Hi, I have immensely benefitted from forums like these during my waiver application process. I thank you all for posting your experiences and want to post my experience here in hope that it may be of some benefit to future applicants.
In the post below, I am assuming that you are familiar with terms like NORI, Advisory Opinion etc. and you have a general idea of the waiver process. If not, The US state dept. website, Indian Consulate websites and forums like these are excellent source for these. Use google to search for relevant information.
A few tips first:
(0) If you are already in US and you are changing status (for example going for a postdoc after phd) avoid J1 at all costs (especially if your postdoc contract is initially for just an year). Trust me, the tension of waiver is not worth it.
(0.5) If you are coming from India on J1, while celebrating your future trip to US, use your time in India to gather information about the waiver process and start drafting cover letters, statement of reason etc. as they take a lot of time. This way you can start the waiver process as soon as you are in US.
(1) Start as early as possible. A one week delay in the beginning may not seem much but towards the end when your j1 is about to expie and you need the waiver for future job and h1 etc., even a week seems like eternity!
(2) Send all correspondence (even to India) by FedEx. Although it's expensive, It's much faster and you can track whether your stuff has reached its destination or not. That's very helpful when you try to track your application in India because they (especially at the state home dept) always try to say that your application hasn't reached them yet without even bothering to look it up.
(2.5) If you can visit Indian consulate in person, do that rather then sending them stuff by mail or Fedex. It will cut a lot of time.
(3) During your entire process, which can take as long as 12 months, keep your postal address in US the same.
(4) Do not waste your time on Advisory Opinion. You can do that in parallel, but start the waiver process from Indian Consulate and India first. By some great luck, if you do get a favorable advisory opinion, you can always stop the waiver application process.
(5) Use the power of Google to find out contact phone numbers in India for follow-up. It helped me a lot. No one will pick up your phone the first time. So you need to continue trying.
(6) The waiver from Delhi MHRD and passport office (at least the Mumbai office) is very quick (within 4 weeks). So follow-up with them so that you can have some peace of mind.
(7) The waiver from your state home dept. takes the longest since it requires police verification. For my home state the paper work was routed as follows: I sent application to home dept. at my state capital. From there it's forwarded to state inspector general office. Then it goes to my home town SP office. From there it comes to my local police station which does the actual police verification by visiting my home address. Then they prepare a report which is routed all the way up to home dept. in the capital, following the exact same path. The home dept. then does not send the waiver to US directly. They send it to Foreign ministry in Delhi who forward it to US consulate. Considering this tortuous path, its of great help if you have someone in your home town and at the state capital who can follow and push your application. By chance if your hometown and your state capital is the same consider yourself very lucky!
I did not necessarily follow all the tips above which created a lot of tension. Luckily everything was fine at the end. I hope that my experience will help other people.
So, here is my timeline:
May 1, 2010: Finally got the change of status notice from USCIS and I was officially a victiim of J1
May - August 2010: wasted time on useless Advisory Opinion. Meanwhile shifted to a new apartment starting September 2010.
Sep 17, 2010: Visited nearby Indian consulate in person and got attested 4 copies of 'no obligation to return to india' (NORI) application and bio-data form on the same day. They keep one copy and give you the other 3 to be sent to MHRD, passport office and your state home dept. for issuing the NORI certificates.
.....took my time to draft cover letters to send alongwith the applications to India. Could have planned ahead and have drafted the letters ahead of time.
Oct. 11, 2010: FedExed the applications to 3 places in India.
Oct. 14: Application reached passport office (tracked on Fedex website)
Oct. 15: Application reached MHRD Delhi (tracked on Fedex website)
Oct 15: Application to State home dept. couldn't be delivered because of incorrect address. (tracked on Fedex website). Called FedEx and corrected the address. Don't know why they got it wrong the first time.
Oct 21: Application reached State home dept.
