goes “rely on your family when you’re at home and rely on your friends when you’re out.” look out for each other and let your family know who they are and their contacts and you should be fine.

What is my takeaway from this program?

it would be silly to say that I changed. I mean, even if you sit at home and do nothing for four months you’re definitely bound to change too.

jokingly, it would be learning that everyone cusses and calculates in their mother tongue. I know the melting pot culture in Malaysia makes us cuss mostly in English but try doing Maths, your true colours will appear. XD

jokes apart, I always believe that if you want to learn to swim, then you have to jump into the ocean. reading about people’s journeys and experiences will never beat going out and doing it yourself because you’ll never know what you can do until you meet all sorts of challenges, just like I never knew I am a lot more independent than I let myself to be back at home.

so, good luck in applying, fellow adventurers! I hope this post helps you. :)