[last updated on April 1, 2019]
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. if you’re wondering what to do after the program, here’s my guide to spending 26 days in the United States.
I’m just gonna cut through the chase and write what I know about how to apply for the Work and Travel USA program and other things about it. 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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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
[NEW] When can you register for Work and Travel USA?
registration for Work and Travel USA opens as early as October the year before for summer season and as early as May for winter season. make sure you stay updated with the agencies in your country.
as far as I know, there are three agencies in Malaysia, which are:
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 (OOTB) which my friend did too the previous year so I felt that they’re reliable.
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
Visa application photo
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.
[NEW] Who will be arranging the interviews?
in my case, both job interview and visa interview were arranged by OOTB. all I needed to do was to make sure I was free on those particular days. job interview may take up to half day and visa interview will take up to half and OOTB will continue the day with a pre-departure orientation after the interview. back then I had a few days to pick from for the visa interview.
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.
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.
[NEW] How much can you earn from tips?
I honestly have no experience in this (and I will update it here once I talk to someone who does) but tipping culture in America is generally 18% - 25%. so let’s say a table for two bills up to 30 USD, that will be between 5.4 USD to 7.5 USD. if you can serve up to two tables in an hour, that’ll be around 10 USD to 15 USD in tips. but it also depends from job to job, because employer might gather tips in a group and then divide it, etc.
[NEW] How much does a meal cost?
it’s different from place to place because of tax rates. as in my case, a staff meal was about 3 USD to 7 USD depending on what you eat. you can cook a pretty decent meal for 3 USD - 5 USD. microwave meals ranged from 2 USD to 5 USD. eating at a decent restaurant cost around 8 USD - 12 USD before tips for a main. also, be reminded that salads are priced based on weight (I know, what kinda logic is this?).
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. ;___;
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.
[NEW] Is it possible to end your job early?
I can’t say for sure for any job but you can always talk to your employer about this. I had friends who asked for permission and managed to leave a few days early, as long as their visa is still valid till the day they left the country. there are also cases where you can leave early if you like, but your certain deposits like for your housing or uniform will be forfeited. in any case, it is advised that you let your agent and sponsor know about your decision.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
[NEW] Should I fly in and out the same destination in USA?
I had this question too before I had bought my air tickets. after some calculations with my friend, it’s a safer option to get an open jaw ticket. my situation was like this: I didn’t know if I was gonna have time to explore LA but I bought my return ticket from LAX anyway because if 1. I managed to explore LA, that wouldn’t be a problem and if 2. I didn’t, I only needed one air ticket from my last destination to LAX. however if I chose to return from Richmond and I managed to explore LA, that means I gotta spend one ticket to LA and another back to Richmond. so yeah… you do the maths.
[NEW] How hot is summer?
again… it’s different from place to place. as for Williamsburg, Virginia, it’s more or less like Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore… the tropical weather. on some days it will go really hot and sunny but don’t worry it rains some time too. wear sunscreen!
[NEW] Would your housing be arranged or not?
the information will come along with the documents that state the employer, job scope, and wages from your agency. I wouldn’t suggest any solo participant to look for one without arranged housing. it’ll be a hassle and it’s risky. it depends on different employers so choose wisely when you choose your job.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg / Water Country USA
if you would like to have some photos that I took of the place, you can drop me an e-mail, PM me on Facebook or DM me on Instagram. I’ll be glad to help!
[NEW] How can you save money?
the kitchen at the International Housing Village where I stayed was pretty well equipped so you can cook. groceries are cheap too so you can cook up a decent meal for about 3 USD. six of my friends shared their meal expenses and cooked every night and let’s say they saved pretty much. otherwise you can buy more staff meals to eat for both lunch and dinner.
you can ask for the bus driver to stop you at Food Lion (it’s like a local Walmart) to shop for groceries. in that same area is a store called Dollar Tree Store and yes! they sell everything for a dollar, from knife, bowl, sausages, birthday cards, etc. as for pots and pans, you can buy it secondhand from past participants who are leaving when you arrive or take the blue bus to Goodwill.
[NEW] How many person share a room?
three to four in a room in bunk beds. however, you could ask for the housing’s management to dismantle the bunk beds and sleep four in a row. it’ll be quite packed though. the size of the room is like a usual hotel room.
[NEW] Any other advice?
expect mosquitoes and bugs in the summer. but worry not, their bug spray is super strong (my favourite thing)! otherwise, we bought Coleman’s candle for outdoors.
as for food, I like Hong Kong’s sesame chicken. the store is located next to Subway at the Food Lion area. other than that, Sal’s by Victor and Peter Chang (take the blue bus, it’s near another Food Lion and Goodwill) are my favourite.
Where did I go after the work part ended?
if you want a more detailed guide, you can teleport to my guide to USA. here’s a quick list of places I’ve visited during my 26 days travel:
New York City, New York
Niagara Falls, New York
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
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.
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 aside, 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 and kindly drop your questions if you have any. I’ll be glad to help! :)