Mid-Dec 2010: Called MHRD. They informed that they sent my NORI certificate to Indian Consulate in US on Nov. 15. I requested a copy for my-self. Note that many times you do not receive any NORI certificate and they are sent directly to the relevant Indian Consulate in US. So you need to follow-up in order to know the status.
End-Dec. 2010: Received my copy of NORI from MHRD at my residence in US. Called my parents in India to follow-up on my State NORI application. After 2 weeks of intense search, my application was located at the SP office of my home town. Meanwhile called passport office for follow-up. The informed that they e-mailed my NORI to Indian Consulate in US on Oct. 17 (very fast). They said that they don't provide a personal copy to applicant.
Jan-first week 2011: Called Indian Consulate in US. They confirmed that they have received 2 NORIs (from MHRD and passport office)
Jan-March 2011: Parents and friends in India continued to track and follow my state application. As it involves lots of steps and different offices, as I mentioned above, it's painfully slow. But knowing where your application is, is a great help.
Mid-March 2011: Got confirmation from parents that my State Home Dept. has forwarded my application to Foreign ministry delhi. Applied for Waiver on US Dept. Website. The website application generates a pdf which you mail to the state dept. alongwith fees and other documents. It also generates a barcoded page which has your case number. This page needs to be sent to the Indian Consulate with your second stage NORI application.
March-end 2011: Called Indian Consulate in US. They informed that they have received all my 3 NORI certificates and asked me to send (or come in person) second stage application for issuing the NORI certificate from the consulate.
April-first week 2011: visited the consulate with second stage application alongwith the barcoded page mentioned above. this time they kept my application and passport and asked me to wait for a call from them within a week when my copy of consulate NORI application and passport will be ready for pick up. For an additional fee you can ask them to mail it to you, but i preferred visiting them in person.
April 11, 2011: Recieved a call from consulate that my copy of NORI and passport are ready for pickup. They forward on copy of NORI certificate and the barcoded page to the main Indian Embassy in DC. The embassy then mails the 'final' 'No Objection' statement to US state dept alongwith the barcoded page. When the US State Dept. receives that, they update it online (you can track ur application on their website by using ur case number) and then your application is completed. From then onwards, it's just wait, track and watch!
Mid-April 2011: visited Indian consulate again and collected my copy of NORI and passport.
April 27, 2011: 'Final' No-objection statement from Washington Embassy received by US State dept. From then on things were really fast.
April 28, 2011: Favorable recommendation issued by state dept. and forwarded to USCIS for issuing the final waiver approval notice. A few days later I also received a copy of the favorable recommendation.
May 5, 2011: received receipt notice from USCIS. they had received the fav. reco. on May 2. I noticed that my alien number on the receipt notice was incorrect. Called their customer service for correction. (Btw. if there is any mistake on any document you receive from USCIS, there is a set procedure for reporting and follow-up. The process starts by calling their customer service number.) The customer service guy told me that my case has just been approved on May 5 so I need to wait till I get my approval notice and then report the error.
Around May 11, 2011: received approval notice in my mail (this is the final waiver; once you have it in your hands, and it's correct in all respects, you are officially out of the J1 shit, like it never happened) from USCIS which still had my alien number incorrect. Called their customer service and reported the error. The guy gave me a long service request number and his own id number. Please note these down as you will need them both if you need to follo-up. Make double sure that all the details you tell the guy are accurate. he advised me to wait 30 days before follow-up (by calling customer service again). however, I checked USCIS website and the procedure for follow-up on service requests is different. You can follow-up after 15 days and do it by e-mail. Anyway I did not need to follow-up.
May 25 2011: received e-mail that the error has been corrected and the corrected approval notice has been sent.
may 31 2011: received the corrected approval notice in mail and officially out of the J1 mess in about 13 months after I got J1 status and 8.5 months after I started the waiver application.
In retrospect, if I had planned a litte better and had started quickly etc. i could have got the final approval as early as Oct-end 2010, i.e. ~6 months from changing status to J1. The biggest bottleneck in the process is the NORI from your home state. If somehow you can do it faster, the whole process is not that bad.